Back To The Future The Musical – Manchester Opera House


Great Scott – it’s Back To the Future, The Musical!  I’m absolutely delighted that Manchester is the first place in the world to get to see this new stage adaptation of one of the greatest cult films of the ’80s, and indeed of all time; and what an absolutely amazing spectacle it is!  1.21 gigawatts of spectacle, in fact (sorry, that had to be said!).  Flying cars, flashing lights and lightning strikes. I’ve never heard so many men yelling and screaming at a musical: it’s usually only we ladies doing that 🙂 .If you’re looking for Les Miserables, you’re not going to get it: apart from the original songs from the film, the music isn’t really that memorable. But, if you’re looking for Back To The Future and you’re not sure that it’s going to work on stage – believe me, it does!  If you’re worried that someone’s going to spoil a sacred bit of your ’80s childhood – it’ s fine, they’re not!   And, yes, the DeLorean flies!

It’s a bit surreal when you stop to think that we’re now going back further to get to 1985 than Marty’s going to get from 1985 to 1955.  It’s especially surreal if, like me, you’ve never entirely got out of the 1980s.  But the story works for any age. When you look beyond the sci-fi/time travelling elements, it’s a story of learning to stand up for yourself, overcoming bullying, trying not to worry that people are going to laugh at you for not being cool or trendy, and making a success of things by being yourself and doing what interests you.  That’s pretty inspiring in any decade. I think that the musical actually gets that side of it across better than the film does.

And it is definitely entertaining. I’m not someone who usually gets excited about special effects, but this is really something. It’s on a 12 week debut run at the Opera House, the 5th night of which happily coincided with my birthday, and I believe that people are travelling from all over the UK and even from the US for the chance to see it; but it’s going to run and run. When this baby hits 88 miles per hour …

Obviously, you can’t do everything on stage that you can on screen. For a kick off, you can’t spend 3 hours slapping make-up on people to make them look 30 years older, so, in the scenes in the 1980s, the McFly parents look around the same age as their kids 🙂  – but just try to ignore that! There’s not much skateboarding, and (hooray!!!) there are no dogs. George falls out of a tree, rather than being hit by a car.   Also – and it’s killing me to say this, because I am a child of the ’80s, and I got quite upset when it hit me that no-one much under 40 will even remember 1985 – there are things which worked in the ’80s which just wouldn’t work now.  References to Libyan terrorists, and indeed any terrorists, have been removed … and, thinking about it,  it’s kind of weird that they were considered suitable at the time, TBH.  And Doc Brown’s bemusement on learning that Ronald Reagan the film star is now the President of the United States, which was hilarious in 1985, falls a bit flat now.

However, I’m pleased to say that the Thought Police haven’t been allowed to get to it and take away the ’80s and ’50s feel of it. I know there’s been some whingeing about recent musicals being made of An Officer and a Gentleman and Pretty Woman, from people saying that they’re sexist, but can we just accept that times change and that you can’t and shouldn’t try to change the past to match? Lorraine being impressed by first Marty and then George rescuing her from the unwanted attentions of Biff, largely by walloping him, works in the context of the 1950s. And, whilst no-one is more paranoid about their weight than I am, the thing about original 1985 Lorraine being fat and new model 1985 Lorraine being slim works in the context of the 1980s.  Talking about the prospect of “a coloured man” becoming mayor is the language that would have been used in the 1950s – and, of course, Goldie, who starts off sweeping the floor in a café, does indeed work his way up to the position of mayor, and he does it through his own hard work, without anyone having to change to change history for him!  I don’t know if anyone now would make a film in which a girl fancies a boy whom she’s unaware is her son. And even a friendship between a teenage boy and an older man might be considered dangerous territory now – which is a shame, because Marty and Doc Brown are such a great team.  But we’re not writing the story for 2020.  It was written for 1985.  And it’s largely been left as such.  Good.

So, yes, this is Back To The Future, and this is the 1980s!  As I said, it’s quite strange when you realise that, to younger members of the audience, the ’80s clothes, hairstyles and music, and things like the ’80s phone and TV in the McFlys’ kitchen, look like something from history.  It’s like when you’re walking round a museum and you see stuff that you remember using.  Most of it’s set in the 1950s, of course, though … and people who are 30 years older than me will probably feel exactly the same about the ’50s as I  do about the ’80s!  The music and dancing are part ’80s and part ’50s. And there’s a lot of music and dancing, because, well, it is a musical.  In fact, it had a bit of a feeling of Grease about it, because, as they couldn’t show scenes in as many parts of town as they did in the film, quite a lot of it was set in the high school attended by teenage George, Lorraine and Biff.

The new songs aren’t that great, as I said, but the original songs are still great, and the new ones are lively and upbeat even if not very memorable.  I’m a purist and a traditionalist and I would normally howl with indignation at the slightest suggestion that the main attraction of a musical was anything other than the music, but this is an adaptation of a particular film and so the special effects were always going to be the big thing.  And, if you’re looking for special effects, then, yep, you are going to get them, big style!  There are a lot of flashing coloured lights.  There is dry ice.  It has actually been made to look as if the car is going through time.  Well, OK, we don’t actually know what time travel looks like, but you know what I mean!  And, yes, all right, all right, we now know that 2015 was not an age of flying cars, but we didn’t know that in 1985. There is a flying car at the end, because, where we’re going, we don’t need roads!

It’s more than that, though.  It’s genuinely very funny – the comedy element is great.  And it’s genuinely inspiring.  Because you can’t do as much on stage as you can on screen, there’s more about the characters.  Or maybe I’m just getting old – and, yes, that is part of it.  When you’re a kid, it’s all about Marty.  When you’re older – and birthdays always make me feel like Methuselah – you feel much more for young George, shoved around by the school bullies, never able to stand up for himself, and hiding his love of sci-fi and the stories he’s writing because he’s convinced that people are going to laugh at him.  And you feel much more for the original version of adult Lorraine, who’s turned from a lively, vivacious teenager into an unhappy woman, turning to food and drink for comfort.  Well, unless you were a Biff-type kid at school, but, if you were, you probably won’t be reading anything written by me.

This is a brilliant fantasy time travel story.  And it’s a brilliant comedy, because of the way that Marty accidentally messes up the past and then has to try to sort it out, and because of all the time travel jokes such as Lorraine thinking Marty’s called Calvin Klein because that’s what the name tapes on his underpants say.  But, when you think about it more deeply,  it’s a story about the shy, uncool kid, who’s got zero self confidence and gets pushed around by bullies, becoming Mr Happy and Successful.  And it’s about Doc Brown’s years of trying to invent something that works finally paying off.  And I love that.

Oh, all right, it’s about the flying car, as well!  Because, where we’re going, we don’t need roads …



Britannia, Season 2 – Sky Atlantic


 I’ve finally watched the first episode of the second series, in which the Emperor Claudius, speaking in a Lancashire accent and looking strangely like Mick from “Benidorm”,  rode round Britannia on an elephant, dictating fake news to his scribe in between complaining about his piles.  He then ended up crawling around naked after falling victim to a poisoning and near-drowning by David Morrissey.  This was odd, as David had seemed like a loyal servant of the Empire, promoting the spread of Roman religion by making people swear on the names of Roman gods that they hadn’t been using the posh baths as a toilet.  Meanwhile, a man balancing a birdcage on his head did a lot of chanting in Welsh (this was to show that he wasn’t speaking Latin), prior to his friend jumping off a cliff to see if she could fly.  It didn’t go well.  “Oh shit,” intoned Birdcage Man (in English), whereupon the first episode ended.

I’ve got no idea where this is going – especially as we’d earlier learnt that David (sorry, Aulus Plautius) was an old mate of Pontius Pilate’s and had intervened to stop the Crucifixion – but I’m rather put out by the continued failure to mention King Cogidubnus.  It is beyond stupid.  However, if you think of it as being a bit like a Carry On film – remember the one in which Julius Caesar comes to Britannia, moans about the weather, and then goes off to Egypt to meet Alma from “Coronation Street” ? – then it’s quite funny in a way, although the Carry On films were a lot funnier and didn’t involve people swearing in practically every sentence.

Some bits of it were genuinely amusing, notably when Claudius visited a building site and told his scribe to send news back to Rome that he’d seen a glorious marble temple dedicated in his honour, but I don’t think it was meant to be funny, at least not in a Carry On type way.  I don’t know what it was meant to be.  It was just weird.  There are another nine episodes of this, although there are so many adverts that, when you fast forward them, each episode doesn’t take that long to watch.  As Magnus Magnusson would have said, I’ve started so I’ll finish …

Royal History’s Biggest Fibs with Lucy Worsley – BBC 4


When it stuck to telling the story, this was a fairly interesting run-through of the basics of the English Reformation, although it would have been nice if Lucy Worsley had remembered that she was supposed to be appealing to an adult audience and spent a bit less time putting on fake warts, dressing up and sniggering about constipation.  However, I’m not sure that any of the myths it claimed to be dispelling actually exist.  Anne Boleyn’s seen as nothing more than a tart?  No, she isn’t.  That’s Catherine Howard.  Everyone thinks that the Reformation was universally welcomed.  Seriously?  Was it just my school where we had to learn all about the Pilgrimage of Grace, even in the second year?   No-one realises that Catholics were persecuted during Elizabeth’s reign?  Yes, they do.  Loads of stately homes still have priest holes.

If anyone was creating myths, it was the BBC, yet again pushing its own political agenda into what was supposed to be a historical documentary.  Please tell me that we’re not going to get this all through “Back in Time for the Corner Shop”, which starts next week. Cromwell was trying to create a mythical national history?   No.  He was just a clever lawyer manipulating archaic texts in a way that worked for him and Henry.  Clever lawyers do things like that.  The Reformation was about England withdrawing from European affairs?  Well, that quite explains why Henry wasted a load of the money from the Dissolution of the Monasteries on invading France, and Elizabeth got involved in the Dutch war against the Spanish.  Perhaps the BBC thinks that the Mary Rose was on a booze cruise when it sank.  The Dissolution of the Monasteries is to blame for the concentration of power in London?  Tell that to the Percys and the Stanleys!

The parts of the programme which just stuck to the facts, instead of claiming to be trying to dispel non-existent myths and making out that British politics in 2020 revolve around the works of Geoffrey of Monmouth, were very good, though.  It was a shame that they didn’t just stick to that, because, considering it was only an hour, it was an impressively comprehensive run-through of over half a century of very eventful history.

It started with Lucy dressing up as Martin Luther and saying that he didn’t really nail the 95 theses to a church door because he was too busy writing about being constipated. I’m not sure what that had to do with Royal history. We then moved on to Henry VIII wanting to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn, which is probably the best-known episode in English history.  And, at this point, we did, to be fair, get some genuine myth-busting.  We had the term “Henrician Catholicism” hammered into us at A-level, but, yes, there is inevitably an idea that Henry was a Protestant.  Which he wasn’t.

And there are a lot of myths about Catherine and Anne – and it’s very interesting, because, given how negative the view of Catholicism in England was during the late 16th, 17th, 18th and even 19th centuries, you’d think Anne would be seen as the heroine and Catherine as the villain, but it’s the other way round. Catherine wasn’t as saintly as she’s made out to be, and Anne is unfairly vilified – it wasn’t her fault that Henry took a shine to her and scuppered her chances of marrying anyone else – but the programme didn’t go into that. Instead, it talked about how Anne was a very intelligent woman and a genuine Protestant. That was all true, and it’s not often mentioned, but the point Lucy seemed to be trying to make was that Anne’s just seen as a “sexpot”. Is she?

Then it moved on to Thomas Cromwell, and this really was nonsense. Yes, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th century chronicles did go on about the idea of the realm of England being an empire, and, yes, Cromwell did use that to make up an argument about how the Pope had no authority over English affairs, but he wasn’t trying to create some sort of national myth, just get round the problem of Henry not being able to get out of his marriage to Catherine whilst the Pope was being held captive by Catherine’s nephew.  Geoffrey of Monmouth also said that King Arthur was descended from Aeneas, of Virgil’s Aeneid fame, and I’m fairly sure that no-one thinks that that’s part of any sort of national myth.  If anyone created myths of English history, it was Shakespeare, not Cromwell.  And apparently Henry was pulling out of Europe.  When he wasn’t invading France, presumably.  Or maybe the BBC thinks France is on Mars or something.

We then got a load of utter bullshit about how this was all connected with Brexit.  Right, and presumably Spain staying out of the Second World War was because St James is supposed to have appeared in the middle of the Battle of Clavijo, and the Napoleonic Wars were all about the Song of Roland.  Give it a rest, BBC.  It’s getting very tiresome.  This was supposed to be a history programme.

When Lucy actually shut up about all this rubbish and talked about Cromwell also being a Protestant and the other reasons for the Reformation, what she had to say was interesting, but there just wasn’t enough of it. And the “political earthquake” wasn’t about relations with Europe, it was about the role of Parliament. A lot of kings and their advisors wouldn’t even have bothered with legalities and legislation, but Henry and Cromwell did: that was the political earthquake. Parliament even abolished purgatory! It was a very important moment on the road to democracy. Not a mention of that. It’d have been too positive.

On to the Dissolution of the Monasteries. This part of the programme was genuinely very good, explaining that the Dissolution was about destroying the power of the Church, not just about money-grabbing, and also talking about the problems caused by the loss of the monasteries, which had provided shelter and healthcare for people with nowhere else to go, and how Cromwell had introduced legislation aiming to protect vulnerable people now that the monasteries were gone.   I’m not sure that I get the argument that there’s a myth that the Dissolution was a good thing and was welcomed, though.  But I suppose you can argue that there was in Victorian times, when there were all sorts of strange ideas about what went on in … well, convents more than monasteries.

Anyway, this was all pretty good stuff, until out came a lot of waffle about the Dissolution concentrating power in the hands of the metropolitan elite.  Annoying as the BBC’s insistence on spoiling historical programmes by going on about current political issues is, it was quite refreshing to see them having a dig at the metropolitan elite, instead of having a dig at everyone else!   I’m not sure that the argument worked, though.  I suppose you can argue that the monasteries were important centres of learning, but their destruction didn’t affect the power of great Northern families such as the Percys and the Stanleys.  And saying that it concentrated power in the hands of elites made no sense at all – plenty of people who hadn’t previously been part of elites got a boost because they got the monastic land.  Anyone know how far the Earl of Grantham’s title dates back 😉 ?

I was getting rather exasperated by this point, but we then moved on all the to-ing and fro-ing during the reigns of Edward, Mary and Elizabeth, and thankfully the BBC managed to keep its political agenda pushing out of this.  Lady Jane Grey didn’t get mentioned at all, and Edward’s reign only got a few seconds.  On to “Bloody Mary”.  Now, we did the Reformation twice at school, first in the second year and then for A-level.  In the second year, we had some rather ancient text books in which the chapter on Mary’s reign was entitled “Turn or Burn” – which made it sound as if half the country met a nasty end in the bonfires of Smithfield.  Which was rather an exaggeration. But that’s how Mary’s remembered – and, as Lucy pointed out, a lot of that is to do with Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.

Hooray!  This was more like it!  This was a proper history programme!  It also talked about how plenty of “heretics” were executed in Elizabeth’s reign too – although, to be fair, I think people are aware of that.  No-one thinks that life for Catholics was easy under Elizabeth.  Given how much the BBC hates to say anything positive about England/Britain, I wondered if Lucy might have a go at Gloriana, but she was very fair and explained that the Pope’s attitude towards Elizabeth pushed her into taking action against Catholics.

It them all got rather bizarre, jumping back to Anne Boleyn’s time, messing about with fake warts, and interviewing one of the producers of Six The Musical .  But parts of this programme really were very good, and it was just a shame that, as with American History’s Biggest Fibs, as with The Rise of the Nazis and as with Downfall of a King, and, in particular, as with Back in Time for School, the BBC had to spoil it by trying to push its own agenda about modern political issues.  I’m hoping that they’ll have given it a rest with Back in Time for the Corner Shop, but I’m not holding my breath.  It’s such a shame, because these programmes would be very good otherwise.




Confronting Holocaust Denial with David Baddiel – BBC 2


After this programme, David Baddiel tweeted that someone had shared a quote with him – “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced” (James Baldwin).  Confronting Holocaust denial is a horrifically difficult subject, for historians and for everyone else.  Should these people be allowed to spew their poison, especially on prime time TV, and should what they say be dignified by listening to it and responding to it?  It must have been very hard for David Baddiel, whose own grandparents had to flee Nazi Germany, to listen to a Holocaust denier, even to be in the same room as him.  But these people are out there, and what they say is out there, and ignoring them isn’t going to change that.

I was expecting this to be mostly about the “hardcore deniers” who claim that the whole thing was a hoax; but it showed that there are a lot of facets and layers to Holocaust denial, and just what a complex issue it is. It wasn’t the best-made programme I’ve ever seen, because it jumped about a lot, but it made some extremely important points. It only went so far, though. There were roads it only went a little way down, because it would just have been too dangerous to publicise some of what’s being said, on a mainstream TV channel. But it’s out there, especially on the internet where it’s very difficult to deal with; and it was brave of David Baddiel to take it on.

There are a lot of conspiracy theories out there

Even the most accepting of people must sometimes have wondered for whom Lee Harvey Oswald was really working, or whether the death of Diana, Princess of Wales was really an accident. Every time a popular website or social media platform experiences technical problems, you can guarantee that someone’ll claim that it’s due to dark forces sponsored by the government of AN country they don’t like. Every time there’s an election, some sore losers who are disappointed by the result claim foul play. It ranges from the history-changing to the treatment of fiction as fact to the plain silly.  Did Roosevelt know in advance that the Japanese were planning to attack Pearl Harbour? Has there been a 2,000 year cover-up over the Holy Grail meaning a bloodline rather than a cup? Is Elvis Presley alive and well and running a chip shop?

OK, lose the chip shop idea, and accept that works of fiction are just fiction, but, quite seriously, and very frighteningly, it’s not that hard for a manipulative person or group of people to put forward a plausible-sounding argument and persuade others to their way of thinking.  In a lot of ways, that’s just what the Nazis did.  Ironically, as David pointed out, the Holocaust is one of the best-documented events (for lack of a better word) in history.  All those records at the concentration camps.  All the testimonies and memoirs of survivors, and of the Allied troops who liberated the camps.  The Nazi propaganda.

The Nazis tried to cover up what they’d done

And yet, as David said, the starting point for Holocaust denial was that the Nazis tried to cover it up.  He visited the site of the concentration camp at Chelmno,  which was purely a death camp.  There were no survivors.  The bodies were burned, then dissolved using napalm and acid, and the bones were made into fertiliser … it’s so horrific that it’s hard to take in, which is another problem.  Why did the Nazis want to cover up something which, to their mindset, was a great achievement?  And how did they think they could?  How did they think people would account for the fact that millions of human beings had disappeared?   This wasn’t when the war was clearly lost, when they were afraid of what the Allies would do to those who’d been involved in the worst atrocities in human history.  This was earlier on.  No real explanation could be given – but the point was that this was the start of Holocaust denial, by the very people who perpetrated the Holocaust.

Softcore denial – existing hatreds, and a lot to take in

So that was the cover-up approach. I don’t know how relevant that is, though. Plenty of things have been covered up, but the Holocaust is not one of them. More relevant is the “softcore denial”- and there are so many different strands to this. And this also started early on, with Allied governments not wanting to release too much information about the reports coming out of Nazi Germany and Nazi-occupied states. Part of that was because they weren’t sure that people would believe it. And that is undoubtedly a huge problem. There’s always been persecution. There’ve always been massacres. But it’s very hard to take in something on the scale of the Holocaust, and also the industrial nature of it.

Another issue is that this involved demographic groups who have often been marginalised and the subject of negative stereotypes. David looked at some statistics about Holocaust denial, and I’m pleased to say that the UK had one of the lowest rates, but, even here, the wartime authorities were making some very unpleasant comments about the need to stress that Nazi atrocities were being committed against blameless people – the inference being that Jews might not be seen as blameless. And it’s not just Jews. No Roma or Sinti people appeared as witnesses in the Nuremberg trials. Gay men liberated from the concentration camps, Jewish or otherwise, were sent to civilian prisons to complete their sentences. It’s all fuel to the flames of denial.

Softcore denial and changing the focus of history

It was also suggested that the Holocaust was played down because, as relations between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union worsened, the focus switched to fighting the Cold War and the need to keep West Germany sweet meant that there was a sense of … well, “Don’t mention the war”. I’m not 100% convinced about that. The immediate post-war ideas of a large-scale de-Nazification programme, which would have taken decades, were abandoned, and the Nuremberg trials were wound down, but I think that that was due more to lack of resources than anything else. It’s worth noting that many countries refuse even to recognise the Armenian genocide for fear of offending Turkey, though.

What is undoubtedly a major issue at the moment, and which led to the president of Poland refusing to attend the commemoration in Jerusalem of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, is the approach to wartime history being taken in many parts of Central and Eastern Europe.  Again, there are many strands to this. It’s partly, especially in Poland, a feeling that the emphasis on the Holocaust means that insufficient attention is being paid to other aspects of suffering under the Nazis. I don’t really get that. It’s not a competition. But it’s certainly a big issue in Poland.

It’s also the fact that certain countries, especially former Soviet countries, want to attack the Soviets rather than the Nazis. David travelled to Lithuania, which is notorious for having had a high rate of collaboration with the Nazis. When I went to Lithuania, the local guide was a lady whose grandmother had sheltered Jewish friends and been recognised by Yad Vashem for doing so, so I didn’t experience any sort of “denial” in Lithuania. However, in Latvia, we visited a museum where we were shown a video about Latvia’s experiences during the war, and all it did was go on about how evil the Soviets were. The Nazis were barely mentioned, and the Holocaust was not mentioned at all. Everyone in the group said immediately afterwards how shocked and disgusted they were by it.

The issue David was exploring in Lithuania was the controversy that’s arisen since it came to light that a leading Lithuanian anti-Soviet partisan, seen as a national hero, was a collaborator who was directly involved in facilitating the murders of Jews. This is another issue – and the end of the communist era, with its restrictions on what was and wasn’t being taught, means that more and more is coming to light about collaboration. Even in countries where there were pro-Nazi regimes or Nazi puppet regimes, the idea that it was only German Nazis who carried out the Holocaust has been perpetuated. Even Austria’s been recorded as a victim of the Nazis. Obviously no-one’s saying that more than a minority of people collaborated with the Nazis, but it’s proving hard to face up to even that much.

Softcore denial, the people who say that it’s time to move on, and the people who fling the terminology of the Nazi era around in modern politics

Then you’ve got the people who accept what happened, but say that it’s time to stop talking about it and to move on. Is that Holocaust denial? I’ve heard people say that they don’t see why the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War or the 75th anniversary of D-Day should have been commemorated. No-one would call that “war denial”. It’s ignorant, and it’s failing to understand the importance of the lessons of history. Is it denial? It’s a slippery slope, that’s the problem. And it’s usually followed by “Well, we don’t commemorate [any other event of your choice]” – and there we go, downplaying what happened.  And every person – and I see this happening frighteningly often, and it’s something that the BBC itself is guilty of – who compares modern-day politicians whom they dislike to Nazis is effectively a softcore Holocaust denier as well, downplaying what the Nazis did.

Denial and Middle Eastern entanglements

Then came a path that the programme didn’t go down. If I’d thought about it beforehand, I would have expected the highest rates of Holocaust denial to be in … well, it’s not very fair to generalise or to point fingers, but there are certain parts of Central and Eastern Europe which have a long history of anti-Jewish feeling, so I’d have said one of those.  No. It’s in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. 82%. Elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa too – the Middle East and North Africa, where the King of Morocco heroically refused to deport Moroccan Jews to Vichy France. This is something else: it’s the tangling up of the Holocaust with modern day political issues involving the state of Israel. The programme didn’t continue down this road.  But it’s not just an issue in the Middle East … and, whilst that was evidently adjudged not to be a matter for this programme, maybe it’s one for Panorama.

Hardcore denial, social media, and courtroom trials

I’d been expecting less about this and more about the “hardcore” deniers, but I think the programme got it right. “Softcore denial” is perhaps more dangerous.  So what did it say about the hardcore deniers? Not that much, and I think they must have decided that it would have been too dangerous to say much. There was more about what people should and shouldn’t be allowed to say than what they were actually saying. David met a representative from Facebook, and they discussed the issue of what forms of Holocaust denial are and aren’t banned, and should and shouldn’t be banned. These are very difficult questions. He spoke about a major trial in the 1970s – and the fact that, as much as the person concerned needed to be stopped and decided to be punished, it raised the profile of Holocaust denial. So what do you do?

The most famous Holocaust denial trial is the one in which historian Deborah Lipstadt took on Holocaust denier David Irving. David Baddiel met Deborah Lipstadt and her lawyer Anthony Julius (if you know the name, it’s because he was the divorce lawyer for Diana, Princess of Wales), and Deborah spoke very movingly about how distressed Holocaust survivors had handed her pieces of paper bearing the names of members of their families who’d been killed in the Holocaust. You could certainly see why she felt the need to take Irving on, and to defeat him in court. But, although reference was made to pseudo-science and fake reports, the programme wasn’t able to get to the root of why Irving would have said what he did, because how can you give someone like that airtime?

Meeting a Holocaust denier

David did speak to a Holocaust denier. And he got annoyed with himself, because he got bogged down into arguing with this man, into dignifying his lies with a response. We didn’t see that. We did see the programme making the man look like a complete fool. He was talking utter drivel, claiming that Auschwitz had bakeries and swimming pools. He got his own argument in a twist, saying that there’d been no gas chambers and that the idea had been made up by people who wanted to blame others for not rescuing them from gas chambers, when he’d just said that there were no gas chambers. He then sang a ridiculous song, accompanying himself on his guitar, about there being Mercedes cars parked outside synagogues. He came across as a total idiot. Maybe making fun of liars is the best way to deal with them.

But why was this man saying this? I can understand why a Lithuanian nationalist might not want to accept that a Lithuanian national hero collaborated with the Nazis. I can understand why people in Krakow might feel narky that tourists come to their beautiful city and use it as a base from which to see the most notorious place on earth, Auschwitz-Birkenau. I can understand that Austria wants to think of itself as a victim of the Nazis, even though it welcomed them with open arms in 1938. I understand that certain political groups find it beneficial to whip up hatred against certain demographic groups.

But why would a middle-aged man living in a small town in the Republic of Ireland, a country which was not directly involved in the Second World War and which is home to fewer than 2,000 Jewish people, say that the Holocaust was a hoax? Why would he devote time and energy to posting about it on the internet, to smashing up a TV in public as a protest against Holocaust memorial events, and to making up ridiculous songs about it? (I’m not for a minute having a go at the Republic of Ireland, and nor was David: it’s just where this man happened to be from.)

The explanation seemed to be that it was a form of escapism. It wasn’t political. He’d apparently made some attempt to stand as an independent politician, but we’re not talking about some of the extremist parties in Central and Eastern Europe, which are actually part of the political scene. It was some sort of fantasy world, that he devoted his time to in the way that other people might turn to books or films or TV programmes.  And also that it was anti-consensual: it was someone trying to make out that he was clever because he wasn’t believing what he was being told.  It’s really hard to make sense of that.  I can understand people manipulating history for political reasons.  But this sort of thing is just beyond bizarre.  But it’s out there.

Cranks can be very dangerous … and there are people out there who are far more dangerous

And yet even an idiot who sings about Mercedes cars can operate a website peddling lies, or post lies on social media.  And there are far more dangerous people out there – the likes of David Irving, who write scholarly books about this.  There’s so much rubbish out there.  And there’s no way of controlling it.

Meeting a Holocaust survivor

At the end of the programme, David spoke to a lady who’d survived the Holocaust, and she told him a little about her experiences.  So much detail, even in those few moments.  The evidence, the physical evidence, the evidence of survivors, the evidence of the Allied troops who liberated the camps, the evidence of people who lived near areas where massacres took place.

But you’re dealing with people who don’t want to know the truth, because it doesn’t suit their political ends, and you’re dealing with people who want to live in a crazy fantasy world and think that they can see something that others can’t.   David was able to make this particular guy look like a complete idiot.  Would that it were possible to do that with all the Holocaust deniers out there.

What’s the answer?

I want to say “education”, but that can be a softcore denial tool in itself – to witness, the Latvian museum.  Memorials?  Tighter control over websites?   Keep telling the true stories, I suppose is the best we can do.  And well done to both the BBC (and I don’t often praise the BBC these days) and Channel 4 for an excellent series of programmes to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.  Keep telling the truth.  It’s all we can do.




It is a truth universally acknowledged (or ought to be), that there is no charm equal to tea, cake and daffodils.  This film isn’t going to win any Oscars, but it’s so pretty.  Practically every indoor scene involves either copious amounts of tea being drunk, from ever-so-elegant porcelain cups, and copious amounts of beautifully-presented cake being eaten, or else perfectly-executed country dancing.  Practically every outdoor scene involves stunning shots of beautiful, open English countryside, under clear blue skies; and the springtime scenes show glorious hosts of golden daffodils dancing along peaceful river banks.  Folk songs play in the background.  The houses are all exquisitely decorated.  The clothes are beautiful, and anyone who was upset over the lack of elaborate coiffures in Little Women will find that this more than makes up for it.   You get to see Mr Knightley’s bare bottom as well, but what are bottoms to tea, cake and daffodils?

Anyway, Mr Knightley would never have wandered around with a bare bottom, even in his own home; although Frank Churchill probably did it all the time.  Mr Knightley is a bit more passionate and unconventional, and a bit less stuffy, in this than he is in the book – although lying on the floor isn’t exactly in the same league as diving into the lake at Lyme Park with a white shirt on.  And any unpleasant hint of his having been interested in Emma when she was 13 has been removed.  However, other than that (and a rather bizarre scene involving a nosebleed), it sticks fairly closely to the book, apart from a few slight tweaks at the end.  Oh, and apart from Emma pulling her skirt up to hitch up her undergarments.  I have no idea why either that scene or the bare bottom scene are included, but never mind.

Frank Churchill could have been a bit more dashing, though.  And, whilst I’m not generally a fan of editing historical books to bring them in line with modern sensibilities, I do rather wish that they’d taken out the reference to Harriet being set upon by gypsies and just said that she’d been set upon.  But, other than that, it worked pretty well.  I don’t think it’s Jane Austen’s most interesting book.  There’s something vaguely unsatisfactory about the fact that beautiful, rich, Emma never even goes as far as Bath or London, and it’s also really annoying that sweet Jane Fairfax ends up with an idiot like Frank Churchill.  But that’s the story, and I’m glad that the scriptwriters didn’t play about with it too much, because I don’t see the point of deciding to make a book into a film or TV series and then changing the story.

There’s always a lot of talk about the fact that we’re supposed to dislike Emma but that most people actually don’t.  She’s a busybody, but she’s generally quite good-hearted – and she makes some good points about men preferring a pretty face to a well-informed mind.  She’s the queen bee of her community, and anyone so young in that position would be a bit spoilt.  The crucial “badly done” scene is quite well done (sorry!) – we see how genuinely hurt Miss Bates is, how embarrassed everyone else is, how Mr Knightley is the only one who points out that it was badly done … and how Emma is genuinely sorry for the offence she’s caused.  It’s not my favourite Jane Austen book, but I think that that’s one of the best Jane Austen scenes.

One of the tweaks towards the end is so that Emma’s the one who persuades Robert Martin to ask Harriet again, so she gets a bit of extra redemption there.  Other than that, it’s pretty much according to the book, with a few bits missed out so that it all fits in.  The comic/fool characters are rather OTT, but that’s how Jane Austen writes them.  Harriet comes across very well: we’re reminded that just because someone isn’t very bright doesn’t mean that they might not be a valued friend for their good nature.  And, of course, we’re reminded, in the “badly done” scene, to remember that everyone has feelings, and that it’s never OK to mock or humiliate another human soul.

Emma’s thoughtless, not malicious, though.  No-one in this book is really nasty.  Frank Churchill’s behaviour is reprehensible, but he doesn’t treat women in the appalling way that Mr Wickham or Mr Willoughby do.  Mrs Elton is annoying and vulgar, but she isn’t a schemer like Caroline Bingley or Isabella Thorpe.  Mr Woodhouse is an idiot, but he’s harmless.  There’s nothing really nasty.  It’s a nice story.  And it’s a nice film.

We’re not still going to be talking about this in 25 years’ time (how on earth has it been 25 years?!) like we are with the iconic 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice – although, to be fair, you can do a lot more in a mini-series than in a film – but it’s still well worth seeing.  All that tea, and all that cake, and all those daffodils …





Prairie Fires: the American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser


I was ever so slightly nervous about reading this, because I was worried that it was going to be negative about my beloved Little House books; but, fortunately, it wasn’t.  What it did was to set them into a historical context, both in terms of when they were set and when they were published, untangle some of the myths from the realities – although not in the same detail that Pioneer Girl did – , tell us more about the Ingalls/Wilder family’s history before and after about the books (although there was rather too much about the unlikeable Rose Wilder Lane), make a number of points about the unintentional but severe damage done to the environment by the homesteaders, dispel the idea that it was actually Rose, not Laura, who wrote the books, and discuss how the books not only have a significant place in American culture but have helped to create it. The irony of it all is that the American Dream of independent landownership didn’t work for Laura and her family, but that she created a different American Dream in and by becoming one of the best-selling and best-loved American authors of all time.

I first read the Little House books as a young child in the early 1980s, so I didn’t really get the effect that they might have had on readers at the time of publication, who were living through the Depression and the Second World War; and I’d never really thought about it that much. Nor did I watch the TV series. I don’t know why, when I’ve always loved the books so much, but it was more of a ‘70s thing than an ‘80s thing, although it was still being shown in the ‘80s. And the idea of the wholesomeness of the pioneer lifestyle being an antidote to the shock of Watergate wouldn’t really have applied outside the US anyway. So there was a lot in this book which, in nearly 40 years of reading the series, had never really crossed my mind before. What I have thought about a lot over the years, since I was 11 and got really into 19th century American history – thanks largely to Patrick Swayze in the mini-series of North and South – was how the books fitted into the context of the period of history during which they’re actually set.

A lot has been said about the issues of the effects of the Homestead Act on Native Americans, and how, even when so much other land had been opened up to white settlers with little regard to the fate of those people already living there, the Ingalls family and others still built houses in the few areas left as designated “Indian Territory”. I’m not going to say it all again, but obviously it does need to be mentioned (in case anyone’s reading this). I’ve said all I’ve got to say here. Caroline Fraser does address the issue, but her focus is more on the idea of the American Dream of independent landownership, the idea that went back to Jeffersonian democracy. This idea of the independent little man or woman still lingers on: there’s still the idea that the American War of Independence was won by a load of small farmers, and there’s still the idea of the romantic West. “Go West, life is peaceful there. Go West, in the open air.”

Yes, I know that the Pet Shop Boys have got nothing to do with American pioneers, but I like their lyrics! And, theoretically, “going West” was for everyone. Former slaves could put in claims on homesteads. So could single women, like Eliza Jane Wilder. So could recent immigrants who’d applied for citizenship: several Scandinavian families are mentioned in the books. It did sound like a dream. “Uncle Sam is rich enough to give us all a farm,” as Pa sang.

But it all went pretty horribly wrong, especially for Laura and her family, and that’s what much of this book is about. That sounds miserable. It’s not a miserable book, but … well, they didn’t half have some bad luck. The weather didn’t help. All those droughts. The Long Winter. And the locusts. Every time I hear locusts mentioned, I think of Laura. How soul-destroying to have your crops just wiped out like that, before your very eyes, and with nothing you could do about it. Laura’s family were particularly unlucky, having to contend not only with that but with Mary losing her sight – although I always find their care for Mary, and how hard they worked to make sure that she was able to go to college, one of the greatest positives of the books – and then Almanzo, strong, super-fit Almanzo, suffering an illness which left him permanently debilitated and unable to do heavy manual labour.

I always think of Laura as “Laura”, incidentally.  The book generally refers to her as “Wilder”.  I found that vaguely irritating, even though I suppose it looked a lot more professional than using her first name.  But maybe that’s just me.  She will always be “Laura” to me.

The book devotes a lot of space to environmental issues, which are obviously very topical at the moment. The title, “Prairie Fires”, refers to a major wildfire which spread through Wisconsin in 1871 and killed around 1,500 people, and a lot of attention is paid to the long-term problems caused by farmers removing the crucial layer of topsoil across the mid-West – which, ultimately, led to the Dust Bowl nightmare of the 1930s. And it was in that context, the Depression and the Dust Bowl, that the books were written, and the point that Caroline Fraser’s making is that that’s as important in understanding the books as a knowledge of the 1870s and 1880s is. From Laura’s own point of view, there was the basic issue of needing to earn some money, after she and Almanzo lost what little savings they had following the Wall Street Crash, but the appeal of the books was rooted in those years – a nostalgia for a romanticised era of pioneering and open prairies, and the steadfastness of people who struggled through one hardship after another and kept going. Bizarrely, The Long Winter apparently became very popular in immediate post-war Japan. I find it rather odd that people in immediate post-war Japan would have wanted to read American books, but the US Army decided that a children’s book about overcoming hardship would appeal to the Japanese as they tried to rebuild their country after years of war, defeat, and two atomic bombs, and it did!

The point’s also made that Little Town on the Prairie and These Happy Golden Years, which are far more upbeat, were published during the war – and also that Oklahoma, another story about the romantic West, opened during the war years as well. Again, they were providing nostalgia, but it was a different sort of nostalgia, more suited to wartime. I don’t know how much of that was a happy coincidence, though. As the book says, Laura must have found it very difficult writing about the bad times in the middle books of the series, and she was probably very glad to get on to the days of name cards, autograph albums, Cap Garland’s party, and sleigh rides with Almanzo. I never really thought of Almanzo as a romantic hero when I first read the books, but he is, isn’t he? Going all the way to the Brewsters’ and back, every weekend, in the snow and ice, to bring Laura home, and then taking her back again? That’s impressive!

The series should really have ended there. Caroline Fraser clearly very much feels, and I agree, that writing about her family’s experiences helped Laura to lay some ghosts about the bad times, and that she wanted the series to end on a happy note, with her marriage to Almanzo. Admittedly it’s not the most cheerful of weddings – it always upsets me that Ma, Pa and Laura’s sisters weren’t there – but it’s a traditional happy ending. The First Four Years, which was only ever published so that Roger McBride, the rather unpleasant character who ended up with the copyright to the books, could make money from it, is so bleak.

It’s real, though – and, as Pioneer Girl explained, a lot of the more unpleasant aspects of Laura’s childhood were missed out of the earlier books, including the death of her brother, who isn’t even mentioned, the period that the Ingalls family spent working at a rather dodgy-sounding saloon, a man coming into her bedroom, Mrs Brewster threatening her husband with a knife, and a neighbour wanting Laura’s parents to sell her to them into what would now be termed modern slavery. A lot of that couldn’t have been included in children’s books even if Laura had wanted it in, but it doesn’t seem that she did … and that worked both for her and for America.

For Laura, it meant that she didn’t have to criticise her beloved Pa for getting them into another fine mess. OK, Pa was not to blame for the economic and environmental disasters, but he undoubtedly made some poor decisions. Even with the books as they are, the more I read them, the less sympathy I have for his “itchy feet” and the more sympathy I have for Ma. From America’s viewpoint, it meant that American children’s literature got a series of much-loved books which show a loving family of brave pioneers, heading ever westwards, overcoming disaster and reaching a happy ending.

It’s very sad that, 50 years later, the Ingalls family were still struggling … although so were most people during the Depression. It certainly hit my neck of the woods, Northern England, very hard, although at least people here didn’t have to contend with layers of dust on everything. Laura and Almanzo actually seem to have fared the best. Carrie was in such dire straits that she was reduced to writing to the Wilders to ask if they had any old clothes they could spare, and Grace and her husband went on a state aid programme which paid them to leave their land fallow. So much for the American Dream. But then that’s how it goes. Boom and bust. It’s just that the Ingalls family seemed to get precious little boom, even during the years of the Dakota Boom.

I know it’s daft, but somehow I always have it in my head that anyone whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower must be living in a mansion in Beacon Hill or uptown New York. I have no idea why I think that: it’s completely illogical! I do find it fascinating that Laura had an ancestor who came over on the Mayflower, though. The book does include quite a bit about the history of the Ingalls family, although very little about Ma’s family, the Quiners. There never seems to be much information available about the Quiners. I’m sure someone would have found it if there was. And I also find it interesting that Laura was a distant relative of Franklin Roosevelt … especially as both she and her daughter Rose seem to have had it in for him.

There is a lot about Rose Wilder Lane in this book. I could have done without most of it. Rose is a very interesting character in her own right, and one who led a very interesting life, but the book was supposed to be about “the American dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder”, not the life, times and political views of Rose Wilder Lane. I never find Rose a very appealing character, and Caroline Fraser clearly can’t stand her, so I don’t know why she wanted to include so much about her. Maybe it was to reiterate the point that it was Laura, not Rose, who was primarily responsible for writing the books. Maybe she just felt that she didn’t have enough to say about Laura without including Rose too.

If you want to read all about Rose and her political views, you will find plenty to read about in here. She apparently said that the Second Amendment gave people the right to take up arms to overthrow their own government. And that wartime rationing was economic slavery and that she wanted no truck with it … whilst busily stockpiling food, presumably with no thought for the fact that other people might also have wished to be able to eat.

And that is another big theme of the book – “small government”. Rose was very into “libertarianism”, and so, to some extent, was Laura. They were not impressed with the New Deal and the idea of government intervention. So, how, and to what extent, does this tie in with the idea of the American Dream of being an independent small-scale landowner?

OK. I love the United States. I love American history. But I do not get the frontier theory. I do not get the idea of uniqueness. No offence, but I don’t. Even Rose’s ranting about overthrowing the government is basically Hobbes and Locke and the idea of the social contract. That’s the Glorious Revolution of 1688. It’s not something that started in the 1770s, and it’s certainly not about the 1930s. And Laura’s freedom epiphany thing in Little Town on the Prairie, when she talks about there being no king above Pa. Well, no, but there was a president. And it’s not as if Queen Victoria or the Kaiser or the Tsar were breathing down the necks of small farmers. And laissez-faire – well, without writing an essay on Manchester economics or the Anti Corn Law League, or the rows in Victorian British politics over whether or not to make education compulsory, that’s hardly a uniquely American thing or anything to do with the frontier. So I’m afraid I just don’t get the “uniqueness” theory.  I love America.  I just don’t get that particular theory.

Moving on from the idea of uniqueness, what about the idea of freedom and small government generally? Well … what Laura says, in her freedom epiphany moment, is that it’s about the freedom to be good. Well, yes, but, unfortunately, the theory doesn’t work. Take the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Very little in the way of Factory Acts/what would now be called health and safety legislation in the US in 1911. Doors to the stairwells and the exits were locked, to stop workers, mostly female immigrants with no-one in high places to speak up for them, from getting out even for “comfort breaks”. 146 people were killed. Take the appalling accommodation in which most of them had probably been living. What use was the “freedom to be good” to them? Their landlords and their employers had the freedom to be good, but they also had the freedom to exploit. I know all the theories about how society, left to it, will work towards the greatest happiness of the greatest number, but, unfortunately, they don’t work. I certainly can’t be doing with nanny states telling me what to eat and what to drink, but things in the 1930s were so bad that I think Roosevelt had to act. Anyway, that’s my two penn’orth!

Incidentally, one of the first things that Roosevelt did was to take steps to try to conserve soil in the prairie states.  Nothing had been done about it until then.

Did libertarianism have a big impact on the Laura’s books? I’m not entirely convinced that it did.  They’re not really political, apart from that one Fourth of July celebration – which, incidentally, convinced my very young self that all American schoolchildren knew the Declaration of Independence off by heart!   No-one sits around discussing whether or not the government should help those affected by the locust swarms, or whether someone from outside should be trying to get food supplies to the residents of De Smet during the Long Winter.  The subject just doesn’t arise.

Of course, without the Homestead Act, and without the railways, they wouldn’t have been Going West anyway …

The Homestead Act was meant to offer an American Dream, but, for the Ingalls family and many others, it was just one long struggle. They may very well have done better to have stayed in Wisconsin. And yet, because of Laura, there’s this idea that the pioneering lifestyle was something truly wonderful. How did she do it? She may have glossed over a lot of things, but the books are hardly sanitised and romanticised: the Ingalls family goes through some very hard times. And they’re not profound, either: the early ones, in particular, are written in very simplistic language, for very young children. You don’t study them for school exams. They haven’t been re-interpreted over and over again, and made into umpteen different films, like Little Women has. And yet they’re so important in American culture, they’re popular worldwide, and they have helped to shape the popular view of a time and a place. Whatever the current debates over the books, that’s an immense achievement. It wasn’t the American Dream that the Ingalls family set out to live, but it’s an amazing one.

Gosh, that was a lot of waffle, wasn’t it?  If anyone’s actually read all that, thank you so much, and please let me know!  And the fact that I have written all that just says how much I enjoyed this book.  It’s not always easy to read a scholarly book about childhood favourite books and authors, but, even if there was rather too much about the unlikeable Rose, I’m very glad to have read this one.




Valentine’s Day – who would be your fictional Valentine?


 And which so-called romantic heroes or heroines of fiction definitely would not be?  Seven for whom it’s a definite yes please, and seven for whom it’s a definite no way … to make fourteen, for the 14th of February.  If anyone’s actually reading this, and wishes to cheer me up by making their own suggestions – I need cheering up, seeing as Storm Ciara ruined my plans for last Sunday and now Storm Dennis has ruined my plans for this weekend, bleurgh – then please, please do.   People usually think I have terrible taste in fictional heroes, so yours are probably much better!

Yes please to:

  1. Orry Main from North and South, but only to the TV mini-series version played by Patrick Swayze.  The real Orry (i.e. the real fictional Orry) drinks too much and has a scruffy beard.  The TV version has a great deal to do with my very long love affair with American history.  Seriously.
  2. Guy Charlton in the Sadlers Wells books.  Yes, I know I am the only person in the world who thinks Guy is a romantic hero, but he is!  I accept that he is a pain in the Marjorie books, but people do grow up, and adult Guy is amazing.  He can rescue me from a Scottish mountain any time.
  3. Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice.  Well, he does own Lyme Park … er, sort of.  And, OK, he starts off being rude and obnoxious, but he’s a good guy at heart, and it’s so romantic how he changes his ways when he realises how unworthy are all his pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased.  Henry Tilney and Captain Wentworth would also be “yes please”, as far as Jane Austen heroes go.  Edward Ferrars and Edmund Bertram less so.  Mr Knightley is a maybe.
  4.  Almanzo Wilder in the Little House in the Prairie books.  I never used to think of Almanzo as a romantic hero.  His silly name doesn’t help, especially as it probably came not from the Crusades but from a daft story that was being serialised in a magazine.  But he, along with Cap Garland, goes out in the blizzards to find food to save everyone else in the town from starvation.  And then he, again in bad weather, goes to collect Laura from the Brewsters’ every weekend, brings her home, and takes her back again – even though she tells him that it doesn’t mean there’s anything going on between them.  Bless!
  5. Gilbert Blythe in the Anne of Green Gables books.  He gives up the teaching job at the local school so that Anne can stay with Marilla after Matthew dies.  How lovely is that?  And I love the way he tries to get Anne’s attention at school – so typical of what boys of that age can be like.  Then they end up getting married.  So sweet!
  6.  Jem Russell in the Chalet School books.  Yes, OK, he can be bossy, but he is supportive of Madge keeping the school open, he adores his sister Margot, and he is clearly a feminist because he pays for Daisy to go to medical school.  Better than all of that, when Madge is upset because of Joey’s nasty remarks about her weight, and decides to go on a diet, he tells her that she’s fine as she is.  This is a man telling a woman that she does not need to lose weight!  Now there’s a true romantic hero.
  7.  Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music.  He counts as fictional because he’s nothing like the real Captain von Trapp!  OK, he’s very rude to Maria at first, he runs his house in a very odd way, and you’d get lumbered with looking after his seven kids … but you so would, wouldn’t you?  And he makes a stand against the Nazis!

But a definite no to:

  1.  Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights.  Why on earth is Heathcliff classed as a romantic hero?  The guy is a complete psycho.  He wants locking up.  And the key throwing away.
  2.  Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre.  OK, he’s better than Heathcliff, and I accept that he was trying to do his best for Bertha, but he tries to trick Jane into a fake marriage, and, when she finds out the truth, assumes she’ll be happy to be his mistress!  And he’s horrible to Blanche Ingram as well.  Jane had terrible luck with men – St John Rivers was probably even worse than Mr Rochester – but I’m sure she’d have found someone decent if she’d kept looking.  But she didn’t.
  3.  Maxim de Winter in Rebecca.  Again, why is he classed as a romantic hero?  He murdered his first wife!
  4. Theodore “Laurie” Laurence in Little Women.  Amy tells Laurie that he is a sulky idiot and that she despises him.  Unfortunately, she then marries him.  She was right about the sulky idiot bit.  He’s OK as a teenager, but he’s a complete pain as an adult.  Why does everyone wish he’d married Jo?  OK, Prof Bhaer’s hardly Mr Darcy, but Laurie isn’t either.
  5.  Mark Darcy in Bridget Jones’s Diary.  Well, more in The Edge of Reason.  He doesn’t realise that he’s supposed to be going out with Rebecca, but he spends the night with her because they’re put in the same room.  Even though he’s supposed to be in love with Bridget.  Oh please.  Mr Darcy, he is not.  Well, he is, but you know what I mean.
  6.  Jack Maynard, who’s probably actually supposed to be the hero (insofar as there is one) of the Chalet School books.  He keeps giving his wife sleeping pills.  That’s not romantic.  It’s creepy.  And he deals with stroppy kids by refusing to speak to them.  And spends money given to him by a grateful patient on buying a lime-green minibus, instead of handing it over to the sanatorium.  Jem would never have done that.
  7. And, last but not least, Rhett Butler.  Gone With The Wind is the greatest book ever written, and I love the way Rhett is always there for Scarlett.  Every time things go wrong, Rhett is there to help put them right – even though she just can’t see that he, not Ashley, is her true love.  He should be the greatest romantic hero ever.  But Margaret Mitchell spoilt it by including the marital rape scene.  I know that times were different then, but there’s no getting past that.  It’s horrendous.  I really wish that scene wasn’t there.

So there we are.  Seven hits and seven misses.  And that’s about as romantic as my day is going to get, but, hey, if anyone’s reading this, I hope yours is better.  And your list of romantic heroes is probably better as well, but this is mine!

The Co-operative Revolution: A Graphic Novel (Facebook group reading challenge)


I have to admit that I don’t really understand the fashion for graphic novels and film adaptations of them.  They make me feel as if I’ve gone back to primary school and am reading “Mandy” or “Nikki”.  However, not wishing to shirk a reading challenge 🙂 , I decided to make it as appealing as possible by finding one about local history.  Well, at least, that’s what I was expecting.  In the end, only part of it was about the Rochdale Pioneers.  The rest of it was about, well, everything from jellyfish to Richard Dawkins to FC Barcelona … and how to change the world by making biscuits in Crumpsall, which is certainly an interesting idea.  And the prospect of a spaceship travelling from Rochdale to Mars, which is an even more interesting idea.  I suppose I did enjoy reading it, and it gets a big gold star for mentioning the Cotton Famine, but graphic novels just aren’t for me.  A page of pictures doesn’t say anything like as much as a page of words, and I didn’t feel like I’d read very much.  But, to be fair, I enjoyed what there was.

There were a few pages of cartoons (sorry, graphics) about the Rochdale Pioneers, and how they famously set up the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society in Toad Lane in 1844.  The author (author? artist?) got rather carried away with going on about the “corrupt, dictatorial” order, but I didn’t mind that because it meant that he went on about the Peterloo Massacre and the Chartists as well as the actual issues of dodgy shopkeepers ripping people off.  As everyone knows, I love to talk about the Peterloo Massacre and the Chartists … nearly as much as I love to talk about the Cotton Famine, which also got a mention.  Minor black mark for referring to Angel Meadow as “Angel Meadows”, but never mind.

However, it then went on about other co-operative movements, which I hadn’t really been expecting.  Some of this involved pictures.  Some of it involved things that were handwritten rather than typed: I’m not quite sure what the idea of that was. But it was quite interesting.  FC Barcelona.  Indian snake catchers.  Bees, of course.  And Portuguese men o’war, which are apparently made up of different parts which all work together as a co-operative … or something like that.  And a lot of comments about nature and Darwinism and Richard Dawkins, and how it’s better to operate as a co-operative than to work on the principle of the survival of the fittest.  I think it would have been better to have stuck to the Rochdale Pioneers, New Lanark, et al, TBH, but I think that people who are into graphic novels are probably more likely to be scientifically-minded than historically-minded.  Then there were more cartoons, this time showing a spaceship heading off from Rochdale to Mars to mark the 200th anniversary of the establishment of the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society.

By this point, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or just to put the book down – but then, hooray, at the back, there was a nice historical timeline.  No graphics, no spaceships, no jellyfish – just a proper historical timeline, including interesting facts such as the fact that the Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS) Factory in Crumpsall was the first biscuit factory in the UK to introduce an 8 hour day, and the first ship to sale the length of the Manchester Ship Canal was the CWS’s SS Pioneer.  I really enjoyed reading that bit, but it did rather prove that, with all due respect to the writers and readers of graphic novels, I am better with the ordinary printed word!

Gentleman Jack by Anne Choma


To mark LGBT History Month, the Historical Association has released a load of topical podcasts, the People’s History Museum is holding an “OUTing the past” exhibition, a diary written by a Georgian farmer from Wakefield is challenging traditional ideas about ordinary people’s historical views on LGBT rights … and, somewhat less interestingly, I am reviewing Anne Choma’s book about Anne Lister.  Anne is a fascinating character.  She was so unconventional in some ways, and yet so conservative in others.  Her diary itself is fascinating, how much she wrote down and the codes she devised.  And, whilst she’s not an overly appealing character, showing very little sympathy for those less well-off than her, her confidence in herself, and certainty about who was, in a society into which she never really fitted, are amazing.  How many people, regardless of their gender, sexuality, class or anything else, are really sure of themselves?   It’s particularly admirable, with the issues surrounding Margaret Court and Israel Folau dominating the sports websites recently, that she saw absolutely no conflict between her sexuality and her religious beliefs and practices.  Mr Wakefield farmer also has quite a bit to say in this area.

Ann Walker, Anne’s partner, was very different.  I sympathise so much with her struggles with anxiety and OCD.  I do not, however, sympathise with the idea that eating gruel would help.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a particularly good book.  It’s marketed as a biography, but it only really covers the period and subjects covered by the BBC drama series – and it’s even got a picture of Suranne Jones, rather than Anne Lister, on the front cover!   Nor is the standard of writing very high: there are some irritating grammatical errors.  It’s still interesting, though.  Oh, and the foreword was written in the Shibden Hall café, which does very nice scones 😊.

Anne Lister really was a fascinating combination of the unconventional and the conservative.  She wanted to marry a woman, but, like many a non-heroine in a Georgian novel, she was more interested in finding someone with money than in finding someone she loved.  She saw no reason why a woman couldn’t manage an estate and manage coal mines, but she had little sympathy for the working-classes, and opposed reform.  And that’s fair enough.  Everybody is an individual.  Being unconventional in one area of your life or one area of socio-politics does not mean that you cannot be conventional and conservative in others.  She was just herself – and it takes a lot of courage to be yourself.

I was hoping to find out more about her ideas on politics, but there’s very little about them in this book.  It says that she liked eating parkin (as do I, although in my case only on Bonfire Night because it’s too fattening to eat regularly) and that she was obsessed with bowel movements (as were a lot of people in the 19th century), but it doesn’t say what she thought about the Peterloo Massacre, Catholic Emancipation or the Corn Laws, just a vague mention of her opposing the Great Reform Act.  Nor does it say much about her travels.  There’s quite a bit about her visit to Copenhagen, but nothing much about her other trips.  It only really focuses on what was shown in the TV series.

There’s more about her diaries, though.  Anne Choma’s been involved in decoding them and transcribing them, and I’m sure she’s got far more to say about Anne Lister than is included in this book.  The codes used in the diary are intriguing in themselves: she went to all this trouble to devise a code for her own diaries.  I once had this great idea of devising a code which used types of fabric for numbers, so that I could rant in my diary (I was about 13 at the time) about how fat I was without having to write the actual numbers.  “I weigh satin stone cotton lbs!!”  Anne’s were a bit more complex!

Anne Choma also discusses how Anne Lister (there are a lot of Annes and Anns here!) used her diaries as some sort of self-improvement/self-study programme programme, to help her understand her own thinking … I’m not sure that terms like that really work when talking about someone writing in the 1820s and 1830s, but point taken!  I wonder what Anne’s various partners would have thought if they’d known she was writing so much detail about their “grubbling” in her diary, though.  Maybe they did!

She’s clearly studied Anne Lister’s diaries very carefully, and I’m sure that she could write a superb biography of her, but this isn’t it.  It’s just a companion book/marketing thing to go along with the TV series.  However, the TV series in itself is important, especially when considered in LGBT history month.  Those of us who remember the Sun screaming about “EastBenders” when the BBC introduced a same sex couple into EastEnders in the mid-1980s can look at the fact that a series about a same sex couple, Anne Lister and Ann Walker, can be shown in the iconic Sunday 9pm period drama slot and reflect on how far attitudes have come.  But I’d like to read a better biography of Anne Lister than this, because she merits one.  It takes guts to be yourself even if you fit into the conventions of the society in which you live.  It takes even more guts to be yourself if you’re a lesbian in a society which doesn’t even have a word for lesbians, a woman running an estate and businesses in a society which regards those as jobs for men … and, whilst it doesn’t sound very nice, if you’re someone who thinks you’re better than the circles in which you move.  And Anne Lister was all of those things.  “What a woman!” as Rhett Butler (the film version) would say!  What a woman!

Kinky Boots


This was excellent – what a wonderful pick-me-up on a very wet and windy day. I’ve always liked Cyndi Lauper’s music (don’t you just *love* the Girls Just Want To Have Fun video?), and this addressed some important issues in a fun and upbeat way rather than a preachy way. It’s partly based on a true story, as well. Let’s have drag queens wearing kinky boots saving family-owned factories in proud provincial towns, and modelling the boots on the catwalks of Milan in Cool Britannia dresses, and let’s have everyone learning to accept everyone else for who they are. Up the provinces, up the factories, up everyone learning to accept themselves and to accept everyone else, down with pretentiousness, and up with music and dancing!

Thanks to the legendary Foo Foo Lammar, I and most other kids in ’80s Manchester grew up thinking that drag queens were some of the coolest people on the planet. When Foo Foo died, the city mourned and Sir Alex Ferguson gave the eulogy at the funeral. But Simon/Lola in this story has struggled to find acceptance, especially from his own dad, and the storyline is partly about that. It’s also partly about Charlie, the factory’s owner, being torn between the place he’s grown up in and the people he’s grown up with, and the new life that his snotty girlfriend wants him to make in a “marketing” job in That London. And it’s partly about the devastating effects of the decline of traditional industries on their home towns.  These are very serious subjects – and the way in which Kinky Boots works is to address them in a fun and upbeat way, not a preachy and lecturing way, and not a sneery and mocking way.  It’s serious stuff, but it’s entertainment.  And it is *superb* entertainment.

Northampton makes shoes. OK, I think we’ve all had to accept that the days of towns and cities being dominated by, and leading the way in, their traditional industries are over, but that history is still a huge part of who we are. We still talk about “taking coals to Newcastle”, things being “all ship-shape and Bristol fashion”, and driving through “the Potteries”. Not to mention “Manchester goods” 😊 . Football teams still have nicknames like “the Blades”, “the Hatters”, and, in the case of Northampton Town, “the Cobblers”. Deindustrialisation has hit the North, the Midlands and other parts of the country very hard. It’s the same in other countries: the term “the Rust Belt” is used to describe parts of the US. How wonderful to see a musical/film tackling this very important subject.

Charlie’s family have been making shoes for generations, and his dad expects him to take over the factory in due course. However, Charlie’s girlfriend Nicola persuades him to move to London. Bright lights, big city, a job in the service sector rather than the manufacturing sector … and a flat the size of a shoebox. But then Charlie’s dad dies suddenly, and Charlie inherits the factory. It’s overstocked, it’s lost its main customer, no new orders are coming in, and his instinct is to close it down. Nicola wants him to sell the building to be converted into “apartments” for the well-to-do. But that’s going to mean that all the staff, most of whom he’s known all his life, will be thrown out of work, and there are precious few other jobs around. One of them, Lauren, who’s got a bit of a crush on him, points out that those factories which have survived have found new markets – hiking boots, or sandals. They need to find something new as well.

Then enter Lola, a drag queen who’s having problems finding feminine boots with heels strong enough to take a well-built man’s weight without breaking. Eureka! Unlike Charlie, Lola loves shoes and is keen to design them. I’ve never quite got why some people are so obsessed with shoes, TBH.  As long as mine are comfortable and not too expensive, I’m sorted, but I do get that shoes are a really big deal to other people!

The women at the factory think Lola’s great. Some of the men, especially one Don, aren’t so sure. And Lola herself, despite seeming to be so confident, clearly isn’t.  One day, she arrives at the factory in a man’s business suit, no wig, no make-up, and says that this is who she was in another life – Simon from Clacton. We learn that, whilst Charlie’s dad wanted him to take over the shoe factory, Simon’s dad wanted him to be an Alpha Male, including being a professionally-trained boxer.

Charlie is desperate to put on a good show at a forthcoming footwear exhibition in Milan. Initially, everyone’s keen – but, as time goes on, Charlie and Lola clash, Charlie and the staff clash, Don and Lola clash, and everything goes wrong. The exhibition looks set to be a disaster, but, thanks to everyone eventually accepting everyone else, it’s all all right on the night – Lola’s troupe of dance queens show off the kinky boots in a Geri Halliwell-esque Union Flag dress, a Beefeater outfit, an English cricket whites outfit, etc. Everything is Cool Britannia, the factory is saved, Lola performs her drag act at the nursing home where her father’s now living, Charlie breaks up with snotty Nicola and gets together with Lauren, and there’s a rousing finale.

OK, it’s a bit cheesy, and, whilst the music’s lively, it’s not particularly memorable … but it’s so positive, and it really cheered up a horrible day when Storm Ciara was battering us and I got wet and windblown just walking from the tram station to the cinema!  Very highly recommended.