Elizabeth I: Secrets and Myths of the Virgin Queen – Channel 5


What a load of appalling misogynistic, unsubstantiated rubbish this was.  I watched it because I thought it was going to be about Elizabeth’s spymasters.  Instead, half of it was about a load of nonsensical claims that, because Elizabeth didn’t marry, she must have been a man, the “evidence” for which is that she wore a lot of make-up and had long fingers, and much of the rest of it was about equally nonsensical claims that she had an illegitimate child, the “evidence” for which is that she was once reported to be looking ill and that she was known to pray for forgiveness for her sins.  Would anyone even dream of making a programme like this about the “secrets” of a male monarch?  Does anyone claim that William II must have been a woman, because he didn’t marry?

There’s a very long list of misogynistic claims against women who were born or married into royal families.  Elizabeth Woodville was a witch.  So was Anne Boleyn.  Wallis Simpson worked in a Chinese brothel.  Henrietta Maria, Marie Antoinette and Alexandra Feodorovna were all entirely to blame for their husbands’ incompetence.  And Catherine the Great, because she took lovers, must have been into horses!  It’s bad enough that this sort of rubbish was spouted in the past, but for Channel 5 to devote an hour of airtime to these bizarre allegations about Elizabeth I, in the 21st century, is just disgraceful.  Not impressed at all.

It must have spent a good twenty minutes on the “Bisley Boy” story, which was probably made up in the 19th century as a silly joke but which the programme presented as a longstanding tradition.  Bram Stoker wrote about it.  That’s the same Bram Stoker who wrote about a 15th century ruler of Romania being a vampire – hardly an academic historian!  The idea is that Elizabeth died in childhood, and the servants who were looking after her dressed up a boy to look like her, and he carried on pretending to be her for the next 60 years, and no-one noticed.  Well, that’s really very likely, isn’t it?  This was Channel 5, not the National Examiner or the Sunday Sport, and this was supposed to be a historical documentary.  It really treated it as a serious story, going on about how maybe Elizabeth wore a lot of make-up to cover up stubble!  She wore a lot of make-up to cover her smallpox scars, FFS.  And about how she had long fingers and liked horse-riding.  What, and that means that someone must be a man?  Talk about scraping the barrel for something to fill airtime.

Of course, it went on to say, that’s if she was really Henry’s offspring at all, and not the product of one of Anne Boleyn’s affairs … the affairs which were made up as an excuse to have Anne executed.  More rubbish.

Or, if she wasn’t a man in drag, maybe she was intersex.  Now, obviously many people are intersex, and that’s absolutely fine, and if Elizabeth was intersex then that’s not a problem.  But the only reason the question has even been asked is because she didn’t marry, and apparently even a female historian in the 20th century, the person who came up with this “theory”, just couldn’t deal with the fact that Elizabeth didn’t want a husband.  The “evidence” for this was the long fingers thing (again), and the fact that she didn’t want her body embalmed.  And??  Incidentally, there’ve also been claims that Wallis Simpson was intersex.  Again, why?

Or, if we dismiss all this claptrap, there’s more.  Maybe she was actually having it off with Robert Dudley, the programme suggested.  Out came all the old claims about Amy Robsart being pushed down the stairs.  And then out came some stupid story about one Arthur Dudley, who claimed to be Elizabeth’s illegitimate son by Dudley.  Oh, for heaven’s sake.  This happens in every single royal generation.  There’s some guy going around at the moment claiming to be the illegitimate son of Prince Charles and Camilla.  He was born before they’d even met!

Maybe George III and Hannah Lightfoot had a secret family who moved to South Africa.  Maybe Mary Queen of Scots had a surviving child by Darnley. Those stories are just about plausible, even if they’re highly unlikely to be true.  But why were Channel 5 wasting airtime on this silly story about Elizabeth, which, as they admitted themselves, after a load of silly speculation for which the “evidence” was that she was once reported to be looking ill and that she was known to pray for forgiveness for her sins, no-one believes?

I accept that, because it’s unusual for a monarch not to marry, especially when they have no siblings or nephews or nieces to be their heirs, questions are going to be asked about why they made that choice.  The programme did make a couple of sensible points – that Elizabeth may well have been put off marriage by the fact that her father had her mother’s head chopped off (and, for that matter, her stepmother and cousin’s Catherine Howard’s as well), and that she may well have distrusted men after the way she was treated by Thomas Seymour.  They could have added that she was probably afraid of childbirth after it killed both Jane Seymour and Catherine Parr.  And, seeing that they did seem to accept that all the other stuff was nonsense, they presumably accepted those perfectly sensible reasons as the explanation for her decision to remain single.

But why make a programme about all the other drivel in the first place?   It’s bad enough that these stories exist, when no-one comes out with this sort of stuff about male monarchs.  It’s bad enough that this sort of misogyny still exists – look at some of the rubbish that circulates about successful female athletes.  But for Channel 5 to lend credence to it, by showing a programme about it and discussing it as if it deserves to be taken seriously, is completely inappropriate.  All the TV companies are obsessed with the Tudors, but there are plenty of real stories about the Tudors to talk about.  This was just a disgrace. Do we still have to hear misogynistic rubbish like this in the year 2020?!  Not impressed at all!


Pilgrimage: the Road to Istanbul – BBC 2


That’s not Istanbul, obviously 🙂 – that’s my local park.  The first episode of this new series involved a lot of time spent in rural parts of Serbia, and some of the “celebs” taking part said that, for them, getting close to nature was the best way of experiencing peace and spirituality.  It is for me too, which is why I usually spend a weekend in the Lake District at this time of year.  That wasn’t to be this time, but I’m really feeling it even at home at the moment, during this very strange time when everything’s so quiet.

You can hear the birds tweeting, the bees buzzing, and I could even hear the thud of a squirrel’s little paws on the ground earlier today.  In the park, I could hear the sound of the water in the stream as it passed over the stones.  Normally, especially on a Saturday, the place is full of people and noisy dogs, and you can hear the traffic from the busy main road nearby, and sometimes there are planes flying overhead; but, now, it’s as if we’ve gone back in time.  I didn’t even know that that huge bank of daffodils was there.  I always go to look for the daffodils on the other side of the park, but I haven’t walked round that side for years.  There are woodland daffodils, too – they make the wooded areas look like enchanted forests from Enid Blyton books.  And I haven’t stood and watched the stream flowing since I was a little kid going for “nature walks” with the rest of my infant school class.

It’s a strange feeling.  These are very, very strange times – such terrible things are going on, especially in Italy and Spain, and yet, because of it, everything’s suddenly so peaceful and so natural … like it was for our seven “pilgrims” in the wilds of rural Serbia, to get back to the point.

This was scheduled to coincide with the run-up to Easter, Passover and Ramadan, but I think we’re all feeling rather more like hermits than pilgrims at the moment.  Life doesn’t half throw curveballs sometimes, and this is a pretty major one!   Unlike the Santiago de Compostela series and the Rome series, this is following a route which isn’t a historical pilgrimage trail, and in fact is the route which Ottoman armies took on their attempts to conquer Vienna.  It’s now been “repurposed” as the Sultan’s Trail, and the idea is to walk it in reverse, from St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna to the Sulemaniye Mosque in Istanbul, and to see it as a path of peace and a meeting point for all religions.

NB – it’s actually called “the Sultans Trail”, the Sultan being Suleiman the Magnificent, a familiar figure to those of us who did the Tudor period for A-level, but it just looks all wrong with no apostrophe!  Our gang are only going from Belgrade to Istanbul, but that’s OK because it means that most of their religious stop-offs will be Orthodox.  I like Orthodox churches.  Shame about the lack of seats, but they have nice music and lots of nice gold iconostases.  In the first episode, we saw the wonderful 15th century Manasija Monastery, one of the most important cultural sites in Serbia, and we also saw the gang join in a “slava”, a celebration of a saint’s day, in Nis. I’d rather have seen a traditional, historical pilgrimage route,  but I’m still  am enjoying this. We don’t get to see much of the Balkans on British TV.

We also saw the Crveni Krst Second World War concentration camp outside Nis, a reminder of some of the horrors of modern history.

As far as the “celebs” go … well, I’m familiar with Edwina Currie, Adrian Chiles and Fatima Whitbread, and I’d heard of Dom Joly, but I have to admit that I’d never heard of Mim Shaikh, Amar Latif or Pauline McLynn before.  Sorry, folks!  Amar is amazing, though.  He’s been blind since he was 18, but he’s still travelled the world.  They’re from different backgrounds, with different views on faith/religion, and it’s been interesting to hear what they’ve had to say.  I think the people in the first two series opened up more, but this was only the first episode.  What we were seeing was more interesting than what we were hearing, though – some of the most fascinating historical and cultural sites of Serbia, and the glorious, open countryside. There were even lots of fruit trees, in some of the less remote areas.  I love fruit trees.

Don’t get me wrong, I love cities, especially my city, but the noise and the traffic and the crowds can get a bit much.  It was interesting to see Dom Joly walk out of the church in Nis, saying that he found the crowds and the noise overwhelming and wanted to be outside.  We’re only allowed out once a day at the moment, and I am trying so hard to make the most of that.  I’m very sad that I won’t be seeing Grasmere, Windermere, Coniston, Chirk Castle and Biddulph Grange during daffodil season this year, but I’m so very grateful to have our lovely park within walking distance, and, even just in my own garden, I’m really feeling quite close to nature during this strange, quiet, time out from normality.  Wherever you are, if you’re reading this, thank you, and I hope you’re also finding a way to find some peace in these troubled times. Stay safe and well xxx.

I am so sorry if anyone’s had three notifications of this post – I had problems getting the picture to display on the Facebook link and had to keep redoing it!  Sorry!!

Back in Time for the Corner Shop (fifth episode) – BBC 2


Ah yes, back to the 1980s!  Big hair, Choc Dips, Ice Magic, video rentals, top trump cards (who remembers horror cards?), Lilt, the greatest music in the entire history of the universe, and learning everything you needed to know about life (or so you thought) from the Just Seventeen problem page.  Just Seventeen and Smash Hits both came out on a Wednesday.  It was the best day of the school week!

The programme heralded the start of the ’80s with Joy Division and the start of the ’90s with the Stone Roses: it worked for me, but I’m not sure what the good people of Sheffield made of it.  They did mention the Human League, though, and they even got Martin from ABC in.  I hope we all point our fingers whenever we hear the “You did, you did” line in “Poison Arrow”?

Hard times for corner shops, though, especially in the 1990s after changes to the Sunday trading laws meant that large shops could now also open on Sundays, although they were given a boost by the launch of the National Lottery.  And, because of the competition, they largely moved away from selling fresh stuff, turning instead to pre-packed sandwiches and other food to buy and eat on the go.  Not very healthy, but needs must.

This was an amazing nostalgia fest, though, especially the ’80s stuff.   The way things are going, pre-recorded episodes of soaps could run out and the TV channels may have to turn to repeats, so we may be doing Back in Time with Alf Roberts’ Corner Shop before long!!

As they said, by the ’80s, supermarkets were king and corner shops were used mainly for top-up shopping, and also for various other things.  Phonecards were mentioned.  So was Royal Wedding memorabilia – I’m not sure it was tactful to spend so much time talking about Charles and Diana’s wedding, the way it turned out, but it was such a big thing that I remember the day very clearly, even though I was only 6 at the time.  I actually remember it more clearly that I remember Live Aid, which was also mentioned.

There was so much nostalgia here.  The thrill of getting a sandwich toaster.  ZX Spectrums – although we never had one of those, because we had an Acorn Electron computer instead.  Croaker and Killer Gorilla!  I’d never heard of the Star Walk, I have to admit, but that was obviously local to Sheffield, and a really big thing there – but I do remember when Meadowhall opened, and making a special expedition from Manchester to Sheffield to go round it!

And video rentals.  The parents of my best friend in the 1980s owned two video rental shops, so we got to see all the videos first!  It was such a big thing at the time.  There were things I’d half-forgotten, too, like 5-4-3-2-1 bars.  The parents immediately started singing the jingle from the adverts.  The kids looked blank!

I was rather sorry when it moved on to the 1990s!   My decade was definitely the ’80s.  It was sad to hear how many corner shops closed in the ’90s, the new Sunday Trading Act proving to be the final nail in their coffins, but there are still plenty of them around, and both they and the supermarkets are doing a sterling job in these troubled times.  If you’re reading this, stay safe and well, stay strong, and thanks for reading.  And maybe put a bit of ’80s music on!



Malory Towers – BBC iPlayer


What brilliant fun this is!   It’s clearly aimed at a young audience, but, especially as we’re confined to barracks at present, I suspect that a lot of “grown-ups” will be having a cracking nostalgia-fest with it.  They really have done an excellent job with a limited and mostly very young cast.  The main characters are all in there, and we’ve got midnight feasts (although I can’t say that I ever envisioned them involving china cups and teapots), lacrosse practice and tricks being played on teachers.  Am I the only person who’s ever tried to make a lacrosse stick by attaching a piece of wood to a bin?  OK, don’t answer that. I was only about 7 at the time, to be fair.  I’m quite sure I’m not the only person who was obsessed with the idea of midnight feasts, though.

And they’re swimming in a seawater cove.  I assume that the pool in the books was actually a proper pool, just somehow fed by seawater, but this is way better.  The moral lessons, which aren’t overly preachy in Blyton books, are in there, and a bit of feminist debate’s been chucked in too, with Darrell doing a lot of talking about careers for women, and Gwen only wanting to bag a husband.   Some of the storylines from the first book are there, and the actual characters of the girls are true to the books.  There are several plots which definitely aren’t in the books – one of them’s been half-inched from “Theodora and the Chalet School”, and I’m not sure how a ghost story got in there – so purists may have a few issues with it, but it’s nice, clean fun, and I’m sure we could all do with some of that at the moment.

Alicia has somehow become American, which completely confused me because I thought at first that she must be Sadie, and then remembered that Sadie was at St Clare’s, not Malory Towers, and got even more confused!  [ETA – oops, sorry, she’s Canadian!] I’m glad that they’re pronouncing it A-LISS-ee-a, by the way, because that’s how I’ve always pronounced it, but the name now seems to have become A-leesh-a.  The colour blind casting is great, but the American accent did confuse me a bit.  Mamzelle (Rougier, but a combination of Rougier and Dupont) has been made very chic, but I suppose the idea of the stupid Frenchwoman might not work so well now.  The same with the famous slapping scene – that definitely doesn’t feature. [ ETA – a-ha, yes it does, it’s in the 4th episode, and I’d only watched the first three when I wrote this!!]  Miss Potts is also rather elegant, and no-one’s yet referred to her as “Potty”.  Matron is now the comedy figure.  Miss Grayling is suitably wise and inspirational, although sadly we didn’t get her famous speech welcoming Darrell to Malory Towers.

As far as Darrell starting at the school goes, it’s been explained that she and some of the others have changed schools.  It never did make sense how they arrived for the first year but some of the girls had already been there a while, so that sorts it!

And I’m very glad that it’s been left in the 1940s, where it’s meant to be.  The books don’t actually say anything to set it in a particular time, but this showed a soldier and a sailor on the platform at the station, and reference was made to Darrell’s mum and others being traumatised by the events of the war.  The uniforms are utterly vile, though.  Couldn’t they have dressed them in brown gymslips?

Don’t be expecting the story to be faithful to the books, because it isn’t, but I really am enjoying it.  In these strange times, something safe and familiar from childhood days is very welcome.  And there are 13 episodes, so, if you’re in a country with access to BBC iPlayer and you haven’t done so already, get watching 🙂 !


Fictional characters and the coronavirus


This is meant as gallows humour, OK.  If you are one of the people who thinks no-one should be joking, please don’t have a go at me – I’ve got an anxiety disorder and am permanently convinced everything I say or do offends people anyway!  But I was reading a ridiculously pompous “critique” of Little Women the other day – Jo having her hair cut symbolises castration, seriously?! – and I started thinking that Beth March would never have got scarlet fever if she’d practised social distancing with the Hummels.  Then I started thinking that, if Helen Carr were around now, she’d be writing some sick-making poem about “The School of Self-Isolation”.  And what about other fictional characters?  A few thoughts …

1.  Adrian Mole would chronicle it all carefully, and constantly be convinced that he’d got the virus when he hadn’t.

2.  Anne Shirley would think up dramatic-sounding names for everything.  “Covid-19” is really pretty naff compared to “the Black Death”.  “The sweating sickness” is at least descriptive, and “the plague” sounds very Biblical.  “Covid-19” sounds like a robot off an ’80s children’s TV programme.

3. Bertha Rochester wouldn’t notice any difference – she’d been locked on the upper floor for years, and never gathered in groups of more than two people.

4. Beth March would be so keen to help struggling neighbours that she wouldn’t observe social distancing and would end up being ill herself 😦 .

5. Gwendoline Mary Lacey would insist that she should be allowed into the supermarket during the times reserved for vulnerable people, due to having a “weak heart”.

6. Heidi wouldn’t need to think about panic-buying food, because she’d stockpiled all those white buns, but she might end up being fined for breaking the curfew due to sleepwalking.

7.  Helen Carr would write a vomit-inducing poem called “The School of Self-Isolation”, about how it was bringing you closer to the angels.

8. Joey Bettany would catch the virus from standing by an open door whilst someone passed within six feet of her, and would be terribly ill but would recover after being serenaded with “The Red Sarafan”.

9. Laura Ingalls (OK, not actually fictional, but never mind) would say that the virus was transmitted by eating watermelons.  I love Laura’s books to bits, but where on earth did the watermelon thing come from?!

10. Scarlett O’Hara would cut up the curtains to use as toilet paper.  Bobbie and Phyllis from The Railway Children would do the same with their petticoats.

Gallows humour, OK?  Gallows humour!!

Stay safe and well, everyone xxx.  And I apologise if I annoy people by over-posting, but just ignore me if so – I can’t really work much from home as I need access to files and other things, so I’ll need to write to keep my brain active!

Back in Time for the Corner Shop (fourth episode) – BBC 2


On into the 1970s, with products such as Angel Delight, Nimble bread, Opal Fruits, Pot Noodles and Curly Wurlies on the shelves. I can still remember the adverts for those, from the early ’80s, which says something about the power of advertising! The programme also mentioned the importance of local newspapers – in this case, the Sheffield Star, but here’s a shout out to our own Manchester Evening News for trying to keep spirits up by emphasising reporting on community help groups and acts of kindness at this difficult time. People handing out flyers whilst dressed in chicken costumes were definitely a thing for a long time, but I certainly don’t remember corner shops having snooker tables – I think the BBC got a bit carried away there.

Kids going to the shops to spend their pocket money on treats – now, that was more realistic, and those were the days!  We used to get told off for reading the comics in the newsagent’s before deciding which one to pick, and then we’d go in the food shop and buy KP Choc Dips.  Sorry, getting ahead of the programme there – that wasn’t until the ’80s.  I’m excited about the ’80s episode coming tomorrow!

This episode showed the ups and downs of the 1970s, from prosperity and boy band memorabilia to the three day week and rampant inflation, but the message in every episode’s been just how hard people running corner shops work. They do a sterling job, despite decades of competition from supermarkets. Three cheers for corner shops!

There was plenty of social and economic change, in this episode.  Shoplifting, made easier by everything going self service was the least welcome aspect of this, but, on a more positive note, chiller cabinets, freezers, cars, and cash and carries also featured.  In terms of cash and carries, I remember Makro being very big round here, and there was also one called Orbro which I think might just have been a local one.  The introduction of decimalisation did get a mention, but the introduction of VAT (in 1973) was evidently deemed too boring!   We also got football, which is hardly specific to the 1970s, but, hey, is always worth a mention.  (I’m really missing football and tennis.)

Another point made was the growing importance of the role of British Asians in running corner shops.  I can remember people referring to shops which opened all hours as “Pakistani shops” – meant in the most positive of ways, because the shops which were always open when you urgently needed something and everywhere else was closed were usually run by local British Pakistani families.  A wider range of foodstuffs from different countries and cultures was available too.

And the ’70s décor!  Talk about “the decade that taste forgot”.   The yellow and brown patterned wallpaper, very 1970s, brought back fond memories, though, because my grandma had something similar in the kitchen in her flat well into the 1980s!   So, this was a bit of a nostalgia-fest, but the 1980s was my decade, so I think I’ll be doing a lot of OMG-ing and reminiscing next week.

I’m really enjoying this series, so thank you, BBC 2.  At the moment, a bit of nostalgia is very welcome.  Even the three day week didn’t shut all the cafes and pubs.  But this too will pass ….



The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson


I downloaded this in the hope that I’d be going to Iceland this summer. The way things are, I may not be going any further than the Iceland supermarket in the precinct; but at least we’ve still got books, and this is a very good one. I’ve always associated the seal people stories with the Scottish Isles, but they’re also to be found in Iceland and other Scandinavian counties, which says something interesting about the Viking heritage of parts of the British Isles. This is based on a true story, the “Turkish Abductions” of 1627, in which Barbary pirates kidnapped and enslaved around 400 people from Iceland. It’s thought that over a million people were taken in Barbary slave raids on ships and coastal areas across Europe, from the 16th century to the 19th century. This one’s particularly remembered as the loss of 400 people out of Iceland’s total population of only 60,000 had such a big impact.

The main character, Asta Thorsteinsdottir, did exist, as did many of the other characters in the book. Her husband, Olafur Egilsson, was released so that he could go to Copenhagen to plead with the King of Denmark to ransom the captives. Only 27 of them, one of whom was Asta, returned to Iceland. That wasn’t until 1638, and this book imagines what her life may have been like in the meantime, as people were forced to try to adapt to a new way of life, their treatment dependent on who’d bought them, saw their children raised in a different culture, and, if they did go home, struggled to settle back into what was left of their old lives. It’s a historical novel, not a fantasy novel, but there are a lot of references to both the Icelandic sagas and the tales of Scheherazade, and the point is made that there are very few accounts of the time written by women.

The descriptions of both Iceland and Algeria are superb, and it’s a fascinating book (and a sensible story, not one of those lurid Orientalist things about glamorous women being carried off to sultans’ harems, like that awful film in the ’80s!) about a subject which affected much of Europe and North Africa but is rarely spoken about any more.

The pirate who led the raid was Dutch, and Asta’s fictional master in Algeria was half-Dutch, and that was quite typical of what happened. People “went native” because it gave them better opportunities. Asta was portrayed as refusing to convert from Lutheranism to Islam, but one of her friends converted and married a local man, and the son of another friend converted and became a pirate. Her eldest son was taken away as soon as they arrived. Her two younger children were bought with her, but her daughter was later sent to join the sultan’s harem in Constantinople (the Barbary states being part of the Ottoman Empire), and both she and the younger son were brought up as Muslims. They weren’t unhappy with that, having never really known anything else.  The real fate of Asta’s children isn’t actually known, but it is known that they didn’t return to Iceland with her.

They were all shown as being reasonably well-treated, despite being slaves. That obviously would depend on the whims of their individual owners, and Sally Magnusson’s chosen to depict quite a kindly owner – although there’s one horrific episode in which Asta is abducted and raped by another man, and we also hear of the ill-treatment of some of her friends.

It did stray into the realms of fairy tales in that Cilleby, Asta’s master (the name was supposed to have come from his Dutch father, but it sounded more Yorkshire than Dutch to me!), who’d bought her to be a sewing maid, kept asking for her to be brought to him every night … so that she could tell him the Icelandic sagas. A very definite nod to Scheherazade there, and we also saw how the women in the harem told each other Arabian Nights stories. “The sealwoman”, despite the title of the book, didn’t feature very much: she was an old lady who believed in the legends of people being descended from seals, but she died early on. The idea seemed to be that sealwomen had left their homes in the sea and become trapped on land, and had to adapt as best they could, and that that was what the Icelandic slaves in Algeria were doing. There was also a running theme of an elfman, one of the huldufolk (hidden people) who are said to live hidden lives in Iceland (and the Faroe Islands) but can choose to make themselves visible to humans.

The sealwoman warned Asta not be like Gudrun in Osvifrsdottir in the Laexdala saga, who got involved with two men.  It’s not very clear why she would have done that when they’d only just been abducted, TBH, but, inevitably, Asta and Cilleby became romantically involved.  But, when, eventually, the King of Denmark agreed to ransom any Icelanders who wanted to return home, Asta made the decision to go, even though it meant being parted from her children … but the chances were that she’d never see them, at least the oldest two, again anyway.  She then found it very hard to settle back into her old life, after nine years away and everything that had happened.

But she had to try to adapt and make the most of things, because that’s all you can do.  When this book was first published, people said that lessons could be drawn from it in terms of the damage that slavery does to cultures and communities, and also for refugees settling into new countries.  Now, I feel as if I’m trying to draw lessons from it about how you cope if you’re unable to go out and about as you please (obviously I am not comparing lockdown/self-isolation to slavery, but hopefully anyone reading this will know what I mean!), and what a great help stories and story-telling can be.  Sometimes, you find yourself forced to adapt to circumstances you could never have imagined, and that’s happening to all of us at the moment.  Stay safe and well xxx.  And, if you’re looking for a book to read, give this a go!

How the Victorians Built Britain (Blackpool!!) – Channel 5


There’s a song by The Beautiful South which goes “Blackpool help me out, Scarborough see me through”.  There’s no football, there’s no tennis, National Trust tea rooms are closing, theatres and cinemas are closed, Tesco are no longer opening 24 hours (and they included an important reminder in their e-mail about how this is a very difficult time for their staff, and saying a few extra “thank you”s would be much appreciated) and Coronation Street‘s going down to three episodes a week.  No toilet roll is one thing, but no sport and no National Trust scones … this is serious. However, we still have the seaside.  And, if you’re not going out at the moment, there are some lovely videos on You Tube showing scenes of Blackpool through the ages.  But to get back to this programme, which was on before all this really started …

The other episodes in this series were about things like trains and bridges and ships, which are very nice, especially if you’re technologically-minded (which I’m not) … but this one was about Blackpool, which was far more exciting. The Victorians democratised the seaside. If you watched the ITV version of Sanditon (if you didn’t, don’t bother, because it really wasn’t worth it), you will have seen lots of posh Georgians (some minus their swimwear) frolicking about on the beach, but not an ordinary working person anywhere in sight. It was the Victorians who turned the seaside into a place for everyone – and it was great fun watching Michael Buerk discover how such incredibly important institutions as Blackpool’s piers, the Illuminations, the Winter Gardens, the Tower and Empress Ballrooms, the Tower itself, the trams, and, last but not least, Blackpool rock, came into existence.

First up, a lot of it had to do with the railways. Well, there were charabancs as well, but they were more for day trips. And then there were wakes weeks – which were still going strong when I was a kid, but sadly seem to be dying off now. So, off everyone went to Blackpool, for some nice healthy sea air! And, back in the 1860s, when the first two piers were built we had a bit of class … well, not class conflict, but there were class issues. To this day, the North Pier’s the “posh” pier. There was a really nice tea room there for a while, but it closed down 😦 . However, it does still have a sun lounge where you can listen to music, and deckchairs to lounge on. The Central Pier (the South Pier came much later) is the fun pier, though … and also the, shall we say, “less posh” pier. That’s where there are rides and stalls. And it’s where you get the best chips. They don’t sell chips on the North Pier.

And, also up at the north end, is the Imperial Hotel, for those who don’t want to stay at one of the less expensive hotels. Very nice. I went there for a posh afternoon tea as a birthday treat, once. And the Victorians had a sort of Turkish bath set-up there, which was forgotten about for years but has now been rediscovered. It looks amazing!

Anyway, hopefully we’re past the seaside class conflict stuff now. Blackpool is for everyone! But sometimes it’s cold and wet, so you may prefer to go indoors – and they didn’t have all those arcade machines in Victorian times, so they opened the Winter Gardens. And it gets dark at night, when it’s not high summer, so, in 1879, the Illuminations started. Yep, 1879!  “Blackpool’s artificial sunshine.” Making excellent use of electricity!  Six years later, the trams, the first electric tramway in the British Isles, opened. How clever were the Victorians? They’d never have got into all this mess over HS2, I’m telling you. Furthermore, they didn’t go around mithering that everything you were eating was bad for you. Victorians liked sugar. So they invented rock.

So, by the early 1890s, you could head there on the train, ride around by tram, go on the beach, walk along the pier, go in a Turkish bath if you were too snotty to join the crowds down by the sea, eat lots of rock, look at the Illuminations, and go in the Winter Gardens. But the symbol of Blackpool is the Tower. Even now, at my advanced age, I get excited when the Tower first comes into view as I head along the M55. When it opened, in 1894, it was the tallest man-made structure in the British Empire. High-rise buildings were not a thing in the 1890s! How amazing for people to be able to go up the top of Blackpool Tower and look all around them. And it’s perfectly safe, even in nasty storms like the ones we’re getting at the moment. The Victorians built things to last!

Then, rather amusingly, there followed what Michael called “the Battle of the Ballrooms”, as the Tower Ballroom and the Winter Gardens’ Empress Ballroom vied to outdo each other. They’re both amazing. So ornate and glamorous. I’d love to dance in both of them, although, if I had to choose, I’d go for the Tower Ballroom. No offence, Winter Gardens.  They look as if they should be in some grand royal palace somewhere … but they’re in Blackpool, for us.

And that’s Blackpool. If you want glamour, you can have glamour. If you want chips on the pier, you can have chips on the pier. However down I’m feeling, Blackpool always cheers me up – and I am so chuffed that Channel 5 devoted an hour’s TV to talking about how the Victorians invented the modern seaside resort.  Yes, trains and bridges and ships are very important, but, hey, where we would be without our seaside resorts 🙂 ?  Loved every minute of this!

Ten book characters who’d be good in this time of crisis



I’ve said “book” rather than “fictional” because I think I could do with having Almanzo Wilder and Cap Garland around, to go out for supplies if the Toilet Paper Hoarders (an issue not actually mentioned by Laura Ingalls Wilder, come to think of it) strip all the local shops’ shelves bare.  On a more serious note, I’ve just had a message from my favourite café, urging people to buy, if possible, from small local businesses which are really going to struggle to weather this situation.  If there’s an equivalent of the De Smet store nearby, and it isn’t out of barrels of wheat or Ma’s sewing ribbons or whatever, that sounds like a very good suggestion.  So, who would be the best book characters to have around?

1a and 1b – Almanzo Wilder and Cap Garland, from The Long Winter.  They heroically went out in the heavy snow and ice, and made a 24 mile round trip to bring back supplies and save the whole town of De Smet from starvation.  No mention of hand sanitiser or toilet roll, admittedly, but still.

2 – Jane Eyre, from (to state the obvious) Jane Eyre.  Jane lived through the typhus epidemic at Lowood School.  She’s been there and done that.  OK, she left her stuff on a coach, but no-one’s perfect.

3 – Melanie Wilkes from Gone With The Wind.  One of the genuinely inspiring things about Gone With The Wind is the way that all the petted Southern ladies go to work in the hospital, in horrible conditions.  Scarlett hates it, but Melanie throws herself into even the most unpleasant of work.  She’s also practical – she accepts donations from the local brothel, because the hospital needs it, when everyone else gets all holier-than-thou over it.  Melanie is clearly a gal to have by your side in difficult times.

4. Karen from the Chalet School books.  Whilst Matron Besley is getting hysterical over a thunderstorm, Karen calmly marshals all the domestic staff to make sandwiches and hot drinks for everyone.  And she’d be able to make something nice out of whatever food you’d got left in stock.  She managed to feed everyone during the “Famine” in the early Swiss years, even when Miss Annersley sent some of her flour over to the Maynards.  Just a shame that she specialises in coffee rather than tea, but, as with Jane, no-one’s perfect.

5. Madge Russell from the Chalet School books.  Madge’s words about being brave look like they’re going to be sorely needed over the next few weeks, and probably months.

6. Henry Tilney from Northanger Abbey.  Being quarantined with Mr Darcy sounds rather nice, but he’d probably do your head in after a few days of being together 24/7 with no-one else around.  Henry Tilney, on the other hand, would make you laugh and keep your spirits up.

7. Charlotte, Duchess of Southport from the Morland Dynasty books, who sets up her own hospital.  OK, she was well able to afford it, but not everyone was so philanthropic and so concerned for other people’s well-being.  If you can help in any way, please do so.

8. Tatiana Metanova from The Bronze Horseman, who survives the Siege of Leningrad, works as a wartime nurse, donates her own blood to save her husband’s life, drives to the Finnish border despite being shot, and persuades the US authorities to let her into America.  As you do.  She copes with any sort of crisis!

9. Katy Carr from the What Katy Did books.  For a start, she’d tidy everything up if you didn’t feel up to doing it, as she did for Miss Jane. She’d look after the kids if the schools were closed.   And she wouldn’t mind her holiday plans falling through, seeing as she seems to hate everywhere she visits anyway.  When you got all upset over your holiday of a lifetime being kyboshed, she’d just tell you that you didn’t really want to go there anyway, because the weather was horrible and so was the food.

10. Gilbert Blythe, from the Anne of Green Gables books.  Well, the list has to include a doctor, and it may as well be one who can double as a romantic hero.  I would obviously prefer Guy Charlton from the Lorna Hill books, but I’m not sure people’d really want to be treated by a vet.

If anyone’s reading this, hope that you and yours are OK in these difficult times, and, if there are any book characters you’d particularly like to have around at the moment, please share ideas!!

Belgravia – ITV


I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this, given what utter rubbish the book was.  Julian Fellowes really should stick to writing TV scripts!  No, it isn’t Downton Abbey, but it doesn’t claim to be; and it was really quite entertaining.  It also suggested that afternoon tea stops you from feeling trapped.  So, in these troubled times, when anxiety levels are likely to be running high, clearly we should all be turning to tea and scones.  It’d be a much more sensible idea than some I’ve heard.  And, should you be a social climber eager to impress a member of the aristocracy, catch her scone as she drops it.

On a different note, but also related to these difficult times, maybe we should all remember the unsung heroes of the world, like Mr Trenchard the army victualler in this story – they don’t get the glory, but they keep us going.  I shall now move swiftly on, before my brain stops thinking about tea and scones and starts humming “The Quartermaster’s Stores” …

This kicked off with the Duchess of Richmond’s famous ball on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo.  I was pleased to find that some of the ridiculous references in the book to things that no-one could possibly have known before the battle had been removed!  The middle-class Trenchards had managed to wangle an invitation because the Duchess’s fictional nephew, Viscount Bellasis was involved with Sophia, the daughter of the Trenchard family … but he was killed in the battle.

Fast forward 25 years, and the Trenchards were doing very well for themselves, with Mrs Trenchard being invited to one of the Duchess of Bedford’s afternoon tea parties – hence the bit about it being better to be able to move around the room, rather than being trapped at a table – and meeting the late viscount’s mother, as the upper-classes and the nouveaux riches were thrown together in the newly-built Belgravia Square area of London.  There was a bit of waffle about how it was built by Thomas Cubitt …  who, incidentally, was the great-great-great-grandfather of the Duchess of Cornwall, whose mother’s maiden name was Cubitt 🙂 .

It subsequently transpired that poor old Sophia had been tricked into a fake marriage by the Viscount, and had then died giving birth to his child.  This had all been hushed up – but, of course, it’s now all about to come out.  Assuming it sticks to the storyline in the book, the way this ends is ridiculously far-fetched, but I won’t post any spoilers!!   Sophia’s brother Oliver and his wife, whom we haven’t seen much of yet, also play a big part in the story, and, presumably to Downton -Abbeyfy things, it looks as if the servants are going to play a bigger part than they did in the book.

It’s not going to go down in history as an all-time classic, but it was watchable, and, the way things are at the moment, I for one am certainly up for a bit of historical escapism.  All the best to anyone who’s reading this.  Please, stay calm, wash your hands, don’t use a crisis to try to score political points, and be kind and do what you can for others.  And, if you need to escape for a bit, there are plenty of books, films and TV programmes out there.