Football, Prince William and our mental health

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This isn’t an easy subject to talk about, but it remains a sad fact that suicide is the biggest killer of young British men, and that 75% of people in the UK who take their own lives are men.  It does seem to remain very difficult for men to discuss mental health issues, and it’s great that Prince William’s involvement in highlighting this very important issue is bringing it more attention.  Even a few years ago, there’d never have been an hour-long programme on prime time TV on BBC 1 about mental health.

He’s made a very good point about how people internalised their grief and trauma after the two world wars, as the feeling at the time was that everyone should try to move on and put those times behind them, and that we need to avoid doing that as we come to terms with the effects of the coronavirus and lockdown.  It was good to hear him talking about how the, much-deserved, “heroes” tag mustn’t be allowed to deter frontline workers from seeking any help they might need: I read an article by someone who helped to treat victims of the Manchester Arena bombing, saying the same thing.

And could we all be nice, please?  Whilst the majority of people *are* showing great kindness at this difficult time, there’ve been some very spiteful posts on social media of late, I won’t even say what I think of the appalling way in which some employers are treating their staff, and there’ve also been reports of parents being abused for either saying that they *will* send their children back to school or saying that they *won’t* send their children back to school.  The last things we need are nastiness and division.  Again, could we all be nice, please?  And, if you’re struggling, shout.  Men, this means you too!

What a weird year this is.  This programme was, as the title suggests, originally supposed to be about role that football can play in helping men to deal with mental health issues, and about well-known players joining Prince William in encouraging men to speak out by discussing their own experiences.

We saw a number of male footballers and fans – this was very much about male mental health – speaking out about their mental health issues, and we also heard about the SANDS United football teams, which are for men who’ve lost babies either before, during or just after birth.  It’s a way of bonding and of coming together.  And, whilst it seems a very long time ago now, we were all encouraged to take a minute to think about mental health issues before the start of the FA Cup 3rd round matches in Saturday.  The campaign was making progress, and getting a lot of attention …

… and then coronavirus hit us.  People have been cut off from their support networks, whether that’s grassroots football teams or anything else, and from things which we enjoy and which are important to us and which are an important outlet for us – which, for many of us (female as well as male!) is football.  And we don’t know what the long term effects of all this are going to be, in this country and everywhere else.

There’s the general trauma of the world being turned upside down, and the anxiety that that brings, as well as the fear that we or our loved ones may contract the virus.  There’s the trauma of being separated from our loved ones, and, for some people, of not being able to go out at all – it’s a lonely time.

There’s the upset of plans being cancelled.  And, yes, it is OK to be upset about this.  I am very sad that my holidays have been cancelled: they are the highlights of my year and I plan them so carefully and look forward to them so much.  And, as someone who overplans everything – it’s part of having anxiety – I find it very hard not being able to plan anything.  Going forward, there are, sadly, likely to be business failures and job losses.  And there are concerns that other health problems may have gone undiagnosed during lockdown.

And those are just the indirect effects of the virus.  Tens of thousands of people have died, leaving grieving relatives and friends who haven’t even been able to hold proper funerals.  It’s feared that many people who survived severe cases of the virus may suffer from PTSD, and that this may also affect people working in hospitals and care homes.

It’s not like the First World War or the Second World War.  No-one’s saying that it is.  But it is important that people don’t go down the “don’t talk about it” route: we’ve learnt from experience that that’s not a good idea.  And it’s crucial that people be nice to each other.  Some employers are behaving very poorly.  And the amount of nastiness and political points-scoring is appalling – it would be at any time, but especially at a time like this.  On top of that, we’ve now got parents being told that they’re depriving their children of their education and the company of their friends if they don’t send them back to school, and that they’re putting them in danger if they do.  Will the people doing this just shut up, OK!  Other people’s choices are not your business.  Everyone’s circumstances are different.

No-one could have seen this coming, and, like so many other things, this programme was partly overtaken by events.  But most of it was filmed before coronavirus hit, and we saw some very powerful and frank conversations about mental health issues, even actually about suicide attempts.  This is an incredibly important subject, and the fact that we’ve got a future king spearheading the campaign to address it says a lot.  This was a very moving programme.  Please, guys, we love you – if you’re struggling, speak out, and ask for help xxx.

The Romanov Empress by C W Gortner

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This book, about Minnie, Dagmar of Denmark, Empress Maria Feodorovna of Russia, wife of Alexander III and mother of Nicholas II, is a very entertaining read; and, for people unfamiliar with this period of Russian history, it’s probably quite informative.  Unfortunately, it contained a number of very basic factual errors, which, given the generally high quality of the writing, were disappointing.  OK, they didn’t really affect the story, but I’m very picky about Romanov history and they grated on me!   Annoying errors aside, it was an enjoyable book.  So much attention is paid to Nicholas and Alexandra that Minnie is usually just seen in terms of her son’s reign: it was good to read a book in which she was the central figure.

It wasn’t a long book, and it didn’t say much about her childhood.  That was a shame, really, because her birth family are fascinating: her father, a fairly obscure prince, became King of Denmark through a claim on his wife’s side, and the “Grandfather of Europe” through his descendants’ marriages and his second son becoming King of Greece.  But, OK, it wasn’t meant to be about her early life.  Most of her five siblings didn’t feature much, but there was a lot about her close relationship with her sister Alix, Queen Alexandra of Great Britain and Ireland.  The book actually started with Alix’s marriage to the Prince of Wales.  We then saw Minnie’s engagement to the Tsarevich Nicholas, and, after his death, her marriage – with some reluctance on both sides – to his brother Sasha, the future Alexander III.

“Sasha” is a very difficult figure to write about.  He and Minnie were happy together, he seems to have had a reasonably good relationship with his children – less so with his siblings, but that was because he was an early advocate of what Prince Charles would call “a slimmed-down monarchy” –  and he was often described by royals from Britain and elsewhere as genial “Uncle Sasha”, the gentle giant.  And he managed to avoid getting involved in any major wars, despite the tensions of the time.  It’s also a little unfair how he’s seen as the great repressor in contrast to his father, the “Tsar Liberator”.  Alexander II was certainly far more liberal than his son, but he moved away from that after the 1863-4 Polish Uprising.

But Alexander III was repressive.  Much of that was a reaction to his father’s assassination, in 1881, but his refusal to agree to a constitution set Russia a lot further along the road to revolution.  And there’s the huge issue of the May Laws and the pogroms.  They weren’t the big international news then that they were in Nicholas II’s reign, but what went on was horrific.  There was also repression against … well, pretty much anyone else who didn’t tick all three boxes of being Russian, Orthodox, and Russian-speaking.  This was a book about a woman’s life, not a textbook, so I didn’t expect too much detail about political issues, and the issues were raised, not ignored, but I thought there should have been more about them.  That’s just my opinion.  And the famine of the early 1890s was pretty much ignored.

The book was much better on family matters, though.  And it’s pretty difficult to keep up with all those Romanovs, and all the British, Danish, Greek and German relations abroad, and the marriages and divorces and children – the author did well there!   We also got a good picture of Minnie’s charity work, and her popularity with the Russian people.

Alexander III died in his 40s.  The events of Nicholas II’s reign are very well-known, but still tend to be sensationalised: I was pleased to find that the author stuck to the facts and resisted the temptation to include some of the stranger stories.  We did not see any claims that Minnie was plotting to depose her eldest son.  What we did see was a lot about her difficult relationship with her daughter-in-law Alix and, increasingly, with Nicholas.  Again, it’s difficult – you have to sympathise with Alix over her anxiety about her son Alexei’s haemophilia, and her desperation to do anything to help him; but Minnie and everyone else could see the damage that was being done to the monarchy by its association with Rasputin.

This was a book about Minnie, so we saw it from her viewpoint – but I think most of us see it from her viewpoint anyway.  Nicholas should have agreed to far wider and deeper political reforms than he did.  “Our Friend” should have been given his marching orders.  The young Grand Duchesses should have been brought out into society.  The First World War was badly mismanaged.  But she could have shown Alix a bit more sympathy, and their difficult relationship did come across well here, as well as the fast-moving political and social events of the time.

We were also shown all the issues within the wider Romanov family – Minnie’s other children, and Sasha’s brothers and their families.  I love all this stuff, so I know all about who married and divorced whom!  If you don’t, you will hopefully enjoy finding out – it was all going on!

It was disappointing, though, that the book pretty much ended with the October Revolution, and did end with the famous evacuation of Minnie and numerous others from the Crimea (sorry, “Crimea”.  But no, I will not say “Krym”!) on a British warship.  Having thought throughout how nice it was to read a book that was about Minnie as Minnie, not just as Nicholas II’s mother, it was rather annoying that we didn’t hear anything, apart from a brief afterword, about the remaining ten yeas of her life.  Her story did not end when she left Russia.

Again, it’s difficult … there’s this image of her as a rather tragic and rather batty old woman, refusing to face up to the fact that her sons, Alix, the young Grand Duchesses, Alix and so many others had been murdered.  I don’t know how you’d write about that, because she wasn’t a batty old woman.  C W Gortner handled it well, as far as he went, saying that she felt she’d be betraying them if she acknowledged that they were dead … but then her cut her story short.

So that was a shame.  And, as I said, there were some very annoying errors.  Minnie’s name was usually spelt “Minny”, not “Minnie” as it as in this, but, OK, that could be excused.  I prefer “Minnie” as well: “Minny” looks wrong to me.   Her nephew George, our King George V, was called “George” by his relatives in this, when he was always known as “Georgie”.  Pobedonostsev’s name was repeatedly spelt as “Pobedononstsev”.  Minnie’s son Michael got married in Vienna: this said that he got married in Paris.  OK, these weren’t major errors, but they were annoying.  More seriously, Minnie’s daughter-in-law, Alix of Hesse, was referred to as “Alexandra” before her conversion and marriage.  That’s a common error, but her given name was Alix.  It wasn’t short for Alexandra: it was her full first name, an alternative spelling of Alice.  Using the masculine version of Russian surnames for women is inexcusable.  As for saying that Prussia occupied Bosnia and Herzegovina after the Russo-Turkish War … how can you mix up Prussia and Austria-Hungary?!  Especially given the significance of Sarajevo coming under Austro-Hungarian control.  That sort of carelessness is just annoying.

OK, I’m being picky!  Moaning aside, I really enjoyed this.  It was exactly what I needed – Russian history and royal gossip are very good for me!   Recommended!

Monkman & Seagull’s Genius Adventures – BBC 2

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This would probably have worked better as a school programme than on prime time TV.  There was a definite sense of Bill & Ted (well, a much more intelligent version of Bill & Ted, given that the two presenters were former University Challenge contestants) and a lot of dressing up (Lucy Worsley would approve).  But it was genuinely entertaining, there was a lot of driving through the beautiful British countryside  (which I can’t wait to do again), and it was great to hear people being so positive about British history in general and the Industrial Revolution in particular.  I couldn’t believe that the cotton industry was only the second item on the agenda though.  Who talks about the Industrial Revolution and doesn’t start with the cotton industry?!  Cotton was King.  Everyone knows that 🙂 .

Eric Monkman and Bobby Seagull were rival contestants on University Challenge, and have somehow become TV presenters.  They got to go on a road trip to lots of interesting places, whilst Simon Callow explained what was going on – which would have been a lot better had he not kept going about the “Industrial Revolyution”.  There is no “y” in the word “revolution”.  It really was irritating.  Meanwhile, Eric and Bobby got to play around in pedal boats and picnic on mountains, although, disappointingly, they weren’t able to go up in a hot air balloon because it was too windy.  You’d think that the BBC could have let them go back another day!

The first episode concentrated on the period from around 1750 to 1800, and they started with marine chronometers.  Not nearly as exciting as flying shuttles, spinning jennies, water frames and mules, obviously, but, fair enough, it was pretty useful for people on ships to know where they were going.  Shipwrecks are always presented in books as being quite exciting, with people being stranded on desert islands or dramatically rescued, or Wreckers helping themselves to stuff which has washed up on beaches in Cornwall (why is it always Cornwall?!), but the loss of life, and also of cargo, was horrific.  This was a major breakthrough.

Then we did move on to the cotton industry – hooray!! – with a visit to lovely Cromford, in the Peak District, where Richard Arkwright, inventor of the water frame, operated his mills.  I’ll be here all day if I start waxing lyrical about the importance of the cotton industry, but, as we all know 🙂 , Cotton was King.  And it became King because of all those crucial inventions in the 18th and early 19th centuries.  The points about the development of the factory system and the decline of the domestic system seemed quite ironic given that lockdown means that many of us have had to switch from working in a workplace to working at home.  Are we now seeing the rebirth of the domestic system?  It’ll be interesting to see how things pan out.

From there, on to Watt’s steam engine.  I’m a historian, not a scientist, and the workings of steam engines don’t interest me that much, but the huge effect of the steam engine does, very much.  It’s hard to overstate the importance of the developments of this period – and, later, we moved on to Richard Trevithick’s steam locomotive.  Stephenson’s Rocket‘s coming next week!

Next up came weighing the planet.  I couldn’t get excited over the development of weighing technology, but I accept that it was important.  And it meant that we got some lovely views of Scottish mountains.  There was a lot of talk about the significance of the Scottish Enlightenment at this time.  People usually go on about Adam Smith and “The Wealth of Nations” when discussing the Scottish Enlightenment, and, of course, Smith was important, but equally so were other people and what they did.  The Encyclopaedia Britannica!   When I was a kid, we got a set of the 1985 edition.  I loved it!  I was so upset when it was decided to discontinue the printed version.

We also got Joseph Priestley’s work in “discovering” oxygen. Priestley was a fascinating figure.  This programme just talked about his work in terms of oxygen, but he was involved in so many other things that you could make a programme, or even a series, just about him.

And then, before the steam engine, we heard a lot about hot air balloons.  I’m not sure that hot air balloons were all that important in world history, but, fair enough, people were rather obsessed with them in the late 18th century.  We were informed that balloon pioneers in France considered sending prisoners from the Bastille up in balloons, because no-one would be bothered if it all went wrong and the prisoners met a sticky end (charming!), but decided not to, because anyone who made a successful balloon flight would become a celeb and they didn’t want that to be a prisoner!

It was all a bit flippant, and, as I said, might have worked better as a school programme, but it was such a joy to hear these young men being so enthusiastic about the Industrial Revolution.  No flat earthers going on about how industrial processes have destroyed the planet.  No Guardian readers shrieking in horror about the great work of British inventors being praised, and the crucial role that British inventions played in world history being emphasised.  Just praise and enthusiasm for the Industrial Revolution.  Love it.  Absolutely love it!

 

The Skylarks’ War by Hilary McKay

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What a truly lovely book this, aimed at readers aged between around 9 and 11, and telling the story of a group of children growing up just before the First World War and their experiences during the war, is.  I didn’t think that books like this existed – a recently-written, old-fashioned, traditional-style children’s book, adapted to modern sensibilities but without ever being anachronistic.

Each of the five main characters has so much to tell us – bright, ambitious Clarry, who wants the educational opportunities which her father doesn’t think are important for girls; gentle, friendly Simon, whose love for another young man is so sensitively handled at a time when same sex love so often met with hostility; golden boy Rupert, who’s shattered by his experiences at the Front; light-hearted Vanessa who leaves her studies to become a war nurse; and Peter, who can’t serve in the Armed Forces because of a self-inflicted childhood injury, but becomes a doctor instead.

It’s written for children and the style of prose reflects that, but it’s beautifully-written in a way that adults will appreciate too.

I didn’t realise at first that this had only been published in 2018, because the setting is so traditional.  Clarry (Clarissa) and Peter are motherless, which is typical of early to mid-20th century children’s books, although this one has a sad sub-plot in which Clarry blames herself for her mother’s death shortly after childbirth.  Their cousin Rupert’s parents are in India.  They all spend the entire summer holidays with their grandparents in Cornwall.  Rupert goes to boarding school.  We do see Clarry having to get a job after school hours, but that’s more because her dad’s so mean than because the family are short of money.

I’m very impressed with Hilary McKay for writing a book like this, because there’s a very nasty attitude now – “privileged pain”, anyone? – that going to boarding school and having names like Rupert and Clarissa is some sort of crime.  It really isn’t.  Everyone comes from somewhere.  There are a few gentle gibes about parents who dump their kids and go off abroad, and we’re told how hard the servants work – as I said, it’s attuned to modern sensibilities – but there’s none of the spite against well-to-do people which certain people seem to think is acceptable.  It isn’t.  Well done, Hilary McKay.

Everyone hero-worships Rupert, and I didn’t entirely get that, but maybe it works better for readers in the intended age range.  However, Peter doesn’t want to go to Rupert’s school, and jumps off a train in order to injure himself to get out of going.  He ends up going anyway, and is left with a permanent limp.  At school, he becomes best friends with Simon, and the three cousins become very friendly with Simon and his sister Vanessa – who, by some weird coincidence, appear to live in the same town as Peter and Clarry.  Vanessa goes to the local girls’ grammar school, and, with help from her and Peter, Clarry is able to go there too, despite her father’s lack of interest.

It’s interesting that we see both schools.  That’s very unusual in children’s books, which are usually either set in one school or else are about a mixed gender group of children whom we only see when they’re on holiday from their separate schools.

And everyone’s obsessed with Rupert!   Clarry hero-worships him.  So, to some degree, does Peter.  He and Vanessa seem to be quite involved at one point: there’s even a remark about the extent to which she went to try to cheer him up when he was on leave during the war, although nothing’s actually spelt out.  And Simon adores him – which develops from a younger boy’s hero-worship for the cool older boy at school to something deeper.

Simon’s feelings for Rupert are very well-handled.  Hopefully we’re now at a point where having gay characters in children’s books is completely normal and not a big deal, but, with historical fiction, there’s also a need to show the issues of the past, without doing it in a way that will normalise those attitudes for the young readers.  One of Rupert’s friends makes fun of Simon, but Rupert quickly turns the attention away from him.  And an unkind neighbour says something about it being better if “boys like him” die in the war: Clarry is shocked and disgusted.  But Rupert, although he’s straight, isn’t uncomfortable with Simon’s feelings, and the rest of the gang aren’t either.

War breaks out.  Rupert and his best friend join up, and the best friend is killed..  Vanessa becomes a nurse.  We do see some of the action on the Western Front: it isn’t too graphic, but it’s made pretty clear how horrible it is.  The wartime stories aren’t overly realistic, but it is a children’s book.  Simon joins up so that he can be with Rupert, and, hey presto, they’re posted to the same place.  Vanessa and Simon’s dad is taken prisoner by the Ottomans, but escapes and makes his own way home.  When Rupert’s injured, having lost his dog-tags, Clarry tracks him down by sending photos of him to every war hospital in Britain, France and Belgium.  It’s meant for primary school kids, OK!   And it’s all very well-written. Also, in a presumed nod to War Horse, there’s a lot of concern about the family horse (owned by the grandparents of the three cousins) having to go to war.

And it tackles the issues of shell shock and survivor guilt, which were swept under the carpet after the First World War.  Rupert survives, but he’s deeply traumatised, cuts himself off from the other surviving members of the gang, and isn’t able to resume a normal life for several years afterwards.  Meanwhile, Peter, who succeeds in qualifying as a doctor, and Vanessa marry, and have five children.  Clarry graduates from Oxford, and becomes a teacher, and also publishes a book with Peter.

But, in war books, someone always has to die, and it’s Simon.  I know that some people feel that gay characters are too easily killed off, and that there’s a trope about tragic same sex love, but it is a book about the First World War, so one of the two soldiers had to die.  I’d assumed it would be Rupert: I was very surprised when it was Simon.  And that’s part of the reason Rupert feels so bad: he thinks that Simon, who was too young to join up legally or to be conscripted, and lied about his age (as Rupert himself had done) was only there because of him.

It is a children’s book, though, and there has to be a happy ending – unless it’s one of those 19th century religious things where someone sweet and angelic dies!   Rupert returns, and I think we’re meant to assume that he and Clarry get married and live happily ever after.  I’d think it’d be rather weird to marry a cousin with whom you’d grown up, but I suppose it’s not really any different to marrying a childhood friend.  And their reunion takes place in Cornwall, where they spent all those happy, golden childhood summers.

The war hasn’t taken everything.  I keep thinking about how coronavirus has taken this spring, but, just as there were other summers for Clarry and Rupert, hopefully we’ll all stay safe and well and there’ll be other springs for us, with daffodils and bluebells, lambs and laburnum arches, and tennis and football.

This is a lovely, lovely book.  99p on Kindle!  That’s the best 99p I’ve spent in ages.

 

 

Mental Health Awareness Week – 10 kind characters in fiction

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This is Mental Health Awareness Week, and this year’s theme is kindness, something of which many people (although not all) have been showing an awful lot during these very difficult times – very much appreciated.  I nicked the idea of listing ten kind characters, and particular acts of kindness which they show towards others, in fiction from someone else, but I thought it was a really nice one.

  1. Matthew Cuthbert in Anne of Green Gables … and the dress with the puffed sleeves.  In most Girls’ Own type books, Anne would have been firmly reprimanded for her obsession with wanting a dress with puffed sleeves.  Look at the grief which poor Meg March gets just for borrowing a pretty frock from a friend for one evening!   And you certainly wouldn’t expect a middle-aged man to understand how much a dress in the latest fashion would mean to a young girl.  But Matthew does.  So he gets Anne a dress with puffed sleeves.  It is just so sweet and kind of him!

2. Madge Bettany in The School at the Chalet … when she takes on responsibility for Juliet Carrick, who’s been abandoned by her cruel parents.  Madge is a young single woman who hasn’t got much money, hasn’t even got a home other than the school, and is already responsible for her sister, but she doesn’t even hesitate about taking on Juliet.  Until this point, Juliet’s been a troublemaker, but the kindness which Madge shows towards her helps her to become a much nicer person.

3. Lucy Pevensie in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe … and her concern for Mr Tumnus and the Beavers.  She’s only a very young child, but she really cares about others.

4. Martha Sowerby in The Secret Garden … and her kindness towards Mary Lennox, who’s been a complete pain in the backside towards her.  It’s Martha who first tells Mary about the garden.

5. Melanie Wilkes in Gone With The Wind … and her kindness towards Belle Watling, who runs the local brothel.  The other society ladies in Atlanta look down their noses at Belle, but, when Belle comes to make a financial donation to the hospital, Melanie just speaks to her as one woman to another.

6. Paddington Brown in the Paddington Bear books … and his kindness towards everyone!  Paddington is such a lovely, sweet character!

7. Nancy in Oliver Twist … and her attempts to protect Oliver.  Nancy’s had a very tough life, and ends up meeting a horrible life, yet she can still show such kindness towards a young boy, even at the risk of her own safety.

8. Miss Temple in Jane Eyre … the kind teacher who takes an interest in Jane’s educational and emotional development, and also cares for the dying Helen Burns.   One kind adult can do so much for a child living in difficult circumstances, and Miss Temple plays a crucial role in Jane’s life.

9. Jane Bennet in Pride and Prejudice … and her understanding attitude towards Charlotte’s decision to marry Mr Collins.  Jane’s the “good” one of the Bennet sisters, and she’s always nice, but her reaction to Charlotte Lucas deciding to marry a man who’s a complete idiot always particularly strikes me.  Elizabeth, even though she’s Charlotte’s best friend, can only see that Charlotte has agreed to marry a man whom she doesn’t love or respect.  Jane is able to understand Charlotte’s reasons – as a woman who’s plain-looking and has no money, she’s going to struggle to find a husband, and the prospects for an unmarried woman of her time and class aren’t very appealing.  Marrying Mr Collins is her best option.  At the moment, a lot of people are busy yelling and shrieking and judging others for decisions that they’re making over the loosening of lockdown of restrictions.  We need to accept that there is no one-size-fits-all answer.  What is right for you may not be right for someone whose medical, financial and domestic circumstances are different.  That doesn’t mean that either of you are wrong, and it doesn’t give you the right to judge or criticise them – any more than Elizabeth has the right to judge or criticise Charlotte’s choice.  Jane can see that.

10. Almanzo Wilder in The Long Winter and These Happy Golden Years … and his kindness to Laura and, alongside Cap Garland, his kind and courageous decision to go and get supplies for the entire town during the very severe winter which leaves everyone struggling.  OK, he fancies Laura and is hoping to win her affections, but it was still very nice of him to drive all that way to bring her home at weekends when she was teaching at the Brewster Settlement, especially as she kept telling him that it wasn’t going to get him anywhere!  And, yes, someone had to go and get supplies, but it was Almanzo, along with Cap, who actually did.  He’s not presented as a romantic hero in the books, even though he’s the author’s husband, but he is one!

#MentalHealthAwarenessWeek.  Please be kind xxx.

Vikings Season 6 – Amazon Prime

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I’ve learnt not to expect historical accuracy from Vikings, but, even so, I was lost for words when Ivar the Boneless and Oleg of Novgorod flew over 9th century Kiev/Kyiv in a sled-drawn parachute balloon.  This was followed by the Varangian warriors spending their evening doing Cossack dancing.  Meanwhile, back in Scandinavia, Bjorn Ironside was trying to rescue Harald Fairhair, who was being held prisoner by Olaf the Stout and Canute the Great (that’s Canute of holding back the waves fame) … which was quite surprising, considering that neither of the captors were born until a century or so after this was taking place, and Olaf was actually Harald’s great-great-great-grandson.  It went belly up, and Bjorn Ironside and his men tried to swim to safety, only to end up surrounded by a ring of fire.

By this point, I really wouldn’t have blinked an eyelid if Bjorn Borg, Bjorn Ulvaeus and all four members of Bjorn Again had rolled up in a longboat to rescue them.  I just wanted to know how Lagertha, who’d retired from public life to live as a private person (like Harry and Meghan, but without all the whingeing), but had then agreed to lead her female neighbours in an all-women army to resist attacks by bandits (Lagertha is far and away my favourite character), got her hair into that complicated coronal of plaits.  It really did look very smart, especially for a farmstead on a beach.

I do love Vikings really.  I’m very put out that this is the last series.

The Bjorn/Harald/Canute stuff was just beyond silly. OK, it’s hardly meant to be a documentary, but surely they could at least try to keep people in the right century?  And why on earth had Canute been transformed into Harald’s dogsbody?   Not impressed.  The Lagertha storyline, whilst entirely fictional, was fascinating, though.  The idea was that she was approached by a group of women and children who, with most of their menfolk dead from raiding ‘n’ trading and those still living being away, were vulnerable to raids by bandits.  Their settlement had been attacked and the women raped, and some of the children murdered.  And their food supplies had been stolen.   It’s something that must have happened to a lot of real Viking-era communities.

And Kievan Rus.  Yes, I know that Ukraine prefers “Kyiv” to “Kiev”, and I do usually respect that, but no-one ever says “Kyivan Rus”.  As a Russian history specialist, and someone who’s been to both Kyiv/Kiev and Novgorod, I was rather excited to find Oleg of Novgorod featuring in this series.  And most of what was shown was based on … well, the facts as far as they’re known.  Oleg did indeed conquer Kiev and raid Constantinople, and the story about him refusing a cup of poisoned wine, also mentioned, is, if not necessarily a fact, a well-known legend.  Like Canute and the Waves, probably!  Looks like a pop group when written like that, but never mind.

What about the other Varangians?  Well, we saw little Igor, Oleg’s eventual successor, the son of Rurik. Oleg was indeed his guardian, and, as the programme showed, quite possibly his maternal uncle.  However, in this, Askold and Dir were also Igor’s uncles, Oleg’s brothers – whereas, in fact (as far as fact is known), they were the rulers of Kiev whom Oleg defeated.  There is a story that Askold was actually Bjorn Ironside’s son, but the scriptwriters didn’t go for that.  I suppose it was a bit late to bring in an adult son at this point!  Or maybe the son of Hvitserk, another of Ragnar Lothbrok (I do miss Ragnar!)’s sons, but, although Hvitserk’s included in the series, they didn’t go for that option either.

It’s all a bit complicated!   I’m so chuffed that the Varangians have been included, though.  They usually get forgotten when people are talking about Vikings.  But there’s certainly nothing in history to suggest that Oleg ever met Ivar the Boneless.  As for the parachute balloon thing …

And I’m not convinced about the Varangian warriors doing Cossack dancing!  They did generally seem very Russian/Ukrainian, although Oleg himself chatted away merrily in Old Norse.  The issue of whether the Rus were of Scandinavian origin, Slavic origin, or probably a mixture, is complex, and quite sensitive.  Russian history works much better if you downplay the Viking connection, just as English history works much better if you downplay the Norman influence.   However, I don’t think the scriptwriters were trying to align themselves with any one school of historical thought.  Cossack dancing just looks good!!

And it all looked good.  OK, OK, it wasn’t very accurate, but it was really good fun – and it didn’t actually stray into the realms of fantasy.  There was a bit of supernatural stuff going on, but that was mainly about prayers and rituals: we didn’t have elves or hobbits or even trolls running about.  I’m just sad that this is the final series!   There are more episodes to come, but we’ve been told that there won’t be a “Season 7”.  I’ve watched it from the start, and will be sad to see it end.  Balloons nothwithstanding …

Tolkien

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This film’s had poor reviews, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Dead Poets Society (well, sort of) in an English provincial city grammar/high school, with everyone drinking lots of tea. Sounds like heaven!   There are very few books or films set in the sort of school I went to.  Schools in industrial towns and cities tend to lack romantic mountain backgrounds, or seawater-fed swimming pools.  And pupils are expected to do quite a lot of, you know, work, and passing exams, that kind of thing, which authors tend not to go for – The History Boys being the notable exception.  But here’s a film set in a school with which I can actually identify – although, obviously, mine was a girls’ school, and I wasn’t there in Edwardian times!  Don’t get me wrong, I love boarding school books, but the idea of secret tea parties in the library (people in books very rarely even set foot in school libraries, and get made fun of if they do) at a school like mine, or discussion groups meeting up in nearby tea rooms … ah, bliss!

The school in this case was King Edward’s, Birmingham.  Shame it wasn’t a school in Manchester 🙂 , but, having been to university in Birmingham, I do know King Edward’s.  I don’t know JRR Tolkien’s books, though.  They’re just not my thing.  A teacher at primary school tried to get us all into The Hobbit, but it really didn’t hold any appeal for me.  So I think I probably missed a lot of the references in this film – I could see that they related to his books, but I didn’t quite get how.  And I think some people have got annoyed because they thought it was overplayed, that every incident in the film was shown as foreshadowing something in the books.  But, because I didn’t get them, I didn’t get annoyed by them!

Tolkien’s early life, the subject of this film, was fascinating.  He sadly lost his father at an early age, and he, his mother and brother moved to a small house, supported financially by relatives until they fell out over religion.  His mother then also died, and a priest arranged for him (his brother didn’t feature much) to attend King Edward’s, and for the two boys to live at a boarding house – where they met Edith Bratt, JRR Tolkien’s future wife.

Edith, also an orphan, was a few years older than Tolkien, but, as scriptwriters don’t like girlfriends to be older than boyfriends, in this they seemed the same age.  Edith, brilliantly played by Mimi Keene from EastEnders, spoke about how scholarships at schools and universities were arranged for middle-class boys who’d fallen on hard times, but, as a girl, she was stuck acting as a companion to a boring old woman.  It was a very interesting point.

At school, Tolkien palled up with three other boys, and they formed the Tea Club and Barrovian Society, meeting up in the school library and in the nearby Barrow’s Stores tearoom, talking about arty stuff – as opposed to the down to earth, job-related subjects on which they were meant to be concentrating.  There was a definite feeling of Dead Poets Society there – and this was a true story, 80 years before Dead Poets Society!

The film did actually start with the Great War, though, and jumped backwards and forwards, showing Tolkien at the front during the Battle of the Somme, then going back to his schooldays and, to a lesser extent, his university days at Oxford.  He was in the Lancashire Fusiliers, interestingly.  The university days and his experiences during the war weren’t done as well as his schooldays, unfortunately.  We just saw that he broke things off with Edith because he was pressurised into concentrating on his work and because the priest didn’t approve of her.  It was also suggested that he got into trouble and nearly had to leave due to losing his scholarship: I’m not sure how true that’s is, but I don’t see why they’d have made it up.  And we didn’t see much of his Army life apart from him sitting in a trench and, later, lying in a hospital bed.  The school stuff was definitely the attraction of this film.

Tolkien and Edith got back together, got married, had four children and lived happily ever after, but, sadly, two of his three schoolfriends were killed in the war.  The effect that that must have had on him didn’t come across brilliantly – the film didn’t quite seem to know what to do with itself after he left school.  It didn’t do particularly well at the box office, and the Tolkien Estate’s made it clear that it doesn’t endorse it.

But, for all that, I really liked it.  I don’t know that much about Tolkien, and, as I’ve said, I’m not into his books.  And, if there are historical inaccuracies about his life in this, then that’s not good.  But, as a film about a group of boys at a grammar school in an English provincial city, and as a romance between two people who’d both had difficult starts in life, which was what much of it was about, it worked very well, and I enjoyed it.

The Irish Princess by Elizabeth Chadwick

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Another superb book from Elizabeth Chadwick.  She’s written several books about William Marshal, but this one’s about his mother-in-law, Aoife MacMurchada – who, in 1171, married William de Clare, (former) Earl of Pembroke, now usually known as Strongbow (and, yes, the cider is named after him!), when he came to Ireland with a military force at the invitation of her father Diarmait, the dispossessed King of Leinster.  Not that much is known about Aoife, and there’s some confusion regarding what is known, but Elizabeth Chadwick’s done a lot of research and written a wonderful book which really brings her to life for the modern reader.

The Middle Ages can be difficult to get into, because most people don’t know them as well as they know the Tudor and Stuart periods, or more modern times.  When I was at school and university, the medieval history teaching wasn’t exactly designed to hold the attention of young girls.  Motte and bailey castles and the lives of medieval monks, anyone?!  It was through Jean Plaidy’s wonderful books about the lives of medieval kings and queens that I first came to appreciate the period, and I’m a great advocate of novels centred on people as a way of teaching and learning about particular times and places in history.

I’m wondering, and hoping, that a sequel to this might be forthcoming, because the book ended shortly after Richard’s death, when Aoife was only in her mid-20s.  Having said which, no-one knows when Aoife died – it may have been in her early 40s, or she may have lived into her late 50s.  What is known is that her father was dispossessed by the High King of Ireland, after abducting another regional king’s wife (albeit possibly at her own request!), and appealed for help from England.  Richard de Clare had had some of his lands confiscated by Henry II due to his support for King Stephen, and, looking for a way to reverse his downturn in fortunes, decided to throw his lot on with Diarmait.  Disappointingly, the nickname “Strongbow” probably wasn’t due to his brilliant archery, but a later corruption of “Striguil”, the then name for Chepstow, where he was based!

Henry didn’t make things easy for Richard, and then, when Richard won a number of victories in Ireland, imposed his own rule there … as a result of which, Diarmait MacMurchada is often seen as the man who brought about English control of Ireland, even though it only really extended to a small area at this point.  I’m saying “English” and “Irish”, but “Anglo-Norman” would probably be more accurate than “English”, Richard was actually based just inside Wales, and Dublin and other Irish cities were at this point Norse-Gaelic.  There was a lot of cultural intermingling going on.

Richard died only five years after marrying Aoife, but Henry II granted Aoife her dower lands, and the earldom of Pembroke passed to Aoife and Richard’s daughter Isabel, who later married William Marshal.   Elizabeth Chadwick’s therefore assumed that Aoife and Henry knew each other well, and were friends (but no more than friends).  Whilst I admire Henry, I don’t usually like him, but he came across very well here.  He could easily have seized all the de Clare lands, or let Richard’s ambitious sister and brother-in-law keep them in return for pledges of loyalty.   I’d like to have seen Eleanor of Aquitaine featured too, but, of course, she and Henry were estranged at this point.

Henry and Eleanor are very familiar figures.  Aoife and Richard aren’t, which is quite strange given that their marriage had such important consequences for the history of the British Isles; and it was wonderful to feel that I was getting to know them.  We don’t know that much about their personalities, and almost nothing about their personal relationship, but Elizabeth Chadwick’s written it as an arranged marriage which became a love match, between two strong and attractive characters.  A host of minor characters – Richard’s sister Basilia, her husband Raymond, and Aoife’s brothers – have also been very well-written, as well as Aoife’s father Diarmait and mother Mor, and her uncle Lorcan, now known as St Laurence O’Toole.

As I’ve said, novels about people can be crucial in teaching and learning about particular times and places in history.  And, as Elizabeth Chadwick and Anne O’Brien and others have shown, that doesn’t necessarily have to be household names like Anne Boleyn or Marie Antoinette, but I think it does work best when it’s someone at the centre of the action.  Yes, of course it’s important to appreciate the role of ordinary people, the vast majority of the population, but I like to see the big events and the big personalities.  This is exactly the sort of book which exemplifies that, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Highly recommended!

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett (Facebook group reading challenge)

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I’ve no idea why I’d never read this before.  I’m always 🙂 reminding people that Frances Hodgson Burnett was originally from Cheetham Hill, and that her family lost their money in the Cotton Famine; and I read “The Secret Garden” when I was 8.  Oh well, better late than never.  What a lovely book!  I was half-expecting it to be one of those awful Victorian stories in which the heroine’s either too good to be true or bursts into tears every five minutes, or both, but it isn’t like that at all.  Sara Crewe is very sweet, but in an appealing and believable way, and I genuinely liked her.  And, hooray, she’s best friends with the fat girl!   Being the fat girl at school is not easy, and (the unfortunately-named) Ermengarde is lacking in both friends and self-confidence until Sara turns up, but Sara genuinely isn’t bothered about what she looks like.  The book would be worth reading for that sub-plot alone, but it’s just a really nice book all round.

OK, the ending isn’t particularly realistic, but a) it’s a children’s book and b) the sudden rescue from poverty is very typical of Victorian books – think of how things turn out for Oliver Twist, or even for Jane Eyre.  Overall, I was very impressed with this.  And a book about trying to make the best of a difficult situation, using your imagination to help you cope if need be, is definitely not a bad thing to be reading as we head towards our eighth week of lockdown.  #BeMoreSaraCrewe – maybe that could be a good slogan for coping with it all!

Sara Crewe is the seven-year-old only child of a young widower living and working in India.  He brings her home to England and leaves her at a London boarding school run by a Miss Minchin – one of those small “seminary” type places, like the one Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley went to in Vanity Fair 65 years earlier (this was published in 1888).   As Captain Crewe is rolling in it, Sara is a “parlour boarder” – she gets her own suite of rooms and a maid to look after her, and wears much fancier clothes than anyone else.   I think Harriet Smith in Emma was also a parlour boarder, but we never actually see her in that setting, and it’s very interesting to think how this would have worked, with one pupil being so differentiated from the others.

Some of the girls are jealous, and sarcastically nickname Sara “Princess Sara”, but she’s so nice to everyone that it becomes a term of endearment.  She picks up all the waifs and strays – Ermengarde, a very young girl called Lottie, and the put-upon skivvy, Becky.  And she’s good at her lessons.  And Miss Minchin quite likes being able to show off by having this pupil who’s dripping in furs and jewels and so on.

Then, news comes that Captain Crewe has dropped dead, having first lost all his money, persuaded by an old friend to invest in a diamond mine which turned out to be a disaster.  So Sara is destitute, and apparently has no other relatives or family friends.  Miss Minchin can’t chuck her out on the street because it’d look bad, so Sara has to become a servant, living up in the attic in the room next to Becky’s, running errands (she doesn’t seem to do any actual cooking, cleaning, washing, etc!) and hardly getting anything too eat.  Miss Minchin is a Very Nasty Person.

Sara, who’s always been very imaginative – a bit like Anne Shirley was to be, later on – copes with it by pretending that she and Becky are prisoners in the Bastille, and, when Ermengarde sneaks up to visit and brings a hamper of goodies, pretending that they’re having a court banquet.  But Miss Minchin catches Ermengarde, and stops her and Lottie from seeing Sara 😦 .  It does all get a bit pantomime/fairy story-ish, with Miss Minchin as the wicked witch, when Sara gets nothing to eat on some days.  She (Sara) does find a coin in the street, and buys some buns with it … but gives most of them away to someone even worse off than she is.  But she keeps her spirits up, and is always unfailingly polite to everyone.

Then a man who’s recently returned from India, after a serious illness, moves in next door.  And, whaddaya know, he’s the friend who persuaded Sara’s dad to invest in the mines – and the mines are now producing loads of diamonds.  He feels terrible about everything that’s happened, and is desperate to find Sara so that he can become her legal guardian and give her all the zillions of pounds that are now hers.  Unfortunately, he thinks she was sent to school in Paris and has been adopted by a family who are now in Russia, so he sends his solicitor there to look for her.  Despite the size of Alexander III’s Russian Empire, the solicitor soon finds the girl they thought was Sara, only to find that she’s someone else.

Meanwhile, the man’s Indian manservant’s monkey (it’s a Victorian book, OK!) gets into Sara’s attic through a skylight.  The manservant rescues him, is very impressed by Sara, feels sorry for her, and reports back to his master.  From then on, he keeps sneaking through the skylight to light the fire and leave loads of food and other stuff for Sara, and they also have two parcels of fancy clothes delivered to her!   Eventually, of course, it comes out that Sara is the girl they’ve been looking for, her dad’s friend becomes her guardian and she goes to live with him, and Becky becomes her lady’s maid, hooray!  And, just to make sure that we don’t forget how nice she is, she insists on giving money to the woman at the bakery where she got the buns, so that buns can be provided for the needy.

All right, it’s a bit clichéd, but it really is a lovely book.  Sara isn’t sickly-sweet.  She isn’t too good to be true.  She gets angry with Miss Minchin, but realises that showing that isn’t going to help.  There’s never any mention of the need for obedience, or accepting the Lord’s will, or the School of Love, or anything like that.  She’s just a genuinely nice person who tries to cope with a very difficult situation as best she can.  And that’s something we’re all having to try to do at the moment. As I said, #BeMoreSaraCrewe – maybe that could be a good slogan for coping with lockdown!

 

Captain Tom’s War – ITV, and VE Day: the People’s Celebration – BBC 1

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Two excellent programmes, both shown on the 75th anniversary of VE Day.  The Burma campaign during the Second World War, involving a vast number of men from Britain, India, East Africa and West Africa, has always been strangely overlooked; and I understand that that’s why Captain Tom Moore, who’s become a national hero thanks to his fundraising efforts during the current crisis, agreed to make this programme with ITV.  It was a fascinating account of riding motorbikes though the jungle, coping with monsoons, snakes and gigantic spiders, dealing with malaria and dengue fever, and the fear of ending up in one of the notorious POW camps.  We were also shown footage of Vera Lynn’s visit there, and told what it meant to the troops to see a pretty girl, hear her lovely voice, and know that they hadn’t been forgotten.

Over on the BBC, the VE Day celebration programme nearly had me in tears several times, as we were treated to socially distanced music from the grounds of Buckingham Palace and from an empty Royal Albert Hall, and saw veterans receive video calls from the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and a number of celebrities.   I think that my three favourite video calls were those with a man who’d just turned 100, and was linked up by video to his relatives in Australia, a couple celebrating their 75th wedding anniversary, and a lady finally being presented (from a distance!) with her wartime medal, with Scottish pipers playing in the background.

This wasn’t how we’d expected the 75th anniversary of VE Day to be, but well done to both ITV and the BBC for helping to make this a special evening – culminating in the address by the Queen.  Nice to see William and Kate involved, and Charles and Camilla earlier in the day.  The Royal Family are doing a sterling job during this crisis, insofar as they can.  And, whilst I’ve got mixed views on some of the media reaction to the coronavirus situation, all aspects of the media did a superb job as far as “VE Day 75” was concerned.  Well, apart from the Guardian, which doesn’t think that the defeat of the Nazism should be commemorated or that those who fought for freedom should be honoured, but that sort of attitude is best ignored.  Well done to both ITV and the BBC, and also to Sky News for their excellent coverage throughout the day.

Going back to the programme about Captain Tom Moore, it really was fascinating.  It’s strange that the Burma campaign’s so overlooked, especially given the involvement of Lord Mountbatten, and also Orde Wingate, who’s quite well-known in his own way, and Viscount Slim.  But it is.  We heard how the young Tom Moore from Keighley, aged only 20, played a vital part due to his pre-war position as an engineering apprentice, in Burma and later back in Britain.

At a time when few people could drive, he was heavily involved in training his comrades, both British and Indian, to drive tanks.  Motorbikes were crucial too … you don’t particularly associate motorbikes with the Second World War (I do wish people would use the proper expression, rather than “World War II !), but they were used for delivering dispatches, and, and I never knew this, were vital in combat because the Japanese tended to mount attacks at night, when tanks couldn’t be used because of visibility issues.  The Fourteenth Army had to park their tanks about seven miles from the front, and send everyone in by bike!

And the conditions.  Talk about “It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum”.  The heat, and the humidity, and the long monsoon season.  Trekking across the jungle.  Poisonous snakes and spiders. All the time, the fear of being taken prisoner, and being sent to one of those horrific POW camps.  Captain Tom contracted dengue fever, and, at one point, up to 12,500 men per day were having to be taken out of the actual combat force due to malaria.  In 1943, 120 men were falling sick, many not to recover, per every one battle casualty.  You associate those sorts of figures with far earlier wars.  I honestly never realised just how bad it was.  We just hear so little about the Burma campaign.

I’m so pleased that the wonderful Captain Tom agreed to take part in this programme, and hope that it might raise the profile of the campaign, for the sake of all those brave men who fought in those terrible conditions.  It was wonderful to see him, and to see the veterans involved in the BBC programme too.  There should have been parades and other events all over this country and in so many other countries across the world, to honour them and mark the 75th anniversary of the defeat of Nazism.  It wasn’t to be, but many of us marked it in our own ways, and watching these two programmes was a big part of that.