Deep in Vogue – BBC 3


Having enjoyed both series of Pose – I started watching it mainly for the ’80s music, but got really into it! – I was very interested to hear about the vogue ballroom scene in Manchester and Liverpool.  I could have done with more about the history and culture and less about the actual choreography, but, OK, that’s just a personal thing.  The main message coming from it was that this is something which has given a lot of confidence to people who, whether because of their ethnicity, their sexuality, their sexual identity or even their gender (society doesn’t do a very good job of giving women confidence) have felt marginalised and unsure of themselves.  It’s wonderful when anything can do that – and it’s very sad that, because of the current situation, a lot of people are cut off from dancing, singing, sports, religious services, playing cards, or whatever else it is that does that for them.  But this was a lovely, positive, hour’s watching.  Anyone feel like writing a Pose-type series set in North West England 🙂 ?

One of the people interviewed made a very good point about how it’s often minority groups who take the lead when it comes to music or other creative forms.  That’s certainly true, and it’s a point I’ve heard made in other programmes.  At the same time, there was also a lot of talk about inclusivity.  There’s been some criticism of Madonna, as a white, straight woman, for getting into voguing, but everyone interviewed on this programme said that it’s for everyone who wants to be involved, and I thought that was great.  There are obviously issues if something gets over-commercialised and taken away from its roots, but that wasn’t what was happening here.  It was about people expressing themselves in a way that works for them, and about a voguing community that provides friendship and emotional support and a safe place for people.

It was interesting to hear that the voguing style in Manchester and Liverpool is noticeably different from that in London.  In the ’80s – my music collection has never got out of the ’80s! – there was a lot of regional variation in music, and it sometimes seems that everything’s got a bit samey and globalised, in the same way that High Streets and a lot of other things have.  So I was really pleased to hear that different parts of the country are doing their own thing where voguing’s concerned.  We don’t all need to be the same!

And, on that same theme, some points were made about voguing helping people to get away from the pressure to conform to stereotypes – one man was talking about people being refused entry to gay clubs for not “looking” gay.  This is something that’s been in the news lately, with Priti Patel talking about the racism she’s faced because she doesn’t conform to the stereotype of what a British Asian woman should be like, and a lot of assumptions are made about what people should think or wear or look like because of their ethnicity or religion or sexuality or anything else.  Everyone is an individual and everyone should feel free to express themselves in their own way, and that was a lot of what this programme was saying.  As I said, a really nice programme.  Anyone feel like writing a Pose-type series set in North West England 🙂 ?





The Luminaries – BBC 1


I was really looking forward to some Sunday night period drama, but I’m not getting on very well with this.  For a kick off, it keeps jumping backwards and forwards in time.  It wasn’t made clear initially that this was what was happening, so it was very confusing.  And our heroine’s got amnesia, so she’s as confused as the viewers are.  It’s supposed to be set in the New Zealand gold fields in the 1860s, but only one person seems to be looking for gold, although someone’s got a load of fake gold in his shop window. There’s supposed to be a lot of intrigue, but the only thing I really want to know is where the fortune-telling brothel madam’s husband, who gets murdered, is meant to be from.  His accent keeps changing from Manchester to Sheffield and back again, and it’s been round a few other places as well.  And why is everything, other than Eva Green’s hair, so dark?

The first few minutes were OK.  Anna (Bono’s daughter) met Emery (Tamwar from EastEnders) on a ship going to New Zealand, and it looked like it was going to be a romance amid everyone trying to make their fortune.  But then all the jumping around started, and it was very hard to tell what was going on.  I’ve now gathered that we’re going backwards and forwards in time, but it’s difficult to follow when we’ve just changed time again.  Anna somehow ended up in the house of a brothel owner/fortune teller, played by Eva Green, and the woman’s husband, the one with the changing accent.  And, at some point, the husband was murdered, and it may or may not have been Anna whodunnit.

Meanwhile, Emery doesn’t seem to have done much other than go fishing.  And the lighting is appalling.  Yes, I know that the lighting at the time would have been appalling, but it doesn’t make for very good viewing.  Everyone complained about this with both Wolf Hall and Jamaica Inn; but the BBC just keep doing it.

I’m not getting this at all.  Maybe it’ll improve  …


The Queen and the Coup (Channel 4) and King George VI: The Accidental King (Channel 5)


The Queen and the Coup was very exciting in that it featured several interviews with my university personal tutor, whom I’m glad to see appears to have got over his penchant for wearing red and purple braces.  Lovely man.  It was very nice to see him on screen.   Other than that, the main point of the programme was to claim that the entire recent history of Iran, and of poor relations between Iran and the West, is down to American diplomats getting the Queen, our beloved monarch, mixed up with a luxury Cunard liner.  Right.  King George VI: The Accidental King was same old, same old – strict dad, stammer, Navy, supportive wife, wonderful dad, abdication of brother, war, death – but it was very watchable, and it’s so good to see George VI getting the credit he deserves.  It tends to be the flamboyant monarchs who get the attention, and they’re not always the ones who most deserve it.

The Queen and the Coup, then.  In the early 1950s, the Iranian government led by Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh was planning to nationalise the Anglo-Persian Oil Company.  This was not good.  Not as bad as Nasser planning to nationalise the Suez Canal, but still not good.  The Anglo-Persian bigwigs were very cross.  So was Clement Atlee, who claimed to oppose British involvement abroad but was more interested in the oil money than his supposed policies/principles. The US also got involved, and it was decided to chuck out Mosaddegh and boost the power of the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

However, there was a snag.  The Shah, being a bit of a wuss, wasn’t really up for this, and planned to scarper.  But then the Americans got a message to say that Queen Elizabeth thought the Shah was a jolly nice chap, and wanted him to stay.  This message was passed on to the Shah, who was so chuffed that he did, indeed, decide to stay.  Unfortunately, it turned out the Americans had got the wrong end of the stick.  The message was not from Her Majesty.  It was from RMS Queen Elizabeth, the Cunard liner, on which Anthony Eden (Attlee’s government having been ousted) was sailing to a conference in Canada.  They decided not to tell the Shah about this.  So he stayed.  And there was a coup.  And everything going on in Iran now, and indeed everything that’s gone on in Iran since 1953, is because of this.

Er, what about the 1979 coup?  And, seriously, the Shah stayed because he thought the Queen wanted him to?  I love the Queen, but that’s pushing it!  Was he after tickets for Ascot or the Royal Box at Wimbledon, or an invitation to a Buckingham Palace garden party, or something, and changed his mind about his own future and his entire country’s future because of it?   Come on!  But it was very nice to see my old personal tutor interviewed.

King George VI: The Accidental King was same old, same old, as I said, with the same team of gossips who’ve been around for all the new royal programmes which have been on Channel 5 recently.  But I thoroughly enjoyed it.  It’s so sad that he died so young, but it’s such an inspirational story – the big shot, glamorous, popular brother totally mucks up, and the shy, nervous brother, lacking in confidence but boosted by the love of his wife and children, takes over, and helps to lead the nation, the Empire and the Commonwealth through the darkest period in history.   Lovely, lovely programme.

I really am enjoying all these royal programmes.  Keep them coming!

A Greek Odyssey with Bettany Hughes – Channel 5


Ah, this was lovely.  Remember those halcyon days of yore, four months ago – seems like four years – when you could travel abroad, enjoy a meal with friends, go into a small souvenir shop and take a boat trip?  All of that was going on here.  The idea of this programme was that Bettany Hughes was retracing (ish) the journey taken by Odysseus on his way from Troy back to Ithaca. Odysseus always really annoys me, TBH.  Taking ten years to get home, when he knew that Penelope was waiting?!   But never mind.  This was a lovely programme.  Sunshine, blue sea, lots of meals eaten al fresco, and, hooray, lots of ancient Greek ruins.  And a type of cup, supposedly designed by Pythagoras, which spills all the wine if you overfill it, to stop you from getting too drunk.

Bettany sailed first of all to Chios, where she received a very warm welcome and discussed the tradition of “Philoxenia” – a love for strangers, making them feel welcome.  Then on to Lesbos, where she went to some wonderful thermal baths – oh, when will we be allowed even to go in a swimming pool again?! – and visited the theatre of Mytilene, which gave the Romans the idea for all the theatres (ditto being able to go to theatres again) they built.  And then her next stop was Samos, where she visited an amazing ancient Greek aqueduct, heard the tale of Pythagoras and the cup, and saw what was supposed to be the birthplace of Hera, and also where the marriage of Hera and Zeus took place.

I usually find it frustrating when history and myth get too tangled up together, but somehow it works really well in Greece.  I’ve got a pair of earrings which a shopkeeper in Delphi assured me solemnly were exactly like the ones Helen of Troy would have worn!   And, after staggering up the steep hill to the citadel of Mycenae, in extremely high temperatures, no-one was telling me that this wasn’t Agamemnon’s city.

This was a lovely programme.  Bettany Hughes is so knowledgeable and enthusiastic, without ever being silly, or sarcastic, or trying to push across an agenda.  And all that lovely Greek sun and sea.  There were even dolphins!   Just so, so nice 🙂 .

Yellow Crocus and Mustard Seed by Laila Ibrahim


These aren’t particularly well-written books, but the second one, Mustard Seed, covers the important and often-neglected subject of double discrimination – in this case, a black American woman during the Reconstruction era feeling that the movement for rights for black people was only focusing on those of black men, and that she had to choose between that movement and the movement for women’s rights.  BBC 3 recently interviewed some members of the Black Trans Lives Matter movement, who spoke about feeling that they had to “pick sides” and didn’t feel fully part of either the black community or the trans community.  A black Jewish woman interviewed in a local newspaper recently made similar comments, and there was controversy at Manchester Pride last year over whether or not black and brown stripes should be added to the rainbow flag.  I think the term “intersectional identity” is used by American academics?

Unfortunately, the books just got plain silly as they went on, culminating in a bizarre saga involving an embittered brother, an embittered ex-fiancé and everyone kidnapping, drugging and shooting each other.  I was just waiting for someone who’d been killed in the war to come out of the shower and say that it’d all been a dream!  Also, some of the dialogue was very wooden, and, for crying out loud, the author got the number of states in the Confederacy wrong.  Oh dear.  If she’d focused on a basic plotline, following issues with which she was clearly very concerned, rather than making it into an ’80s soap opera on drugs, these books could have been very well worth the read.  They had some good points to make.

A bit of background – Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the leaders of the women’s suffrage movement in the US, were both prominent Abolitionists, but opposed the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments giving the vote and legal protection to black American men whilst American women of all races were denied the same rights.  Sojourner Truth, another prominent Abolitionist and a former slave herself, affiliated herself with them. It’s not the same thing, but many British suffragists and suffragettes weren’t happy about the idea of all men getting the vote before any women did – which didn’t happen in the end – as it then enshrined in law the fact that women were denied rights because they were women and for no other reason.  It’s a complex subject.

The author struggled to find a publisher because much of the plot hinges on the affection between an antebellum plantation owner’s daughter and her mammy. That seems to be a taboo topic now. But there’s an interesting scene in Gone With The Wind in which one of the “carpetbagger” women is looking for a nursemaid, Scarlett recommends a black woman, and the carpetbagger woman says that she wouldn’t trust a black servant.  Scarlett can’t understand that at all, because she always had an affectionate relationship with Mammy and some of the other former slaves who’d known her since she was a child. Nothing’s ever entirely straightforward: things are nuanced, and there must have been maids and mammies who did have affection for their owners, and vice-versa, despite the horrific “peculiar institution” of slavery.

The John Jakes North and South books, which I read two years before I read Gone With The Wind but which was published half a century after it, don’t feature a mammy .. which is strange, really.  They do show a friendship between a plantation owner’s cousin and a black boy of the same age, though, and female slaves being close to their mistress even though their master is cruel.   In the second one, Love and War, a plantation owner’s daughter moves from South Carolina to Pennsylvania and works at a school where most of the pupils are the children of freedmen.  She tells a colleague that “I’ve loved every one of those children”.  He says “When you feel just as much love for an adult of their colour, you’ll have made the whole journey”.  I read that book when I was 12.  I’ve never, ever forgotten that line.

Back to this one.  Laila Ibrahim’s books do make it clear that none of the slaves are happy in slavery.  That’s where Gone With The Wind and other books depicting such relationships have caused problems, because they’ve often shown the opposite. In Yellow Crocus, on a Virginia plantation in the 1830s, Mattie, shortly after the birth of her own son, is forced to leave him with relatives and move “inside” to become wet nurse and then mammy to Lisbeth/Elizabeth. Rather unrealistically, she gets Lisbeth to teach her son and her niece to read and write. Her son’s then sold to a neighbouring plantation, and he and her husband escape to Oberlin, Ohio – famed for its college where black and white students worked together, and known to be one of the most tolerant places in the country.   Shortly afterwards, Mattie realises that she’s expecting her second child, and is replaced as Lisbeth’s maid by Emily … who turns out to be Lisbeth’s half-sister, the daughter of her father and one of the slavewomen.

It’s at this point that the characters, especially the white characters, start sounding very wooden indeed: the lines just sound like standard lines on a subject, rather than things that the characters would say.  There’s also a ridiculous scene in which Lisbeth goes on about being so glad she’s American and born free, rather than being like a Jane Austen heroine! Excuse me?  Compared to all the social strictures placed on plantation owners’ daughter, the society of Lizzie Bennet, Catherine Morland et al seemed like a hippy commune!

Mattie runs away with her baby; and it’s great that she makes it to Oberlin and is reunited with her husband and son, but the journey isn’t very realistic. Marks for trying to show the work of the Underground Railroad, but it’s “trying” rather than “succeeding”!  Lisbeth becomes engaged to a wealthy neighbour, but breaks off the engagement when she finds him raping a slave girl … at which point she suddenly decides that she’s become an Abolitionist.

I’m not sure how well that works. It does seem to play into old fears about white men wanting to rape black women and black men wanting to rape white women, but, yes, female slaves were at the sexual mercy of their masters: it was horrendous. But why did it take that to change Lisbeth’s mind? She’d seen Mattie’s son be sold, she’d seen Mattie be whipped for saying that she didn’t know where her husband and son had gone, and she claimed to love Mattie so much … why had none of that had the same effect on her? And she then dumps her fiancé, and persuades a male friend, whom she’s heard is moving to Ohio, to marry her and take her with him. As you do. And, whaddaya know, they end up in the same place as Mattie and her family.  And, when Lisbeth’s having a difficult birth, the local midwife is sent for … and, hey, it’s Mattie, whom she thought she’d never see again.

On to Mustard Seed.  We’ve missed the war: it took place in the gap between the books.  It’s now the late 1860s. Mattie’s son is a lawyer, and her daughter, Jordan, is a teacher. And it looks as if the book’s going to be about Jordan trying to reconcile her desire to work for women’s rights with her family’s focus on black civil rights. Alongside that’s the generational clash between a young woman who’d grown up free, in a community where a lot of opportunities were open to black people, and her parents, who’d spent much of their lives as slaves and wanted to make sure that she never forgot that. And that sounds fascinating.

But it isn’t like that. Instead, everyone ends up back in Virginia – Lisbeth, her children, and, later, her husband to visit her dying father, and Mattie, her children, and, later, her husband to try to persuade her sister niece to move to Ohio with them.   There are some well-written scenes in which they try to trace Sarah’s children, who’d been sold, but then everything just gets silly. Lisbeth’s brother, who feels that she’d ruined their family’s social standing, arranges for both Mattie’s son and Emily’s husband to be arrested as vagrants, and hired out to Lisbeth’s ex-fiance, and then there’s all this bizarre stuff with drugging and shooting before everyone escapes and makes it safely back to Ohio … apart from Jordan, who decides to work with black children in Richmond.

I take the author’s point, that it wasn’t safe for black people in Virginia during Reconstruction, but it just all got so sensationalist that it was hard to take it seriously. Why not just show them visiting Sarah, and Jordan deciding, on seeing the conditions in Virginia and experiencing the way in which black people were treated there, that she was going to prioritise working to improve the lives of other black people over the fight for women’s rights?   That would have worked really well.

But still. The books made some very good points. There was affection between Mattie and Lisbeth. There was friendship between their children. Emancipation did not bring true freedom. Neither black nor white women could vote in the US for another half a century after black men were given the vote … and, as it turned out, black men often weren’t able to vote either.   And the books did to some extent show the horrors of slavery – the violence, and the separation of families – and also reminded the reader that many slaves were actually the children of their masters, something which seems to be quite an “in” topic in fiction at present. But it would all have worked a lot better if the plots hadn’t got so far-fetched.



Secrets at St Bride’s by Debbie Young


I honestly don’t know whether this was meant to be a spoof or taken seriously.  I was expecting it to be an ordinary, if modern, boarding school story told from the point of view of a teacher.  Then, instead, it initially seemed to be a chicklit book about a woman making a new start after leaving her controlling boyfriend.  But then we got into the school stuff, and quite a few tropes came out, but I really wasn’t sure whether they were meant to be laughed at or not.  Some of it was just mad – the all-girls’ school had a handsome Alpha Male PE teacher (why was this not the case at my school?!) but, because the parents were meant to think that the staff were all female, he was listed in the prospectus as a woman, and the girls called him “Miss”.  It was like one of those TV programmes which you watch and think “Is it just me?” about, because you’re not quite getting it.  Or maybe I just overthink things.  The good news is that it was quite entertaining, and, if the sequel – coming out on July – turns up on the Kindle special offer list, I’ll be giving it a go.

Gemma has recently left her horrible boyfriend, and taken a job as a teacher at St Bride’s, a boarding school for girls.  She’s a qualified teacher but hasn’t had any experience, but the headmistress says that academic work isn’t everything and that what matters is being kind and caring, etc etc … very Miss Grayling.   The headmistress is called Miss Harnett, so everyone refers to her as “Miss Hairnet”, and all the rooms and houses at the school have nicknames, e.g. the dining room is known as “The Trough”.  OK, that’s all good tropey stuff, all good fun.

But then there’s the weird thing with the PE teacher.  And we’re told that most of the girls are motherless, because the person who left the money to found the school specified that it should try to help motherless girls.  Girls having lost one or both parents is another school story trope, very Chalet School, and it could have been done in a compassionate way, teachers in loco parentis etc … but, instead, the storyline’s there so that one of the teachers could keep trying to bag a rich widowed dad.  Which is quite funny, it its way.  So is the book meant to be a spoof after all?  Especially as there’s also a weird thing about a security guard with a network of hidden tunnels, a plot point which seems to have escaped into school story land from one of Enid Blyton’s mystery/adventure books!

One of the teachers turns out to be another teacher’s secret daughter.  OK, another classic school story thing – although, in traditional school stories, it’s always a pupil who’s a secret daughter, and the mum is always a respectable widow rather than someone who had an affair with one of the governors.  The bursar (now there’s a character always missing from traditional school stories) seems to be a weird stalker, but it turns out that it’s all completely innocent.  And someone’s stealing books from the library.

Then the dodgy ex-boyfriend turns up and tries to strangle the rich-dad-chasing, secret daughter teacher, having mistaken her for Gemma, with the rubber from one of the tyres from the Alpha Male woman-impersonating PE teacher’s bike.


But then is it all meant to be taken seriously after all?  The poor little, far-from-home motherless juniors want someone to read them a story at bedtime.  And Gemma realises that she needs to reconnect with her own parents, with whom she fell out because they didn’t approve of the dodgy ex-boyfriend.

I really have no idea what was going on here!   But, as I said, I did quite enjoy it!

Queen Mary: How She Saved The Royals – Channel 5


I’m loving Channel 5’s royal season.  However, they will go for these rather sensationalist programme titles!   But, whilst I wouldn’t say that Queen Mary “saved” the Royals, she certainly played a very important role, especially at two very difficult times.  And she’s such a fascinating person – I sometimes wonder what such an intelligent, cultured woman really thought about all the huntin’, shootin’ fishin’, goings-on at Sandringham!   As the programme pointed out, she was also a very significant influence on our current Queen, making sure that she and Princess Margaret got a better and wider education that they might have done otherwise, and showing her the importance of duty.

Channel 5 tends to go for gossipy biographers rather than historians, I wasn’t impressed by all the references to “Mary” when she was always known as “May” – either say “Queen Mary” or “May”, but not just “Mary”! – and I dread to imagine where they found that American newsreel which got Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s name wrong, but this was generally a very enjoyable programme.  OK, it didn’t say anything new, but it was good to see a very under-rated Queen getting the attention she deserves.  It was also quite poignant to be reminded that her first fiancé, Prince Eddy, whose life and death tend to be overshadowed by all the gossip and speculation about him (the programme did resist the temptation to trot out the Jack The Ripper rumour!), died during the Russian/Asiatic flu pandemic of the early 1890s, which killed over a million people.  But back to Queen Mary …

We heard a bit about her early life.  It didn’t say much about her time in Florence, which was a shame, and I could have lived with fewer comments about her mother being embarrassing, but we did hear about her family’s financial problems and the dignified way in which she coped with them.  Then on to her engagement to Prince Eddy, and her eventual marriage to his brother, Prince George, and how well their marriage turned out.

They were criticised for being bad parents, and it’s hard to argue with that. To some extent they were products of their class and times, but not all parents were like that: we’re always told what a happy childhood their future daughter-in-law Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon had.  Having said which, I do think the programme was a bit hard on her in that respect.  But most of it was about her public role rather than her personal life.  It’s easy to underestimate what a precarious position the British Royals were in during and immediately after the First World War.  Thrones were toppling everywhere.  In fact, that started even earlier, if you look at Portugal.   There was also the issue of the Royals’ German links.

But they came through it so well.  The programme paid particular attention to Queen Mary’s work with women, and talked a lot about how hard she and King George worked to build ties with working-class communities.  As it said, they were both very conservative people, and it can’t have been easy for them to do things in such a different way, going on walkabouts, visiting coal mines, and so on.  It also made the point that she was quite a shy person, and so much going about in public and meeting different people must have been hard for her.  The same with her second son, George VI, and maybe even to some extent with our present Queen.  But they all did it, because of their sense of duty.

The one who didn’t share that, of course, was Queen Mary’s eldest son.  You can argue the rights and wrongs of the Abdication until the cows come home, but, in the world of 1936, it was not possible for the King to be married to a divorced woman.  It was another very dangerous time for the monarchy, and Queen Mary helped to pull it through.  Some very good points were made about how previous Dowager Queens had faded into the background (although I think that was rather simplifying things) but she kept on going, and broke precedents in doing so.

And then it talked about her influence on her granddaughter, our present Queen.  I think she’d be incredibly proud of her, and also of what a good job many other senior members of the Royal Family, especially William and Kate, are doing a this very difficult time.  As it said, in times of trouble, the Royal Family provide unity and stability.  Queen Mary was a part of that during the Great War, and behaved with such dignity during the Abdication Crisis which must have been so difficult for her personally.  She was a naturally conservative person who adapted successfully to changing times, and I find her particularly interesting as someone who was so well-read and cultured at a time when education for girls was not prioritised and in some circles was even frowned on.

Thanks again to Channel 5 for this series of royal documentaries.  They aren’t saying anything new, but they’re interesting, and they’re comfortable, and really we need that at the moment!  And they’re nice.  There’s way too much nastiness around at the moment, now that the “Spirit of the Blitz” of the early days of lockdown has faded.  This was nice.  Hooray for being nice!




Caravan For Three by Ursula Bloom (Facebook group reading challenge)


This is a very simplistic children’s book, an undemanding comfort read about a world in which no-one thinks twice about three children going off in a caravan with a strange man (an acquaintance of their auntie), and they have a lovely, happy time … despite this being during the war, and one of the kids nearly drowning!   There’s a spy story, there’s a romance (involving two adults, not one of the kids!), there are two glamorous film stars, there’s a retired trapeze artist, there are lots of locals with whom they pal up, and there’s a village fete.  And there’s a sub-plot about years of debate over whether or not someone should, er, have their adenoids out.  It all sounds a bit daft, and the main character’s twelve but acts as if she’s about eight, so it should have been annoying.  But somehow it wasn’t: it made me smile!

Jane and her elder siblings Michael and Diana had their previous year’s holiday cancelled, not because of a pandemic but because of the Second World War.  The war’s still going on, but they’re supposed to be going to the seaside anyway, until disaster strikes and their dad is injured in an accident – nothing serious, but enough to put the kibosh on the holiday.  No-one seems very bothered that the poor old mum and dad will not now get a holiday, but a glamorous film star auntie arranges for an acquaintance of hers, who had to retire from the circus after a trapeze accident, to take the kids to the countryside in his caravan.  So it’s actually a caravan for four.  I’m not sure why being a retired trapeze artist should mean you’d have a caravan, but never mind.

They go to a village where they’ve stayed before, where their old nurse used to live, and soon get involved in village life, with Jane becoming very friendly with a girl called Eva – she of the adenoids.  As well as the locals, there’s an American military base there, and, for some reason, Pamela, a young woman whose workplace has been evacuated from London, is lodging at the post office, and Rosa, a Polish woman who claims to be a film star is also hanging around.   Pamela fancies Richard, the local doctor, but he fancies Rosa, whom Jane is convinced is a spy.  Keep up!

Not that much actually happens.  Jane nearly drowns and Pamela rescues her.  There’s an lot about Eva having catarrh and needing to have her adenoids out.   And everyone gets very involved in organising a “victory fete” – presumably to raise money for the war effort.  I was assuming that it’d transpire that Rosa was perfectly innocent, but, no, she actually was a spy.   A honey trap spy, no less – that’s something different for a children’s book!  I don’t know why someone Polish would be spying for the Germans, but no-one seemed to think of that.  Richard realises that he’s been very silly in going for the girl with the, er, obvious attractions, rather than Pamela who doesn’t have the same physical appeal but is very sweet and kind, and he and Pamela get together.  Oh, and Eva has her adenoids out.

It’s a completely undemanding book.  There are no moral lessons.  OK, there’s a spy who gets her come-uppance, but everyone seems far more interested in the fact that she won’t be distracting Richard from Pamela any more than in any danger to national security. No-one is forced to see the error of their ways, except perhaps Richard realising that handsome is as handsome does.  No-one goes around sneering at day trippers.  People seem strangely unruffled by air raids.  Having a spy in your midst is exciting, not frightening.  It is OK, not rude or vulgar, to be interested in romance.  And all’s well that ends well.  Hurrah!

This is hardly a classic, but, as I said, it made me smile!

Midnight on Lundy by Victoria Eveleigh


This is a children’s book written in the 21st century but set in the 1960s, part pony book, part school story, and part tale of life in a small, close community.  It took me a while to get into it – the style of writing seemed to improve as the book went on – but I rather enjoyed it.  The school story section worked very well: rather than being a member of the in crowd and thinking that school was too marvellous for words, our heroine Jenny took several weeks to settle in, locked herself in the toilets for a bit of peace and privacy, and became part of a quiet group who thought the in crowd were pretty bitchy (as in crowds at schools often are!).  The pony book element was unusual – it wasn’t about a girl and her adored pony, like the Patricia Leitch “Jinny” books which I was very keen on back in the day, but about a notorious, badly-behaved stallion called Midnight and how Jenny kept faith with him and it all worked out well in the end.  And the depiction of life on Lundy, a small island off the coast of Devon, was lovely.  There aren’t too many Girls’ Own books in which everyone spends half their time down the pub!

At the start of the book, Jenny was living on Lundy with her father.  Her mother had died young, and there was a sub-plot about her father meeting someone else and Jenny struggling to come to terms with it.  I loved the depictions of life on Lundy, the landscape, the wildlife, the lighthouse, and everyone being part of a close community.  There does seem to be this nostalgic view of the ’50s and ’60s as a time when everyone was best mates with their neighbours and communities were very close, but there is certainly a lot of truth to it, and that must have applied so particularly on a small island.

Pony books often involve people from very wealthy backgrounds, but, in this case, Jenny was from a fairly ordinary family, and we saw her helping out at a hotel during the busy summer season, and becoming very friendly with a slightly older boy called Ben, who’d got a summer job on the island.  I’d never heard of Lundy ponies before, but apparently there were a lot of wild ponies there between the late 1920s, when the owner of the island began breeding them, and the 1980s – and Midnight was based on a real stallion who was seen as being dangerous and troublesome.

Jenny and Ben tried to tame Midnight by giving him sugar lumps, but it all went wrong when he started chasing tourists and local kids to see if they’d feed him, and he was shipped off to Devon.  Jenny was soon also shipped off to Devon, having won a scholarship to a boarding school there.  Conveniently, Ben lived nearby, and the two of them tracked down Midnight and kept sneaking off together to see him – until one of the bitchy in crowd girls found out and shopped them to the headmistress.  However, hooray, the headmistress was sympathetic, and Jenny became quite a heroine at the school as stories of a boyfriend with his own car and taming a wild horse spread.  Hooray!  I did really like that bit: it can be quite frustrating how school stories focus on the in crowd and the misfits are always the losers, and it was great to see Jenny win out!

She’d hoped to take Midnight back to Lundy with her, but realised that he didn’t want to go.  However, conveniently – this was all a bit too convenient, but never mind – Ben’s auntie had a big estate and lots of ponies, and Midnight was able to go and live there … along with Jenny’s late mother’s pony, whom it turned out was there too!

This wasn’t the best-written school story or pony book I’ve ever read, but it wasn’t bad at all.  I love traditional “Girls’ Own” books, but I know that some people struggle with the fact that all the characters are from very privileged backgrounds, and that no-one has boyfriends or girlfriends, or ever needs the toilet!   Like the Anne Digby Trebizon books, this one made a conscious effort to get away from that but without subverting or mocking or generally being negative about GO traditions.  Victoria Eveleigh isn’t Elinor M Brent-Dyer or Enid Blyton or Patricia Leitch, but this isn’t a bad book at all.  And the Kindle version was going free!


The Gilded Fan by Christina Courtenay


This was a remarkably silly story – which was a shame, because I couldn’t fault the actual historical background information in it, and it contained some wonderful descriptions of what was to become the Dutch East Indies.  A young woman in Japan in 1641, the daughter of a Japanese warlord and an Englishwoman who’d stowed away on a ship to Japan (as you do) travelled to Amsterdam on a Dutch ship with a mainly English crew, fell in love with the captain, and then discovered that he was her late mother’s sister’s stepson (coincidences do happen, but that was pushing it) … and that his stepmother hated him because he looked like the child she’d had with her lover, the man her sister was supposed to marry before running off to Japan, and she’d been forced to break off her engagement with a second man, and marry a third man, who was the captain’s widowed father, and the captain looked like this child because his mother had been the lover’s cousin … oh, for crying out loud!   And then the girl dressed up as a man to fight in the Roundhead Army.  As you do.

And, as I said, it was a shame, because the historical background was faultless.  I’m not sure that working the Shogun’s decision to expel all foreigners from Japan because of concerns about Western/Christian influence, the Dutch East India Company and their trade in the East Indies, the Eighty Years’ War, the growth of Puritanism and the English Civil War into one relatively short book was a particularly good idea.  But it could have worked, given a better plot.

The idea was that our heroine Midori was at risk in Japan because of the decision to expel foreigners, decided to travel to England to live with her long-lost maternal relatives in Plymouth, and persuaded our hero Nicholas/Nico to let her travel on board his ship.  There were some genuinely fascinating descriptions of Batavia, although they were rather spoilt by a silly sub-plot in which another crew member drugged her with opium … but, hooray, Nico rescued her before anything terrible could happen.  They then arrived in Amsterdam, and we got a reminder about the Eighty Years’ War , but then all this ridiculous business about being step-cousins came out.

When they got to England, it turned out that the relations were now all Puritans, and didn’t approve of any of Midori’s ways.  She tried to fit in with them, apart from training one of her cousins in Japanese martial arts.  Nico somehow ended up in the Roundhead army, and then she decided to join it as well.  They both nearly died.  They both survived.  They got married and lived happily ever after. What it said about Puritanism, and about the Civil War, was fine from a historical viewpoint – even if they were on the Roundhead side! – but the storyline was just too silly.  Them being step-cousins was bad enough, and that bizarre tale about the lover and the fiancé and the husband and the child and the first wife being the lover’s cousin … oh, please!

Interesting idea.  Not impressed with the execution!  It was all so unnecessary.  The story would have worked OK if it’d just been about a half-Japanese, half-English girl fleeing Japan and falling in love with the captain of a Dutch East India Company ship.  Why bring in all that other rubbish?!   To be fair, I think it was partly because this was a sequel to an earlier book, and the author was trying to tie up several loose ends, but this really wasn’t the way to do it!!