The Madonna of Bolton by Matt Cain


I read this (well, apart from the fact that it was on a 99p Kindle offer) partly in honour of the forthcoming Manchester Pride weekend (although the stupid virus has put the kibosh on most of it), and partly (the author being almost exactly the same age as me) as an excuse for a big nostalgia fest about growing up in the North West in the ’80s and early ’90s … never missing an episode of either Coronation Street or Dynasty, reading teen pop magazines, and wearing hooded tops, telling everyone you were obsessed with Madchester music, and hoping that no-one would ever, ever call you either a stiff or a townie.  My entire class once wasted half a Latin lesson discussing how uncool it was to be a townie.  I have no idea why the teacher let us do this.

It’s a novel, but based closely on the author’s own experiences of growing up as a young gay man in Bolton, the issues he faced, and his obsession with Madonna.  How big was Madonna in the ’80s?!  I remember going round to my then best friend’s house for tea on the day that the Like A Prayer video was shown on TV in the UK for the first time, and it was *such* a big deal!   He rather overplays the northern working-class stereotypes; the fact that the book’s written in the present tense is a bit annoying; and the Madonna thing comes and goes rather than being the central theme as the title suggests; but it’s very thoughtfully-written and genuinely moving.

We see how our main man, Charlie (aka Matt) struggles badly due to being bullied at school, and how he feels that he doesn’t fit in either there or at home.  But we’re told that he finds that going to the gay bars and clubs in Canal Street (the heart of the Gay Village in Manchester) makes life a lot easier, which is rather lovely.  We try to be a welcoming city where everyone can be themselves ❤ .  Then we see him go off to university … and then move to London, which is a shame, as I thought the book was going to be set in Bolton.

His life gets in a complete mess, as he struggles to find his place in the world, but it all works out in the end   It could really have done with being a bit longer, to explain it all properly, but it all works out in the end.  And, when he finally meets Mr Right and they get married, the ceremony takes place at Bolton Town Hall and not in London.  Hooray!   And – see what I mean about overdoing the stereotypes?! – they even have Lancashire hotpot at the reception.  This is a really lovely book, and, especially if you can get it on the 99p deal, it’s well worth reading.



Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver (Facebook group reading challenge)


I enjoyed this a lot more than I expected to, even though it was slow to get going.  It’s being marketed as either a “sinister ghost story” or else as a Gothic horror novel, but it isn’t really either.  There are no ghosts.  There’s a lot of talk about demons, but it’s largely in connection with religion: there are a lot of references to a fictional 15th century book which, although it’s given another name, is clearly “The Book of Margery Kempe”.  We’ve got an Edwardian home in the Suffolk Fens, in which the master of the house is convinced, not that he’s possessed, but that demons are after him; and it all dates back to something he did in childhood, which led to the death of someone close to him.  The protagonist is his daughter, and we see how she and their servants get caught up in it all.  I don’t think it’s as good as the critics are making out, but I did enjoy it.  And I got it for free, on an Amazon Prime Kindle deal!

Our heroine is Maud, and the book’s told partly from her point of view, and partly from her father’s diaries, which he appears to leave lying around – although part of the plot is that he thinks women are too stupid to understand anything, so he wouldn’t have been bothered about Maud reading them anyway.  There are also two brothers, but they don’t feature much.  The mother suffers a series of miscarriages and stillbirths.  The father ignores doctors’ advice to give her a break from repeated pregnancies and when, during a difficult labour, he’s told that it’s a choice between her life and the baby’s life, he chooses the baby – because he’s got it into his head that the baby will go to hell if stillborn.  The poor baby dies almost immediately afterwards.

They rarely leave the house, except to buy books: the father is obsessed with the Margery Kempe book.  Maud develops a crush on the gardener, and her father has an affair with the maid – which he keeps going on about in his diary.  Maud realises that there’s a mystery in her father’s past, and eventually finds out, from a man who lives in the Fens, that he was responsible for his sister drowning: a childhood game went wrong, and he left her to drown because getting help would have meant admitting his involvement.   Then an old medieval painting of demons is uncovered in the parish church, and he gets obsessed with it.  A man called Jacobs is also interested in the painting, and the dad makes some anti-Semitic remarks about him, but we never actually get to meet Jacobs, or find out why he’s into this particular subject.  There are a few other minor characters – a rector, a doctor, a nurse, other servants – but they don’t feature much.

The dad becomes increasingly obsessed with the idea that demons are all around him, and various superstitions and rituals come into play: he does things to the house which are supposed to ward off demons, and threatens to drain the fen near the house.

There’s quite a lot in this book about superstition.  How superstitious are we all?  I used to take a lump of coal and a miniature Good Luck Care Bear into exams with me.  My grandad used to take a lump of coal to football matches with him!  I toss salt over my left shoulder, talk to single magpies, avoid walking under ladders … I don’t know why I do all this, but I do.  I have even been known to sit in a very uncomfortable position for ages during tennis matches, having convinced myself that it’ll be bad luck if I move.  And I will not sit at a table if there are 13 people … not that there’s much chance of that happening at the moment!

The dad eventually murders two people.  The book actually starts with Maud, years later, talking about selling the story – which has somehow attracted so much interest that there’s even talk of a Hollywood movie – in order to fund the upkeep of the house.  Someone points out that handing the house over to the National Trust would be a much better idea.  She ends up doing both.  Maud feels guilty that she couldn’t stop him, and we get the impression that to some extent she’s always been ridden with guilt as well.  One of the brothers is killed in the Second World War, and the other dies young of cancer.

So it’s certainly not a happy book!  But it’s not a “scary” book either, and it does say some interesting things about how religion and superstition and guilt get mixed together in people’s heads, and how dangerous the consequences of that can be.  It’s not my usual sort of book but, for free, it was worth a read.


After the War: from Auschwitz to Ambleside by Tom Palmer


There was a lot of praise earlier this year for BBC 2’s The Windermere Children , about a group of young Holocaust survivors who were brought to the Calgarth Estate on the shores of Windermere to begin rebuilding their lives.  This book covers the same subject, but it’s aimed at children in the Juniors/Key Stage 2.  It’s a difficult theme to tackle in an age appropriate way, but the author’s done an excellent job of it.

Most of the adult characters in the book were real people; but the three main characters, the protagonist Yossi and his friends Leo and Mordecai, are fictional, although their experiences are based closely on those of the real Windermere Children.  As with No Ballet Shoes in Syria , the story of Yossi’s experiences in his (unnamed) home city in Poland and in the concentration camps is told through a series of flashbacks as particular incidents trigger memories, which I think works well for this sort of book.  Whilst it doesn’t actually talk about gas chambers, it does mention ashes, and it doesn’t shy away from showing shootings and beatings, and telling us that the boys’ relatives have been murdered.  But there has to be a balance between getting that message across and not upsetting young children too much: this way, readers know from the start that at least Yossi and his friends survive, and that they’re now in a place of safety.

We also see how they do begin to rebuild their lives, thanks to the wonderful care provided at the Calgarth Estate – physically, with nutritious food and exercise, emotionally, and practically as they learn English and consider what they might do when it’s time to move on.  The author’s from Leeds and there’s a very strong Leodensian bias, with representatives of the Leeds Jewish community visiting the estate and our three boys eventually deciding to move to Leeds.  I’d have made it Manchester 🙂 , and the word “London” is never even mentioned, but, OK, the point is that they’re moving to somewhere where they’ve been told that they’ll be welcome!  Another key point is that they’re moving there together.  They’ve lost all their relatives, and the communities in which they grew up have been pretty much wiped out, but they’ve got each other now; and that does come across very well.

The author’s put a huge amount of effort into this.  He’s visited not only Windermere but also Auschwitz and Theresienstadt, spoken to representatives of Holocaust-related charities and people who grew up in the Calgarth Estate area, and interviewed some of the surviving Windermere Children.  That’s a lot of work for a 176-page book for children, and it shows how much he wanted to handle a sensitive subject well.  And he has done.

My only real quibble with it was that none of the main characters were girls.  To be fair to the author, nearly all the Windermere Children were boys, but I think it would have been nice, especially with an eye to appealing to female readers as well as male readers, to have had some female input.  Having said which, most of the adult characters were female, and there was also a sub-plot involving the book, her husband and their young daughter waiting anxiously to see if their son/brother had survived the war in the Far East.  It’s the son’s safe return, and reunion with his family, which makes Yossi accept that, despite the Red Cross’s best efforts, none of his own family are going to be found: they’ve all gone, even his father, whom he hoped might have survived..

A lot of the themes will be familiar to people who watched the BBC 2 programme – the children being scared to sleep in a room on their own, the grabbing and hoarding food because they couldn’t process the fact that they weren’t going to go hungry again, the sports, the lessons, and the riding bikes without proper clothes. They’re all described very effectively, bearing in mind the target age group.  The flashbacks are dealt with very sensitively.  They are going to be upsetting for children to read, and children are going to ask parents or teachers why this happened; but that’s something that’s necessary.

We also see how Mordecai has a strong religious faith, but Yossi hasn’t: he’s lost that.  At one point, he does actually despair, and wonders why he’s even going on at all, what the point is.  That’s quite a powerful scene, when he remembers his father talking about how the Nazis wanted to dehumanise them and how the only way they can fight back against that is to keep whatever vestiges of civilised behaviour they can, even if it’s only washing their faces, and his mother, as she and her sisters went off to their deaths, telling him that he had to survive.

It’s also made very clear that they are going to be OK now.  The TV programme showed that there was some hostility towards, or at least mockery of, them from some local lads who didn’t understand what they’d been through.  That doesn’t happen here, but I think that’s due to the need for the young reader to see that the boys are safe and being made welcome.  It was a minority view anyway.  We do, however, at one point see the boys splitting into factions, largely along lines of nationality of origin, and fights breaking out, but then we see them all reuniting … to burn an effigy of Hitler.

And we’re told that Leo did return briefly to Poland, but was told in no uncertain times that he wasn’t welcome there.  This would have been twelve months or so before Kielce, so it wasn’t getting at that, but … well, this is a difficult subject, and it’s come to the fore in recent years, especially given the current regime in Poland.  I thought it was quite interesting that that was included.

Going back to Poland is never really an option.  Leo considers going to what was then Mandatory Palestine, but in the end the three friends agree to stick together, and that’s the positive ending, if not exactly a happy ending.  They’re moving on, and they’ve got each other.

Historical fiction is a very good, and underrated, way of both learning and teaching about history, and I think that this is an excellent book for enabling children of the target reading audience to understand about the Holocaust, without overfacing them with too much horror.  Highly recommended.



Painter to the King by Amy Sackville


I was really looking forward to reading this, because it had excellent reviews, and there are very few books in English set in 17th century Spain.  Unfortunately, it turned out to be the literary equivalent of something like Tracey Emin’s “unmade bed”, or one of those “modern art” paintings which look as if a toddler’s run riot with a paintbrush.  There were no speech marks anywhere in the book: any dialogue was just written as ramblings.  In fact, there was very little punctuation at all, and scant regard for grammar or syntax.  It was nearly all just written as ramblings.

Why do people write rave reviews about books like this, or the equivalent in painting or sculpture?  Do people actually enjoy reading a load of ramblings, or is it some Emperor’s New Clothes thing where no-one likes to be the one to go against the “cool” crowd?  Why is it cool to write something like this anyway?  Breaking all the rules does indeed seem very cool when you’re 12, and you’re wearing nail varnish to school and sneaking up the staffroom staircase, but I don’t see what’s praiseworthy about writing a book which is so difficult to read.  Apologies for being a fuddy-duddy, but give me some proper writing in proper English, please!

It was a great shame about the style of writing, because the subject matter was actually very interesting.  It’s extremely difficult to find books in English set in 17th century Spain, which was why I was so pleased to find this one.  I don’t know whether there’s a lingering Black Legend feeling which makes Anglophone writers avoid the subject, or whether, more likely, the courts of Charles II and Louis XIV just seem more appealing than the court of Philip IV.  The painter of the book title was Diego Velazquez, a courtier and court painter at the said court of Philip IV, but the book was far more about Philip than about Velazquez.

It assumed that you knew what was going on, which I rather liked.  Olivares wasn’t even mentioned by name: the book just referred to “the Count-Duke” and assumed that the reader would know who he was.  There was no background information about the Thirty Years’ War or the Eighty Years’ War: the reader was expected to know what was going on.  It could have been a fascinating insight into the decline of Habsburg Spain, the sad loss of so many royal children, the desperate trying for an heir, all the intermarriages, the revolts in Catalunya and Portugal, and indeed the visit of the future Charles I of England and Scotland during the “Spanish Match” negotiations.  It covered all of those subjects.

Unfortunately, it was almost unreadable because of the poor writing.  I don’t for one second think that the author couldn’t have written it in proper English had she wanted to.  She just, for whatever reason – wanting to seem arty, or avant garde, or just different – chose to dispense with grammar and punctuation.  All I can say is that I’m glad that I got a cheap copy of this book from Amazon, and didn’t pay full price!   I just do not understand why people write in this way.  What a disappointment.  Am I missing something?  I just don’t get it!


Anne: the Princess Royal at 70 – ITV


I would love to be like Princess Anne.  Nothing seems to faze her: she just gets on with it.  She also seems to be completely comfortable in her own skin.  She doesn’t moan, she doesn’t use annoying buzzwords, and she never seems to be feel that she needs to prove anything.  I thought that she came across really well in this documentary – every bit as hard-working and no-nonsense as she always does, and also very good-humoured and with an excellent sense *of* humour.

Like everything else this year, this didn’t go to plan.  The original idea was for the cameras to follow around for a year – but then, of course, lockdown put the kibosh on that.  However, it was typical of Princess Anne that that wasn’t allowed to mess the programme up; and, instead, it was turned into an opportunity to discuss her life at Gatcombe Park, and for her to talk about spending time with her grandchildren and joke about offering to help with home schooling as soon as people were allowed to meet up with those outside their own households.  There was even a brilliant clip of her trying to explain to the Queen how to use Zoom.

A lot of it had been filmed before lockdown, though, and we got to see her in a range of different situations – royal visits, charity work, investitures, acting as colonel-in-chief of military regiments, and also relaxing on a boat with Tim Laurence.  It was great to hear from Tim Laurence, because he’s normally so low-key.  We heard from Peter and Zara as well, and they all came across brilliantly – very natural and very affectionate.

We even heard from the Prime Minister, and there was a brilliant moment when a sculptor who was producing a bust of Anne showed her a bust that she’d made of Boris, and Anne joked about how difficult it must have been to get his hair right.  It’s hard to imagine any of the other Royals actually saying that!

Most of it was about her life as it is now, but there was also plenty about her life up until now.  It’s certainly been eventful – from the kidnapping to the Olympics.  It was nothing we hadn’t heard before, but it was still fascinating.  I particularly enjoyed hearing her say that going away to boarding school was her idea.  She actually asked to go, just like a princess in a school story!

I remember the period during which Princess Anne got a rough ride from the press, but I don’t think anyone has a bad word to say about her these days.   This programme didn’t have anything negative to say, but it wasn’t even remotely sycophantic: it was just honest.  And that’s Princess Anne all over.  There never seems to be anything fake about her.  She just tells how it is, and gets on with whatever comes along.  As I said, I wish I could be like her!   And I wish certain other members of her family could be like her.  She’s great, and this programme was great!

Great Continental Railway Journeys – BBC 2


I was so excited to see a new series of this – I didn’t realise that one had been recorded pre-lockdown – in the TV schedules, and found it particularly interesting that much of the first episode was spent talking about the Spanish Civil War … largely with reference to Michael Portillo’s dad, who came to Britain as a Republican exile.  Scores of men from North West England fought in the International Brigades, and Spanish relief/aid committtees were set up all over the region; but no-one ever talks about it.  I remember once getting quite excited during a mid-1990s episode of Neighbours in which Karl Kennedy’s dad gave Billy and Toadie a lecture on the International Brigades!  It’s a subject that’s rarely discussed – except in connection with George Orwell, and we saw Michael visiting a Republican trench outside Huesca with Orwell’s son.

We also saw Michael visiting Salamanca, Avila and Madrid, all of which I’ve been fortunate enough to visit, and Zaragoza, which I haven’t … yet.  And a border railway station in the Pyrenees, used as an escape route by Jews and Allied soldiers fleeing Occupied France during the war.  No-one spells Zaragoza the old English way, “Saragossa”, since Real Zaragoza had that good run in the mid-1980s.  And no-one spells Marseille with an s on the end since they got to the European Cup Final in 1991.  This is an interesting linguistic phenomenon.  It should be investigated.

Anyway.  Michael, resplendent in a yellow jacket, purple shirt and vermilion trousers – I wonder if he dresses like that when he’s not filming – started off in Salamanca, with a Bradshaw’s guidebook (everyone knows that George Bradshaw was from Salford, yes?) from 1936.  We did hear a bit about the general history of Salamanca, but this was a very personal episode and the focus was on Michael’s late dad and his time as a professor at the university there: we even saw the index cards which Franco’s government had kept on Luis Portillo Perez.  Oh, and sliced ham.  Then lovely Avila, famed for its association with St Teresa.

And then on to Madrid.  We saw quite a lot of the architecture of Salamanca and Avila, but Madrid’s too big to cover in one segment of one programme, although we did see some of its highlights.  And, again, we heard about Portillo snr.  Michael stood in front of Picasso’s “Guernica” and talked about how his parents would never have met had it not been for the bombing of Guernica.  To be fair, he did talk about the devastation it caused, as well, not just its role in his own family history!  The lady at the Museum Reina Sofia said that “Guernica” was the most important painting of the twentieth century.  There’s certainly a good case for saying that.

Then it was on to Zaragoza, capital of Aragon … and we got a mention of Ferdinand and Isabella.  Things got a bit more light-hearted here, with the requisite making-an-idiot-of-himself segment, this one involving Michael trying to join in with the Aragonese Jota dance.  But then we returned to the subject of the Civil War, with the visit to the trench at Huesca.

Finally, after a journey through some lovely countryside, Michael ended up at the Franco-Spanish border station of Canfranc, opened in 1928, at which time it was the second largest station in Europe.  It’s not used much now.  That’s rather sad.  I do love those grand old railway stations!

And I love Spain.  We’ll get back there.  One day!   I’m not sure when this was filmed, but who would have guessed that, by the time it was filmed, going to Spain and indeed travelling by train at all would have largely vanished off the menu?   Let’s just hope that this doesn’t go on for too much longer.  In the meantime, especially with so many repeats on TV due to the disruption to filming caused by the pandemic, it is wonderful to have a new series of this lovely programme!   Thoroughly enjoyed this first episode, and looking forward to the episodes to come!

A Suitable Boy – BBC 1


I really enjoyed this. OK, it was all a bit cheesy and obvious – you just knew from the title that any boy our heroine met would be anything other than suitable – but it’s Sunday night drama, not a documentary.  Sunday night drama is meant to be entertaining, and this was.

Andrew Davies, adapting Vikram Seth’s book, appears to have rediscovered some measure of self control, so we didn’t get any bare bottoms bobbing along a beach.  Instead, we got wonderful Indian architecture, scenery and music, and an amusing if rather unoriginal storyline about Lata, a spirited young woman whose mother was determined to find her a suitable husband, and who met someone thoroughly *un*suitable instead (although I gather that more suitors will turn up in later episodes).  There was also an unsuitable woman, with whom Lata’s brother-in-law became involved.  And the background (I refuse to describe the 1950s as “history”) was very much there too, with the Hindu-Muslim tensions, this being set in Northern India only a few years after partition, much in evidence.

Northern India is the land of princes and rajas and, whilst our characters weren’t in that league, they were still from the wealthier echelons of society, and close to the powers that were, although we were told that they’d come down in the world a little.  So a lot of the scenes were rather glossy and glamorous, which always works well in the Sunday 9pm slot 🙂 .   Escapism.  I need escapism.  I definitely need escapism!

It began with the wedding of Lata’s sister.  We saw Lata chatting away to her new brother-in-law’s brother, and I did wonder if they’d get together; but, instead, he took up with a much older singer.  Lata’s mother was desperate to find her a suitable husband; but she, being a thoroughly modern miss at university, was determined that she wasn’t being pushed into an arranged marriage.  Yes, OK, it was a bit cliched, but it was a drama, and they usually are a bit cliched.  Lata duly met a handsome young chap at university … but, needless to say, it turned out that he was a Muslim, whereas she was a Hindu.

The aftermath of partition was always there, with a lot of talk about building a temple next to a mosque, and riots breaking out towards the end of the episode.  Without wanting to get political, these are issues which still haven’t been resolved – and how I wish they could be.  The juxtaposition of the tensions and the unrest with the rather soapy storylines about the meddling mother and the unsuitable romance might not have worked, but it did.

I thought it was a very good first episode.  Yes, it was kind of obvious, but Sunday night dramas are!

Just a bit of a rant, though.  You’d think that the Whinge Brigade would be pleased that the BBC were showing a drama with an entirely South Asian cast; but no, they are whingeing about everything.  It doesn’t show the lives of poor people. Well, that’s because it’s about two wealthy families.  Pride and Prejudice does not show the lives of poor people.  Coronation Street and EastEnders do not show the lives of the aristocracy.  Things are about what they’re about.  The characters are speaking English.  That’s because it’s a BBC drama.  Did the characters in the adaptation of War and Peace speak Russian?  No.  Did the characters in the adaptation of Les Miserables speak French?  No.  And, the piece de resistance, it’s “Orientalist”, because characters are wearing saris and playing sitars.  WTF?  Would they prefer characters in 1950s India to be wearing Dior’s New Look and listening to Frank Sinatra?  What is it with these people?  If you show an interest in Indian culture, in the lovely clothes and lovely music, it’s “Orientalist” and “cultural appropriation”.  If you don’t, you’re a white supremacist.  Put a sock in it, FFS!  What on earth is wrong with appreciating a different culture?  Surely it’s good that we can appreciate different cultures.  I know these people moan about anything, but what on earth is the problem with Indian characters in a series set in India wearing Indian clothes and playing Indian music?

Oh well.  Let’s ignore the moaners.  I really enjoyed this, and I’m sure that a lot of other people did too!  And we need all the enjoyable telly we can get at the moment!!