Freddie Flintoff: Living With Bulimia – BBC 1


Please, please be careful what you say about other people’s weight, or any other aspect of other people’s appearance: you don’t know the damage it could be doing.  And, if you’re struggling with any aspect of your mental health – unsurprisingly, given the current circumstances, mental health charities are reporting a worrying rise in the numbers of people experiencing problems – please, please ask for help.  I know that not everyone’s up for famous people baring their souls, but evidence suggests that it does encourage others to seek help, especially men who tend to be more reluctant to open up than women do.  A lot of the focus in this programme was about how many men don’t seek help, and it was brave of Andrew Flintoff to speak out, and also brave of the others who took part to do so, especially the family of a man who tragically died as a result of bulimia.  It’s estimated that 1.5 million people in the UK, of whom 25% are male, suffer from eating disorders.  Hopefully this programme will have helped people to feel that they’re not alone, and that it’s OK to talk about it.

It wasn’t quite what I was expecting.  I thought he was going to say that it was linked to coping with the pressure of fame, especially during the difficult period when he was England captain during the disastrous Ashes tour when we lost the series 5-0 and he was involved in the pedalo affair.  However, he was insistent that it was all about food and weight, and that it started when there were nasty comments in the media – notably from the Sun – about his weight and fitness levels.  The specialist whom he saw didn’t seem convinced by that, and said that it was never all about weight, but everyone’s different.

I, personally, quite genuinely can’t remember a time when I didn’t identify as “The Fat Girl”, and I don’t know what it’s like to have a normal relationship with food because I never have done.  One of the other people interviewed for the programme said that, in his case, it started in his teens, and was a form of self harm and linked to other things that had gone on in his life.  I think that’s probably more typical than what Andy/Freddie was saying and I found that easier to identify with, but we need to understand that everyone’s experience is different.  It’s very difficult with sports players, because weight can affect their performance, and, especially with a team sport where one player’s performance affects others, some fans and commentators and reporters are going to feel that they’re entitled to pass comment.

Maybe people’ll think more carefully after this.  I’ve heard Gary Barlow talking about the upset caused by “fat lad” comments in the media, as well.  It’s not really that different to calling other kids names in the school playground, which is how it started for a lot of us.   With a lot of people, it’s linked to depression and anxiety disorders, but most people’s problems are so interlinked that it’s hard to separate them.  Andy/Freddie was insistent that, with him, it’s purely about weight.  But we’re all different.

What Andy said about feeling guilty whenever he eats, and only feeling good about himself if he’s losing weight, though, is something that a lot of people will recognise, whether or not their own eating issues are linked with other things.  It was interesting that he didn’t actually know a lot about the condition, despite having battled it for over 20 years, and seemed quite surprised to be told that the amount of training he does was linked in with it.  He spoke about the pressure of trying to keep up his fitness levels during his career, and it was mentioned that sportsmen are 16 times more likely than other men to suffer from eating disorders, because of that huge pressure.  Some people do struggle more with their weight than others, and it’s very hard to deal with that.  You can read all the books and go to all the counselling sessions but, if you’re someone who puts on half a stone because of one weekend away, it makes things very difficult.  That’s hard enough for anyone.  I can’t imagine how difficult it must be if you’re under that amount of external pressure and scrutiny about your weight levels.

He also talked about how he hid it.  He told his girlfriend, now his wife, that he made himself sick after eating, but not the extent of it, and we saw him going into the toilets at Lord’s and explaining how he’d plan how he’d make himself sick during matches without anyone else knowing about it.  It was very distressing, and it just showed how someone can be struggling like this without anyone – relatives, friends, colleagues – knowing.

He also talked about feeling that he wasn’t entitled to have a problem.  There was once an episode of Casualty in which comment was passed about it being amazing that people in the West had eating disorders when so many people didn’t have enough to eat.  To some extent, eating disorders, like addictions, are seen as self-inflicted problems.  He actually seemed very reluctant to admit that he wasn’t in control of it.  And he’s happily married, with four lovely kids, and had a successful career as a top-class cricketer and is now enjoying a career as a successful TV presenter.  And, hey, he’s a big tough bloke from Preston.  But eating disorders can affect anyone.

The programme’s attracted a lot of praise, and hopefully it will help people, as well as helping Andy/Freddie himself.  There isn’t nearly as much stigma around mental health problems as there used to be, but we’ve still got a way to go.  Especially with men.  Please don’t suffer in silence xxx.





The Silken Rose by Carol McGrath


 As a  reader of historical fiction, I thoroughly enjoyed this, the first of a series of three novels about unpopular medieval queens of England, the protagonist of this one being Eleanor/Ailenor of Provence, wife of Henry III.  It was entertaining, well-written, and as historically accurate as a book about the Middle Ages can be.  Both the real and historical characters came across very well, and there were some gorgeous descriptive passages.  It was also good to see a book about the reign of Henry III, which, despite being one of the longest in English history, tends to be overlooked, Henry being overshadowed by his baddie father John and his majestic son Edward I.

However, as a historian, I had a problem with the fact that the book stopped in 1253, missing arguably the three salient moments in Ailenor (the spelling used by Carol McGrath)’s time as queen – Simon de Montfort’s rebellion, her expulsion of Jews from her lands, and the attack on her barge, showing just how much she was disliked, by the people of London.  The author said that she stopped the book there because it was when Edward became engaged to Eleanor of Castile, who’s going to be the main character in the next book.  So, although she was clearly keen to try to rehabilitate Ailenor’s reputation, I don’t think she was deliberately avoiding those controversial moments.  But I would take issue with the positive view of Ailenor presented by this book, because of them.

However, that doesn’t alter the fact that it was a very, very good historical novel.

Ailenor’s poor reputation is based largely on the fact that so many of her Provencal/Savoyard relatives were given prominent positions in England, and also on the extravagance of the court in her time.  No-one’s denying that that’s true, but the book played up other aspects of her life and personality – her intelligence, interest in culture, happy marriage and devotion to her children, and also reminded the reader that she was only around 13 at the time of her marriage.  It did hint at the alleged rift between her and Henry at one time, and covered all the machinations at court and beyond it, and the wars in Gascony, very well, without going to deeply into politics or warfare to an extent that a reader of a novel might not be looking for.

A lot of this involved Simon de Montfort, and Simon’s wife, also Eleanor, Henry’s sister, was another major character in the book, told almost entirely from female viewpoints.  There was also a sub-plot involving a fictional character, Rosalind, an embroideress, and her romance with and eventual marriage to one of Simon de Montfort’s squires.  Embroidery featured a lot, which was very interesting.  I think we tend to associate embroidery with Flanders/Burgundy, and forget the importance of medieval English embroidery.

Rosalind was at one point suspected of being a Cathar, due to rumours started by a spurned ex-suitor.  The point of the plotline was that she spent some time in a nunnery, doing church embroidery, but it was interesting to see the Cathars mentioned, which is rare in a novel set in England.  It didn’t mention the horrific persecution of Cathars in Occitania by Simon de Montfort’s father (also Simon) – we’re talking burning people alive and gouging people’s eyes out –  nor did it mention the persecution of Jews by “the” Simon himself.  The de Montforts were not exactly a very pleasant family, even bearing in mind the attitudes of the time.  People have taken issue with the fact that so many institutions in Leicester bear Simon de Montfort’s name, whatever his role in the Provisions of Oxford and the Barons’ War.  I appreciate that this wasn’t a book about religious persecution, but I felt that a book about Eleanor of Provence might have made more mention of it.

However, as I’ve said, it was a very entertaining and interesting novel, and I did enjoy it, and shall be looking out for the one about Eleanor of Castile when it’s published.






Harlots (Series 2) – BBC 2


This has been superb.  I watched the first series, on ITV Encore, but then it moved to Starzplay, which I haven’t got.  So I was very pleased when it was announced that BBC 2 would be showing both series 2 and series 3.   A series about feuding brothels in 18th century London sounds rather prurient, but it isn’t like that.  There’s an ’80s soap element to it, with the feuds and the elaborate clothes and the fancy houses, but a lot of what it shows is about the role of women in Georgian London – the susceptibility of vulnerable women to abuse, and also the way in which other women were able to take advantage of the demand for their “services”, either from a “keeper” or within a “bawdy house”.  It shows how the male Establishment would close ranks to protect their own – although, in the conclusion to this series, the women get the better of them, and it’s a big cast of strong female characters who lead all the plotlines.

We also see the diversity of Georgian London.  A lot of the women had come to London from various parts of the country, hoping to find work there.  There are a number of prominent black characters.  We see very few dwarf actors on TV, but one of the harlots is a dwarf.  We’ve got “molly boy” male prostitutes, as well as female prostitutes, and we’ve got lesbian and bisexual characters.  But none of it’s done in tokenistic way: each character is a full and natural part of what’s going on.

It’s well-written, well-acted, appeals to the senses – the costumes and hairstyles are amazing! – and is always entertaining.  Bring on series 3!

The feud between brassy but good-natured Margaret Wells and snooty, evil Lydia Quigley’s expanded in the second series to include a third bawdy house, run by Lydia’s son Charles and ambitious harlot Emily Lacey.  Without giving away the entire plot, there are murders and attempted murders.  We find out that Margaret and Lydia were once very close, and learn more about their backgrounds, and we see how Margaret’s relationship with both her daughters is affected by the situation which they’re all in.  Also in the mix are the puritanical mother and daughter preaching against prostitution, although we know that the mother was once a prostitute herself, Lady Isabella, whom Lydia Quigley knows is hiding away a secret child born as a result of abuse by her brother, and the Lord Chief Justice, who keeps ending up with either Lydia or Margaret in front of him in court but can’t do too much about either of them in case their associates reveal his own penchant for harlots.

However, away from all the feuding and the nightlife and the ’80s soap-ish stuff, there’s a “Gentleman’s Club” of vile aristocratic man who enjoy raping young virgins, procured for them by Lydia Quigley.  Everyone becomes embroiled in all sorts of intrigues as they try to expose each other: there is a definite touch of Dallas and Dynasty about it, in a very well-portrayed Georgian setting, but we don’t forget that there are many women being exploited by rich men.  Satisfyingly, at the end of this series, the goodies come out on top … but there’s another series to come, when doubtless everything will get even more tangled.  Bring it on!


The Romantics and Us with Simon Schama – BBC 2


Oh.  Well, I’d been looking forward to this.  I was expecting poems by Wordsworth, Keats et al and paintings by Turner.  Instead, we were informed that the Romantics converted medieval pilgrimages into Parisian riots, and that this was all to do with John Lennon and The Doors.  I mean, I like “Imagine” and “Light My Fire” as much as the next person does, but what do they have to do with daffodils in Grasmere or the season of mist and mellow fruitfulness?  And that William Blake wanted Superman to rescue him from John Locke and Darth Vader.  Locke’s books are extremely boring, admittedly, but I’m not quite clear about the role of Darth Vader in the late 18th century.  And apparently Shelley was a punk rocker.  Because he had a teenage bride.  I think the BBC may have got confused between Johnny Rotten and Jerry Lee Lewis there.  Not that either of them have got anything to do with Shelley.

By this point, I was beginning to wonder if Simon Schama, who is usually very interesting, had recently visited Amsterdam, never mind Paris.  And it then developed into everyone’s a racist, everything’s corrupt, all news is fake news, the entire world is horrible … why, oh why, does the BBC have to be so nasty and negative about everything?  The Romantics, and, for that matter, John Lennon, were looking for peace and beauty. How did the BBC manage to turn that into hatred and ugliness?  Thank goodness All Creatures Great and Small‘s on Channel 5, or the BBC would probably have tried to spoil that as well!  Where were the daffodils?  Where were the Lakes?  The Alps?  The Highlands?

This first episode was *slightly* redeemed by Christopher Eccleston reading “The Masque of Anarchy” and some shots of people walking round town with umbrellas to mark the 200th anniversary of Peterloo, but I still wasn’t convinced that medieval pilgrimages had anything to do with Jim Morrison.  Nor that any of it had anything to do with Darth Vader.

OK, the idea of it was that the Romantics had influenced the present day, and I suppose that some of the points made were valid, if a little far-fetched.  But the way it was presented was all about the BBC getting in little political digs.  Yes, you can make a link between the famous Delacroix “Liberty Leading The People” painting, the one associated with Les Miserables, and the 1968 Paris student uprising, although I’m still not sure where John Lennon comes into.  And I can see the link between medieval pilgrimages and modern day protests, although I’m not convinced that the Romantics were a link between them: pilgrimages were old hat well before the Romantics came along.  But did we need all the political gibes?

And I must confess that I never knew that The Doors were named after a Blake poem and was quite interested to hear that they were, and, OK, maybe some of Blake’s pictures did look a bit like superhero comics, but how do you get from there to saying that everyone’s a racist?

Things did look up when Simon started talking about Mary Wollstonecraft, but this was somehow twisted into saying that politicians do nothing but put out fake news.  He then got on to slagging off the British governments in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, whereupon my ears pricked up because I sensed a mention of Peterloo coming; but it was done in a way that was clearly intended as a dig at 21st century governments. Leave it out, BBC.  You are meant to be unbiased.  However, once he’d shut up about Shelley being a punk rocker, we did get “The Masque of Anarchy” and we did get Peterloo, so that was good.  But then he claimed that an 1818 painting of a shipwreck by an artist called Gericault had something to do with asylum seekers.  And did a lot of talking about cannibals.

I didn’t want cannibals.  I didn’t want Darth Vader.   And I didn’t want a load of political gibes and to be told that everyone’s a racist.

I wanted daffodils.  And lakes.  I wanted something romantic and beautiful, to distract me from everything that’s going on.

I’m off to sort out my holiday photos from the Lake District …


The Singapore Grip – ITV


I hope that this gets better, because, despite the attractive sets and the interesting historical context, the first episode wasn’t particularly, well, gripping.  Whilst I understand that it’s supposed to be a satire, the nasty businessman, the temptress daughter, the spoilt brat son and the nice but dim new business partner were so caricatured that it was hard to take them seriously.  That sort of thing works brilliantly in Carry On films or ’80s sitcoms (speaking of which, all the references to the rubber industry kept making me think of the Union Jack Rubber Company in You Rang M’Lord), but not in something which is supposed to be a drama.  The best character was Webb senior, played by Charles Dance, but he’s been bumped off already!   And the jumping about with the timeline was confusing.

But the sets are nice.  There were no historical/anachronistic blunders.  And maybe it’ll get better, once we get into the love triangle between Mr Nice But Dim, the temptress daughter, and the “mystery” Chinese woman played by Xin from Coronation Street.  And I assume that we are actually going to see the fall of Singapore to the Japanese – I think we’re meant to be in 1941 at the moment.  I hope it gets better, anyway.  There’s nothing else on on Sunday nights at the moment.

We’re in Singapore.  Obviously.  Charles Dance, Mr Webb senior, sadly died part-way into the episode, although not until after he’d struck a blow for the older generation by wandering around the garden topless.  Without a scythe, though. So his nice but dim son has inherited his share of the rubber company which he owns jointly with Mr Blackett/Nasty Businessman, who has two giddy daughters.  The elder daughter told her dad, to whom she’s creepily close, that of course she’d marry the nice but dim guy, and it didn’t matter what he was like, followed by lots of tittering and giggling.  However, it appears that the nice but dim guy is involved with the mysterious Chinese woman, whom the Blacketts met a few years earlier and who has now arrived in Singapore as a refugee, and is suspected of being a communist.  I’m not quite sure what the point of the other daughter and the spoilt brat son is.  Or the wife, which is a shame, because Jane Horrocks is wasted playing a character who hardly does anything.

I shall persevere.  I’m hoping that young Mr Webb is not as dim as he seems, and I’d quite like to know what’s going on with the mysterious woman.  And it might get better …


The Whicharts by Noel Streatfeild (Facebook group reading challenge)


Reading this, the adult book which Noel Streatfeild adapted to create Ballet Shoes, was a very strange experience indeed.  It was a bit like finding out that your sweet little old auntie had a disreputable past about which you’d had no idea.  Sleaze.  Grooming.  Mistresses.  Illegitimate children.  Going after married men for their money.  This is not what I’m used to from Noel Streatfeild!  And, although it was meant as an adult book, some of the writing was quite simplistic, which made it even stranger.  As a stand alone book, it’s something that you’d read once, quite enjoy, but probably never read again.  As a Hall of Mirrors version of Ballet Shoes, it’s fascinating, in a rather weird kind of way.

Well, we’ve still got the three girls, although they’re Maimie, Tania and Daisy rather than Pauline, the ridiculously-named Petrova, and Posy.  And they’re still, respectively, an actress, a would-be mechanic and pilot who dislikes the stage, and a dancer.  But, rather than being three orphans whom GUM randomly collected, they’re the three illegitimate children of a rakish brigadier (a very Edwardian type – probably had mutton chop whiskers, used sandalwood aftershave, smoked expensive cigars and played billiards), by three different mistresses.  And, rather than being his niece, their guardian, Rose, is his discarded long-term mistress, whom he dumped when he met Maimie’s mother.  Rose takes in the first two women (not simultaneously!) and, after they’ve given birth, they ride off into the sunset and she takes on the babies.  She then also takes on Daisy, whose mother died of, presumably, childbirth fever.  I’m not sure what’s more unrealistic, GUM collecting orphans or this.  Where on earth is Rose’s self-respect?!

However, Rose is a very attractive character.  Like Sylvia, she’s devoted to the children.  Unlike Sylvia, when the money runs out – in this, darker, version of events, Mr Serial Seducer dies, whereas GUM just goes missing for a while and then turns up safe and well -, she gets a job.  It’s in a wartime munitions factory: this book starts in the Edwardian period, rather than the inter-war period.   There are boarders, but they don’t feature much, whereas they’re key characters in Ballet Shoes.  There is a kindly mechanic who helps out Tania, but he doesn’t live with them.  There is, however, still a devoted Nannie, who stays on even when there’s no money to pay her full salary (Noel Streatfeild is obsessed with devoted old nannies).  And a cook.

Rose herself then also dies, so the girls – and Nannie, of course – are left to fend for themselves.  As I said, this is a much darker version of events.  Daisy doesn’t feature much, unfortunately – and surprisingly.  Posy re-emerges in a different guise as Lydia in the Gemma books, Nicky in Tennis Shoes, and arguably as other characters too: she was obviously a character of whom Streatfeild thought a lot, so I’m surprised that Daisy isn’t a stronger character here.  Tania, however, is the one whose mind we really get into – she’s fascinating.  And very little changes from Tania to Petrova.

Maimie, on the other hand, is a big shock, though.  She’s certainly nothing like Pauline.  She decides early on that what she needs is a man with money.  Not a husband, or even a keeper – that’d mean being tied to one man.  Just a lover with money.  It’s not clear whether or not she deliberately goes after married men, but her men are all married.  There’s an uncomfortable episode in which she’s groomed by a sleazy theatre manager, to whom she succumbs.  In the MeToo era, this would be seen as abuse.  In a different time, it’s not, as she is not forced, but it’s not very pleasant.  We don’t get the detail, but we see her worrying in case she’s fallen pregnant.  I really wasn’t expecting all that in a Streatfeild book.  That was a long way from Ballet Shoes.

So was Maimie’s whole attitude.  Interestingly, we hear Phyllis, a wardrobe mistress with whom Tania becomes friendly, musing about how she herself has always stuck to the straight and narrow, and all she’s got out of it is a thankless, low-paid job, and the as yet unfulfilled hope that she might strike lucky and marry a nice man, who’ll probably also have a thankless, low-paid job … whereas Maimie, by using her face and figure to ensnare married men, breaking all sorts of moral codes and without doing any work, is living the Life of Riley.  Plenty of people must have thought that at one time or another …

A small note on diversity and religion.  Maimie’s main lover, one Herbert Rosen, is Jewish.  He doesn’t bother with religion any more, but (probably?) identifies as being Jewish.  Maimie’s first crush is also Jewish, although he hardly features at all: she goes off him when she finds out that he sells socks.  That doesn’t carry across into Ballet Shoes … well, obviously not, as Pauline doesn’t have any lovers, or even any crushes!  I just picked up on it because there’s not a lot of religious diversity in Girls’ Own books.  Elinor M Brent-Dyer is unusual in having so many Catholic characters. And one agnostic, although the poor girl is forced to attend church services.  Antonia Forest has one Jewish character.  And Noel Streatfeild has the kindly Jewish uncle in Curtain Up.  But there aren’t many characters who aren’t Protestant.

Oh, and there’s, there’s a strange episode in which Maimie temporarily goes very High Church because she’s got a girl crush on a teacher who’s very High Church, and Tania, Daisy and even the narrative make fun of her.  What was that about?  The bishop’s daughter making fun of someone’s religious beliefs and practices?!

So, the three girls are very different. As are the Fossils, but there’s much more of a bond between them than there is between the Whicharts.  The name, incidentally, comes about because they misunderstand the Lord’s Prayer and think that their father’s surname must have been Whichart – “Our Father Whichart in Heaven”.  That was quite good!   There’s no “let’s make the name famous and no-one will be able to say that it was because of our grandfathers” scene.  It’s a lovely scene, that one in Ballet Shoes, but there just isn’t that bond here.  Maimie and Daisy are both reluctant to move out because it’d mean leaving Tania on her own, but that’s only because of guilt, not because they don’t want to be parted from their sisters.

And, in the end, they do go their own ways.  Daisy goes to live with her maternal grandparents, who turn up looking for her.  Tania goes off to find her mother, in a totally bonkers episode which sees her, aged 16 and without a driving licence, drive all the way from London to somewhere near Carlisle, find out that her mother’s moved down south, sleep in the car overnight, and then drive all the way to the Sussex coast … whereupon her mother whisks her off on a cruise to Java.  No, me neither!  And Maimie, we presume, is set up in a nice flat by Herbert.  It’s quite sad, really – but, then again, it looks as if they’ll all be happy, in their own ways, so maybe it isn’t.

Life isn’t always easy, in Noel Streatfeild’s children’s books.  But it’s always fairly innocent.  It isn’t here.  I haven’t read any of her other adult books, so I don’t know what they’re like, but I can’t think of any other example of an adult book, especially one with a fair bit of sleaze and seediness (by the standards of 1931, when this was published), being adapted into a book for little girls.  And it’s such a classic, as well.  It’s very strange.

This is a rather silly book, to be honest.   Rose taking in the three kids, and Tania’s mad drive up and down the country, aren’t very convincing.  But it’s quite interesting, in its way.  However, it was impossible for me to read it without comparing it to Ballet Shoes every step of the way, and, as I’ve said, it was like being in a Hall of Mirrors.   I don’t think I’ll be reading it again, but I’m glad that I have read it, just to see what it was like.


Libertarians on the Prairie: Laura Ingalls Wilder … by Christine Woodside


Manchester Histories recently held a “DigiFest” to mark the 50th anniversary of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act.  I thought that the anniversary would attract a lot of attention nationwide, given what an important landmark it was in terms of disability rights; but it seems to have been pretty much forgotten, which is rather a shame.  I’m mentioning it here because I think that Mary Ingalls was the first book character (not “fictional character”, as, obviously, she was a real person) with a disability whom I came across who was realistically portrayed.  She didn’t make a miraculous recovery, like Clara Sesemann in Heidi, and she didn’t just suddenly die for no apparent reason, like Rosamund Sefton in Mary-Lou of the Chalet School.  She got on with her life as best she could, a much-loved member of a family and a community.  At the same time, the loss of her sight meant significant and difficult changes for her, her parents and her sisters.

In the books, Laura takes a teaching job at the age of 15, and the entire family scrimp and save, so that they can send Mary to college.  In reality, Mary’s education was state-funded.  It’s that sort of thing which people who write academic works about Laura (I’m so glad that this book – “Libertarians on the Prairie: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, and the Making of the Little House Books”, to give it its full name!  – refers to “Laura”, not to “Wilder”, because surely everyone thinks of her as “Laura”) pick up on when arguing that the books express libertarian ideas and ideals.  It’s fascinating how much theorising about the Little House books goes on, and how they’ve become caught up in debates about the frontier theory and ideas of American history, about what America stands for, in culture wars, and even in politics.  To some extent, this happens with all well-known books – people apparently use Anne Blythe, nee Shirley,’s comments about how she doesn’t write any more now that she’s got kids as an argument against women’s lib –  but there aren’t too many parallels for the way that people go on about Ronald Reagan apparently being a fan of Laura’s books, or worry about what Laura would have thought of Donald Trump.

For all the talk about political messages, the early books, in particular, are aimed at very young children.  I read the whole series when I was about 7, and, if there were political messages in them, I didn’t get them, any more than I got the religious messages in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe or even the much less subtle ones in Little Women.  I was genuinely impressed by the much-discussed epiphany scene in Little Town of the Prairie, but only because I took it to mean that all American schoolkids knew the entire Declaration of Independence off by heart.  But, yes, reading the books now, I can see what the academics who make these arguments are getting at.

I don’t think that this book made a particularly strong argument for Laura’s books as an expression of libertarianism, though, certainly not to the extent that Prairie Fires  did.  It wasn’t that the arguments were weak, just that libertarianism wasn’t actually mentioned that much.  Most of it was about the relationship between Laura and her daughter Rose, and the argument over whether or not Rose edited, even co-wrote, and was pretty much responsible for the final versions of the books.  As far as Christine Woodside’s concerned, there’s no argument – Rose played a far bigger part in the writing of the books than has ever been acknowledged.

Would it matter so much if she had?  Well, according to Christine Woodside, yes, it would, because we, the readers, don’t want to accept that the books are not the Word of Laura.  Or, indeed, that they’re not the True Word of Laura: I must confess to being quite upset when I had to accept that the life of the Ingalls family wasn’t exactly as it’s set out in the books!  As Christine Woodside points out, there’d be quite a to-do today if someone wrote a series of books which they claimed were autobiographical, and then it turned out that they’d changed a load of things and left a load of things out.  But times were different then.  Today, we’d just say that the books were “based on” the lives of the Ingalls family.  Which they were.

I personally don’t accept the theory that Rose did most of the work on the books.  I accept that she did some work on them, but I still think that they’re mostly Laura.  Let The Hurricane Roar, which Rose did write,  isn’t a patch on the Little House books.  Christine Woodside obviously thinks differently, and that’s fair enough, but I wish that she’d presented a more balanced view, and not gone 100% for the Rose theory.

I’d also have liked more about Laura and less about Rose, something which I find with all academic works about the Little House books.  The book also covers what happened after Rose’s death, i.e. the rather sad tale about how the copyright ended up in the hands of Roger MacBride, which wasn’t at all what Laura had wanted, but the positive, or negative, depending on how you look at it, story of how he got the TV series going and turned the books into a big franchise.  I do not like that word.  It does my head in when I hear American football teams referred to as “franchises”.  Did the TV series help to keep the popularity of the books going?  I don’t know.  For some reason, I never watched it.   It’s all about the books for me.

There are quite a few books about Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane.  If you’ve read one of them, this one won’t tell you anything that you don’t already know.  If you want to read more about the libertarian theories, Caroline Fraser’s “Prairie Fires” is better.  But this isn’t bad, and I’m always glad to read another book about Laura.  She was a big part of my childhood, and one of the reasons I’ve always loved American history.  And nothing is ever going to change that!


World Kid Lit Month


September is “World Kid Lit Month”, when children are apparently supposed to be encouraged to read translated books.  I love the way that children’s literature forms a bond between women from different Anglophone countries, and from countries where English is widely spoken as a second language; but there were very few translated books available when I was a kid.  That seems to be the same in most countries, and it’s true of adult books as well.

Most of the books I read as a kid were by British authors, but many of them were by American and Canadian authors.  It’s hard to imagine life without the works of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Judy Blume, Louisa May Alcott, Lucy Maud Montgomery, Beverly Cleary, Carolyn Keene (yes, I do know that “she” isn’t a real person!) and Paula Danziger.  There were also some books by authors from Australia and New Zealand, such as Margaret Mahy. Strangely, I don’t remember there being many books by Irish authors: I don’t know why not.  But there is an Anglophone bond with children’s literature.

Some of the books were set in different countries.  Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School books, most of which are set in either Austria or Switzerland, were my absolute favourites.  There were some later books too … I remember a particularly good one called Ganesh, about a boy growing up in India, but I can’t remember the name of the author, and neither Google or Amazon can find it!  As a very historically-minded and travel-minded kid, I really enjoyed them.  But books which actually originated in other countries?  Very few.  Even with adult books, not many get translated.  I don’t know if it’s about cost, or because publishers think that cultural references might not translate well, or just because there are enough books available in the language of each country as it is.

There was Heidi, of course.  And the sequels, although I only recently find out that there were actually more sequels written: I always thought that there were only two, but there are more, but the others are only available in French.  Pippi Longstocking Lottie and Lisa was a particular favourite.  Mrs Pepperpot, when I was very young.  My sister always liked the Mrs Pepperpot books!  I suppose that most fairy tales are translated, because they must have originally been written either in German by the Brothers Grimm or in Danish by Hans Christian Andersen.  And there were the Asterix cartoons.  And our French teacher, when we were about 13, tried to get us to read Le Petit Prince, although I think she was hoping we’d read it in French.  No-one did!

I wish that my French, Spanish and Italian were good enough for me to be able to read books in those languages, but I’m afraid that they aren’t.  And, as a kid, I would love to have had access to some books about different places.  Preferably historical ones!   But there just weren’t a lot around.  Maybe, with the internet making access to all sorts of things easier, this generation will have more choice?  As well as the old classics, not instead of them.  You can never have too many books!



Bess on her own in Canada and Sharlie’s Kenya Diary by Elinor M Brent-Dyer


These two stories, the second pair of “geography readers”, will probably only be read by Elinor M Brent-Dyer (EBD) completists; but I enjoyed them.  I thought that they were very well-written, and I’m sorry that they weren’t longer: full-length books about Bess and Sharlie would have been so much better than, say, “Beechy of the Harbour School”!  The plot of the Canada book is rather thin and silly, and the Kenya book hasn’t really got a plot, but, for stories of this length, that doesn’t matter: the appeal is in the descriptions of the Okanagan region of British Columbia and many areas of Kenya.  Considering that EBD never visited either, she does pretty well with them.  The stories were intended to be educational and there’s some information in them about farming and produce, and also about soil erosion and vanishing lakes in Kenya, which may strike much more of a chord now than it probably did in the 1950s, but they’re more descriptions of the scenery than anything else.  There’s also quite a bit about the wildlife in Kenya, although, sadly, no-one has a pet lion cub (I love “Born Free”).

And both main characters are very appealing.  They both come from uncomplicated backgrounds.  Sharlie’s parents take her to Kenya with them because they *don’t* want to dump her somewhere, but she also has a term at school there because both she and they accept that kids do actually have to get an education and look towards getting a job!  Neither has a major character flaw requiring reform.  They’re just nice, ordinary girls, the sort who never get to take centre stage in full-length books.  And these are very nice reads.

The publishers have padded the book out with long introductions.  There’s nothing wrong with them, except that the Kenya one bizarrely mixes up Lancashire and Cheshire, but, having paid for fiction, I think I’d rather have had some short stories instead.  Oh well.  There’s also a note about the “patronising” language used about the natives in Kenya.  I’m not sure that it was any more patronising than the language used in EBD’s other books about the “peasants” in Austria and Guernsey, but they are given a voice, whereas, unfortunately, we don’t actually hear from any black characters in this.  However, EBD did devote a fair bit of the book to discussing the local customs – even if, as in A Chalet Girl from Kenya, she misunderstood/misused the word “shauri”, but she must have read that somewhere – which a lot of authors at the time would not have done.

Bess, then.  Fifteen-year-old Bess and her parents and two younger brothers live on a wheat farm in Saskatchewan.  When her dad suffers an accident which is going to put him out of action for several months, Bess is dispatched to Vancouver Island to find a cousin with whom they have lost touch and whose address they do not have (their letters to him have been returned), to ask him to abandon his own affairs and come and help. As you would.  The idea is that she’ll go to the first post office or police station she finds, and they’ll be able to track down the said cousin.  You do wonder why her mum didn’t write to the post office or police station, or indeed just engage a manager, but, OK, that would have spoilt the story.

She goes off with a woman whom she meets on the train and, hey presto, the woman’s brother-in-law knows the cousin.  But he’s moved.  To the Okanagan Valley.  So off Bess goes again, and she then goes off with a man whom she meets on a ferry, and, of course, he knows the cousin too.  Her propensity to go off with complete strangers is really rather worrying, but she finds the cousin, he agrees to come and help out, and she gets to spend some time looking round the area.

It’s a very silly plot, but the descriptions really are lovely.  Sadly, we hear very little about Vancouver (which for some reason is referred to as “Vancouver City”) or Victoria, which are both wonderful cities, but we do hear a lot about the Okanagan Valley, and the fruit farms there, and life around the lake.  It really made me want to go to British Columbia again!   It’s such a lovely part of the world, and that came across very well in the book.

Chalet School fans will know that Ted Grantley’s eldest brother was fruit farming in British Columbia, and that Bette Rincini was living in Saskatchewan.  I do wish that EBD had written about the experiences of the many Chalet School characters whom she dispatched, temporarily or permanently, to different parts of the Commonwealth; but she didn’t.  However, Sharlie and her parents meet a Mr and Mrs Scott in Kenya … are these Paul and Maisie Scott, the parents of Jo Scott?

Sharlie’s dad has to go to Kenya on business, and his wife and daughter accompany him.  The story’s in the form of a diary which Sharlie keeps to show her schoolfriends when she gets home.  They travel around, and it sounds wonderful – they see the main cities, go on safari, see lakes and waterfalls, and also see one of the “shauris” which Jo Scott talks about.  There’s some environmental stuff.  And some talk about locusts – which I associate with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “On the Banks of Plum Creek” but which are still causing problems in parts of Africa now – and also a bit about the history of East Africa.  Am I the only one who, whenever I see the word “Zanzibar”, immediately thinks “Ah, Freddie Mercury,” or does everyone do that 🙂 ?

So, two fairly short stories, but I liked them.  No-one other than an EBD fan is going to spend £13 on this book, but I’m glad I did!

All Creatures Great and Small – Channel 5


Ah, this was wonderful!  I was a bit apprehensive about watching it, because it can be weirdly upsetting if a remake of a childhood favourite TV series or film doesn’t work; but it was spot on, and exactly the sort of TV we need at the moment.  Gentle drama, gentle comedy, northern landscapes and – although it wasn’t until the end – James Herriot with his hand stuck up a cow!   And, along with that, nostalgia for watching the original programme as a kid growing up in the ’80s, and also anemoia (good word, that) for a time which was well before I came along but which I’ve heard so much about.  We were reminded from the start that this was set during the Depression, not in some sort of idyll, whereas the original series seemed more timeless.  I can remember watching some of the original episodes with my grandparents, who were much the same age of Alf Wight.  Most of that generation are gone now, and it’ll be interesting to see how well this goes down with a younger audience.

The landscapes haven’t changed much, though.  Well, the towns and villages have: Thirsk and Askrigg, where the original series was filmed, are deemed to look too modern now, so Grassington’s been used instead.  I haven’t been there for ages: maybe I should go before it gets inundated with TV tourists!  And that big place you pass on the right as you head towards Skipton from Boundary Mill has been used as Mrs Pumphrey’s house … although we haven’t actually met Mrs Pumphrey yet.  All those narrow roads with stone walls at the side!  I once decided that it would be a good idea to drive from Middleham to Sedbergh.  Thirty miles, on A roads.  Easy!  Er, no.  A roads across the Dales are not exactly like A roads in Manchester.  Or those in Glasgow, as young James found out as the programme got started and he ended up in the middle of nowhere, in the rain … but, of course, it all turned out OK in the end.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen the first series of the original All Creatures Great and Small.  I’d only have been three when it was shown, and it must have been repeated umpteen times but I can’t remember seeing it.  I remember getting very caught up in the romance between Calum and Deirdre, but that was a good ten years in.  Anyway, we got James meeting Siegfried, and Mrs Hall, and some of the locals – including, of course, Helen, who was delightfully feisty and independent.  And getting drunk in the pub!   The Yorkshire accents were all pretty convincing, which was good.  I’m still getting over the mess that Nigel Lindsay made of Robert Peel’s Lancashire accent in Victoria!   And it was all just so lovely… there hasn’t really been anything with that combination of drama, humour and scenery since The Durrells finished, and this has got the added bonus of ’80s nostalgia as well (also, the characters are likeable rather than irritating!).

So, well done, Channel 5!  This was great.  Now, if you could just move it to a Saturday evening or Sunday evening slot, rather than hiding it away in a Tuesday evening slot, we’ll be sorted!   But this is great, at any time!