The Fall of Anne Boleyn – Channel 5


  I thought I’d heard all there was to hear about the fall of Anne Boleyn, but I must admit that I never knew that marmalade was involved.  It was apparently claimed that Anne used to meet her alleged lovers in the rooms of one of her ladies in waiting, which were also used for storing marmalade.  Why her ladies’ rooms were used for storing marmalade, I have no idea.  Her accusers claimed that, when a lover arrived, the lady in waiting would tell Anne that the marmalade was there.  I dread to think what Paddington Bear would make of this.

Marmalade aside, this was a very interesting trilogy of programmes, despite all the silly “let’s create an atmosphere of suspense” music – presumably everyone watching did actually know what was going to happen.  Yes, there have been a zillion programmes about Anne Boleyn, and I’d rather have seen one about a different queen; but Tracy Borman is an excellent and very enthusiastic presenter and made some very good points.

The idea of this was to retrace Anne’s steps in the days from her arrest to her execution.  A lot was made of the trial being a stitch-up.  I would have thought that everyone would take that for granted – was Anne ever going to be proclaimed innocent of all the trumped-up charges of adultery against her (and don’t tell me that any of them were true), any more than Cranmer’s court was ever going to find that Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon was valid?  But, as Tracy Borman pointed out, maybe people at the time genuinely weren’t sure.  Was the reason it was all so rushed that Cromwell was worried that Henry would change his mind?  And why was there no coffin ready for Anne’s body?  Did the Tower officials genuinely not think that she was going to end up on the scaffold?   Interesting food for thought.

The other main theme was of Anne as a “feisty, outspoken … intellectual powerhouse … way ahead of her time and wasn’t prepared to accept women were second class citizens and weaker than men”.  I think a lot of people would say that about Catherine Parr, but it’s fascinating how Anne’s intelligence tends to be overlooked.  We know that she was a very intelligent woman.  We also know that she held strong views in favour of religious reform.  But she’s always cast as the tart who lured Henry into marriage.  Really, she tends to have a worse reputation amongst women than among men, because she’s seen as the ultimate enemy of the sisterhood, the nightmare of middle-aged women – the younger, more glamorous woman, who lures a man away from his faithful, loving wife.

That’s twaddle, of course.  It wasn’t her fault that Henry went after her.  She wanted to marry Harry Percy.  And, as Tracy pointed out, she wasn’t even particularly pretty.  Did she have alluring ways learnt at the French court?  Or could it actually be that Henry was attracted by her feistiness and intellect?   Looking at it that way would be quite a boost for feminist interpretations of events.

Come to that, the idea of Catherine of Aragon as a saintly figure who spent all her time sewing clothes for the poor doesn’t work either.  This is the woman, the daughter of Isabella of Castile, who was running the country (in Henry’s absence) at the time of Flodden Field, and sent Henry the bloodied surcoat of the dead James IV.  Interesting how English history, which is so Protestant, romanticises both Catherine of Aragon and Mary Queen of Scots.

Did Henry get fed up of Anne’s feistiness, and decide that he wanted a more docile wife?  Quite possibly.  But, ultimately, Anne, like Catherine, was disposed of because she didn’t produce a male heir.  The poor woman had just suffered a miscarriage, probably brought on by shock after Henry was involved in a jousting accident.  There was no sympathy for her.  Nor for Catherine, for all the babies she lost.  Out came charges of witchcraft – often used against women, rarely against men.  Out came charges of adultery: to impugn a woman, impugn her sexual morals.  Her alleged lovers were all executed as well.  Collateral damage.  Everyone turned against her, even her own uncle, to save their own skins.

Then again, by the latter part of Henry VIII’s reign, no-one was safe, man or woman, wife, cousin, old friend, counsellor.  And yet he still manages to be remembered as some kind of big hero: he’s arguably the most recognisable figure in English history.  And Anne is vilified.

Strange, isn’t it?  And even stranger to think that marmalade was involved in it all …


Those Who Are Loved by Victoria Hislop


I think this is Victoria Hislop’s best book yet.  Her style of writing is quite simplistic and could be more challenging, but this is a superb story about the turbulent history of Greece in the 1930s and 1940s – finishing, other than an epilogue set in 2016, in 1985, with the destruction of files held on those who’d fought for the communists during the civil war.  It’s told through the eyes of Themis, a four-year-old girl in Athens when the story begins, who goes on to join the communist army and is held in a prison camp and tortured.  It’s inevitably biased towards Themis’s viewpoint, but we do see other members of her family holding opposing views and joining different sides.

Other than Nick Gage, and I suppose Louis de Bernieres would also count, very few people have written in English about the history of modern Greece.  This book really gets the story across very well.

The book starts in 1930, so we don’t see the Greco-Turkish War or hear in detail about the horrors of what’s euphemistically described as the population exchange.  However, as Themis’s best friend and her mother are refugees from Asia Minor, her father having been killed in the fighting, we are reminded of what happened there.  Then, between the proclamation of a republic in 1924 and the restoration of the monarchy in 1935, Greece, gripped by the worldwide Great Depression by the early 1930s, saw government after government collapse, and a number of failed coups.  In 1936, with a Royalist majority returned by the latest elections, the monarchy was restored, but, amid widespread unrest due to the economic problems, General Metaxas suspended parliament and set up a totalitarian regime.  We see a lot of political arguments between Themis’s two brothers, one of whom is pro-Metaxas and one of whom is vehemently opposed to him, and we see Themis’s sister become very involved with the pro-Metaxas EON youth group.  It’s all part of the tapestry of family life, but family life is telling the story of Greece.  The children’s mother is in a psychiatric hospital and their father is in America, and they live with their grandmother – I’m not quite sure what the point of that is, but it doesn’t really affect the story.

Greece was invaded by Fascist Italy in 1940 and Nazi Germany in 1941, and occupied by German, Italian and Bulgarian forces, who carried out horrific atrocities.  Many civilians died of hunger as the occupying forces seized their food supplies – and this comes across very powerfully in the book, as Themis finds her best friend dead in the street, and learns that her friend’s mother’s also starved to death. 

Resistance groups were formed and achieved impressive successes, perhaps more so than in any other occupied country, but, as in Yugoslavia and elsewhere, were split between communist groups and other groups. One of Themis’s brothers joins the communist resistance: the other joins the police.  Meanwhile, Themis’s sister takes up with a Nazi soldier.  The split in the family reflects the split in the nation. 

In 1944, the Axis powers were driven out, but civil war broke out, between the officially-recognised government, backed by Western powers fearful of a communist takeover, and the left-wing groups.  The book’s very critical of British policy here.  The brother who’s in the police is injured in clashes and left permanently disabled.  The other brother remains with the communist forces and is eventually killed.  And Themis herself joins the communist army: her training and military involvement are depicted very well.  

The government forces eventually triumphed.  There were severe reprisals, both during the war and afterwards against those who’d fought on the communist side, with concentration camps set up on the islands of Gyaros and Makronisos and in the town of Trikeri.  Themis is captured.  She’s also pregnant, the result of a romance with a male comrade – who later defects to the other side.  In the camps, female prisoners are pressurised to swear loyalty to the government, with a promise of release if they do so.  With a baby to consider, Themis eventually does so, and is able to go home.

One of the worst aspects of the war was the forced removal of children by both sides: the communists sent children to neighbouring, communist-ruled countries, and the government forces sent children to camps under the auspices of Queen Frederika.  The son of a friend Themis made in the camps, who died there, had been taken to one of the Queen’s camps.  Rather unrealistically, it turns out that the child’s father is Themis’s ex-lover, who appears to have spent more of his time in the communist army time chasing women than fighting.  Also rather unrealistically, Themis’s sister has run off to Germany.  Some bits of the book, it has to be said, are pretty far-fetched!

Themis somehow manages to track down her friend’s child, pretends to be his aunt, and brings him up along with her own son.

There was at least peace and stability for a period after that, despite deep divisions in politics and society.  This is reflected in Themis’s own life: she marries an old schoolfriend and settles down to an ordinary life.  The past is never spoken of: her children don’t know that she was ever in the army or a prison camp.  Her son by the fellow soldier emigrates to America.

But, in 1967, there was a military coup, and a military junta was established.   In 1973, the monarchy was again abolished, and then there was another coup, whereupon Turkey invaded Cyprus.  In the middle of all this, there was an uprising at Athens Polytechnic, which was brutally suppressed.  Amongst the dead is Themis’s adopted son, the boy she rescued from a children’s camp.

His father is killed in the 1999 Athens earthquake.

The military regime collapsed amid the events of 1973-74, and, thankfully, Greece has been a peaceful democracy since then.  Themis and her husband grow peacefully into old age.  But I think we – in Britain, and other countries which have been fortunate enough to live in peace since 1945 – do sometimes forget just how recently peace and democracy have come to Greece, and to Spain and Portugal, as well as to the former Eastern Bloc countries of Europe.  It’s rarely spoken of.  This book gets the story across extremely well.



The Great Plague – Channel 5


Just in case we hadn’t heard enough about pandemics this year, Channel 5 decided to present us with a three-part series about bubonic plague – presented not by a historian but by a medic, an archaeologist and John Sergeant.  John, instead of dancing badly, submitted to having spots and buboes painted on his face: I think even Lucy Worsley might have drawn the line at that.

Seriously, it was very interesting – although it didn’t half go on about fleas and lice.  Their theory was that the plague was spread not by fleas from rats but from human parasites which hang around on clothes.  They did present some very convincing arguments in support of that, and it would certainly explain why the plague died down in the colder months, and how it was carried to Eyam in a parcel of patterns, but I was more after the social history than the bugs.  Most of what was said about the 17th century was familiar, but the outbreaks in early 20th century Britain are less well-known.  It spread round Glasgow after one person died of the plague, hundreds of people came to the wake, and then the deceased’s possessions were given away to friends and relatives.  Frightening.

It’s always inspiring to hear about the courage and tragedy of Eyam, which formed much of the third episode.  It’s certainly not inspiring to hear about how rich Londoners, even doctors, took off as fast as their carriages would carry them, carrying the plague across the country and leaving the poor to die – although many brave nurses stayed behind, doing what they could.   For those left behind, as the presenters kept pointing out, their main weapons against the plague, other than limewashing and fumigation, and putting coins in vinegar – which were actually pretty effective – were what would now be called social distancing and self-isolation.

No, nobody had to yell “Unclean, unclean”.  That was leprosy, not the plague.  And, apparently, those masks with long noses weren’t used in England.  It didn’t actually mention pomander balls.  It did mention closing theatres.  And sending your servants out to do the shopping – although obviously that wasn’t much use if you didn’t have servants.  And it wasn’t really great for the poor servants.   But it did show that people were aware of the need to try to avoid contact – not easy when things were so bad that there were bodies of plague victims lying in the street.  The Lord Mayor of London, who was left to try to cope with things after the court decamped, stood on some sort of balcony, so that no-one could get too close to him.  People came to see him to ask for health certificates, so that, if they were able to leave, they’d find it easier to get lodgings.

And the plague crosses on houses.  When the coronavirus pandemic started, there were a few gallows humour jokes about plague crosses flying around, but the thought of houses actually being nailed up, with healthy members of the household left in there to die along with the sick, really is horrible.

And, even with measures like that, the death rates were horrific.  There’s the old rhyme, isn’t there?  “In sixteen hundred and sixty five, there was hardly anyone left alive.  In sixteen hundred and sixty six, London burned like rotten sticks.”  Incidentally, the presenters reckoned that the Great Fire didn’t really have much to do with the end of the plague outbreak, and that it was ending naturally anyway.  “There was hardly anyone left alive” is obviously rather an exaggeration, but so many thousands of people died.  Tragic stories of two women, one in London and one in Eyam, who both lost their husbands and all their children.  Bodies being thrown into mass graves.  It was nothing that viewers won’t have heard a million times before, but it was still so, so sad.

The conclusion, other than all the stuff about lice and fleas, was that there have always been pandemics.  OK, that was stating the obvious, but it was probably something about which we did need to be reminded – because I think we’d all got complacent, and we thought that modern science would prevent anything like the situation in which we find ourselves in 2020 from ever happening again, outside the pages of dystopian novels.

And, one day, this will be over, but we’re always going to be The Covid Generations, and we’re always going to look at things through the prism of what happened in 2020 (and, let’s face it, at least part of 2021 as well).  How weird is that?  Just as my grandmas and great-aunts always hoarded food because they never quite got past rationing, and kept scraps of cardboard and bits of string, I’m probably always going to carry a bottle of hand sanitiser around with me, and maybe I’ll always step into the road if I see someone coming the other way along a narrow pavement.  I’ll certainly never read a book, or watch a programme, about the Great Plague, the Black Death or any other pandemic in the same light again.


Court of Wolves by Robyn Young


This is a bit like the Champions League of Tudor-era detective novels, not because it’s particularly top level (the storyline isn’t overly convincing, and Robyn Young’s books about the Crusades were much better generally) but because it features lots of big names from various different countries 🙂 .  Whilst it’s not one of the author’s best books, it’s much better than Sons of the Blood, to which it’s the sequel, and it’s worth reading for the cast list alone.

Our hero, Jack Wynter, finds himself in Florence, where he’s taken into the household of Lorenzo de Medici, gets to know the entire Medici family, meets up with Amerigo Vespucci, and rescues the future Ottoman Sultan Dzem.  Dzem – as we know from watching The Borgias 🙂 – would almost certainly have been in Rome, not Florence, but Robyn Young, unlike certain other authors, does clearly explain in an afterword where and why she’s taken slight liberties with history.  Meanwhile, Jack’s baddie half-brother, Harry Vaughan, is dispatched by Henry VII as an ambassador to the court of Ferdinand and Isabella, but accidentally volunteers to join their Reconquista army, fighting alongside Edward Woodville, who did actually join the army deliberately, and considering killing Christopher Columbus but not going through with it.

I didn’t particularly enjoy Sons of the Blood, because there was way too much gratuitous violence and it included a ridiculously implausible Princes in the Tower escape plot, but this one was much better, and hopefully the third book in the trilogy will be too.

The basic idea is that Jack and Harry’s late father had a map which showed the way to what was to become known as the New World, and that he was involved in a secret society which wanted all religions to work together.  It’s not entirely clear what the two things have to do with each other, and a lot of other things aren’t entirely clear either, but presumably all the loose ends will be tied up in the third book.  This book’s quite disjointed, with Harry’s unintended adventures at the Siege of Loja, Jack’s romance with a girl in Florence, and frequent references to the Princes in the Tower not seeming to have very much to do either with the basic idea or each other, but it’s worth reading for the brilliant descriptions of both Renaissance-era Florence and Reconquista-era Andalusia, and for all the big names we meet along the way.

Incidentally, I could have lived without the Reconquista being made to sound so heroic – the destruction of the great Islamic and Jewish cultures of the Iberian peninsula was a tragedy – but, OK, we’re meant to be seeing it through the eyes of 15th century Christians.

This is definitely a distinct improvement on Sons of the Blood.  Even so, Robyn Young’s brilliant books on the Crusades, the Templars and Robert the Bruce, straight historical novels rather than having quite so much about Dan Brown about them, were much, much better; but, as I’ve said, it’s worth reading because it’s got some of the biggest names in early modern European history all in the same book.  And that rarely happens.  The Renaissance, the Reconquista and the Voyages of Discovery all tend to be taught separately at school, and books usually reflect that.  So this makes an interesting change.

My Family, the Holocaust and Me, episode 2 – BBC 1


I think part of the idea behind this series was to show that the events of the Holocaust, whilst they were 75/80 years ago, are still having a big impact on perfectly ordinary British people leading perfectly ordinary lives; and it got that across very well.  The lady whose family were arrested by the Nazis only a few hundred yards from the safety of the Swiss border, near the ironically idyllic setting of Annecy – it sounded like a story from a book or a film, but it was real life – spent her teenage years in Manchester and went to my old school, so that was certainly pretty close to home for me.  We also saw Bernie Graham, who featured in the first episode, and Robert Rinder’s mum Angela Cohen saying memorial prayers for uncles and aunties who’d been killed in concentration camps, and being overcome with emotion: these were immediate relatives whom they should have known and loved and who should have played a big part in their lives.  

And we saw Robert and Angela meeting Leon Ritz, the last survivor of Treblinka, and hear him saying that anger wouldn’t do any good and that you had to look to the future.  Finally, we heard Robert say that he’d feared Treblinka would rob him of his optimism, but that he was still able to feel hopeful.   

These two programmes really were very well done.  Personal history programmes can sometimes be more effective than ordinary documentaries, and these were a prime example of that.

We learnt last week that Bernie had always been told that his young uncle had taken his own life in Dachau.  This week, we learnt that that wasn’t the case: he’d died in the terrible conditions there.  At that point, the ashes of Dachau victims were being sent to their friends and relatives, and so there was a grave for Bernie to visit, in Frankfurt where his uncle had come from.  He was able to say the Kaddish, the Jewish memorial prayer, there, as Angela was for her aunts and uncles at Treblinka, and it clearly meant a lot to both of them and to Robert … but so, so distressing.

The mum of Noemie Lopian, the lady from Manchester, who’s still alive and whom we met later on in the programme, had been a young child in France during the war.  She and her siblings had been sent away by their desperate parents, in the hope that the Resistance could get them into Switzerland.  They’d been part of a group of 32 children accompanied by young Jewish French Resistance member Marianne Cohn.  Only a few hundred yards from the border, they were arrested and imprisoned in the border town of Annemasse.  We saw Noemie actually visit the prison where they’d been held.

Marianne, who’d already saved the lives of many children by getting them into Switzerland, was raped, tortured and murdered.   The children were eventually freed, due to the intervention of the local mayor, and were helped to escape to Switzerland.  Noemie’s grandparents survived in hiding, and were later reunited with their children.  So that was a positive story, but, as she said, her mum had been through a horrific ordeal, and she felt that hearing the detail and seeing where it had happened gave a new dimension to her feelings for her.  

It really was a very emotional programme, all in a very natural way about very unnatural events.  I don’t always have a lot of praise for the BBC these days, but well done to them and to Robert Rinder and everyone else involved.  These two programmes were superb.


Star by Star by Sheena Wilkinson (Facebook group reading challenge)


I read this book because the blurb said that it was “a bold tale of suffragettes”; but it was actually more about the Spanish flu.  Strangely few books cover the Spanish flu, and, under the present circumstances, it was particularly interesting to read one that did.  The women’s suffrage movement did come into it, though, as did the granting of universal male suffrage, the mental health impact of the First World War, and the complex political situation in Northern Ireland.  As one of the characters said, it was an awful lot for everyone to try to process at once – the war, the Spanish flu, the general election so soon after the Armistice, it being the first time that all men and any women could vote, and the issue of Irish independence.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a character in a book say that before, and it was a very, very good point.

This is 180 page book for children, so obviously it didn’t go into the depths than an adult book on the same subjects would, but it packed a lot in, and all in quite a quirky way, with Our Heroine keeping imagining that she was at the centre of big dramas and playing out scenarios in her head.  She was about 16.  I still do that now!

This was late 1918 – the Armistice was announced towards the end of the book – and our heroine Stella was moving from Manchester to live at her auntie’s boarding house in a seaside resort in Ulster, following the death of her mother from the Spanish flu.  Very impressed that the book had a Manchester connection 🙂 .  Suffragette City!   I do love reminding people, for the millionth time, that I went to the same school as the Pankhurst sisters.  Who apparently didn’t like the place very much, but the school doesn’t tell pupils that!

Anyway, back to the book.  She’d lived in “Eupatoria Street”.  I wonder if that’s near Inkerman Street and Balaclava Terrace 🙂 . We learnt that she was illegitimate and that that was why her mother had left home, and that her mother had been very involved with the suffragette movement.  She was very keen on the idea of women’s rights, but, although we saw her accompanying her late mother’s best friend to the polling station on the day of the 1918 election, there wasn’t much active politics going on …. but then there wasn’t anyway, because campaigning had been suspended due to the war.

Another of the people staying at the boarding house was a soldier who’d been invalided out of the Army and was struggling to cope psychologically – and that again was something which so many books about the First World War don’t cover, and it was good to see that as a major theme here.  The complex political situation in the north of Ireland was also a central theme, with opposing views expressed by different characters.  If it hadn’t been for the House of Lords, the whole of Ireland would have had Home Rule in Gladstone’s time and a lot of bloodshed would probably have been avoided, but you can’t rewrite history.

However, it was really the Spanish flu pandemic that dominated events. Or maybe that’s just how it seemed to me, and I’d have felt differently had I been reading the book a year ago.  I usually get annoyed when people talk about historical events in the context of current events, but it’s impossible to read about the Spanish flu pandemic at the moment and not look at it in the context of the coronavirus pandemic.  We think things are bad now, but at least we haven’t got healthy people suddenly taking ill in the street and dying within hours, funeral parlours struggling to cope, homes of infected people being viewed by frightened neighbours as houses of contagion, and little in the way of effective treatment for those worst affected.  The death toll was just horrendous, and this in a world already reeling from all the deaths and long-term injuries resulting from the war.

Despite all the serious subjects, there was quite a light touch to it, told in the first person by a teenage girl who, as you do at that age, took herself very seriously!   As I said, it’s a children’s book, not an adult book, but, as a children’s book, it was very good, and I would have loved to have had something like this to read when I was in the intended reading age group.


The Outstanding Blogger Award 2020


Thank you to The Honest Avocado for tagging me in this – original post here

The Honest Avocado’s book reviews are great, if you’d like to read them!

The rules:

  1. Provide the link to the creator’s original award post. (very important: see why in step 5)
  2. Answer the questions provided.
  3. Create 7 unique questions.
  4. Nominate up to 10 bloggers. Ensure that they are aware of their nomination. Neither the award’s creator nor the blogger that nominated you can be nominated.
  5. At the end of 2020, every blog that ping-backs the creator’s original post will be entered to win the 2020 Outstanding Blogger Award!

I’m not nominating anyone, because I don’t want anyone to feel obliged if they haven’t got time, but please feel free to consider yourself nominated if you’d like to!

Answers to The Honest Avocado’s questions:

Why do you like to read? 

I’ve always read!   To escape, and to learn about different times and different places.

If you could have written any book series, which would it be, and why?

A children’s school story series like the Chalet School books, because they can really get kids into reading.

What is the most surprising fact you can think of?

Er, I have no idea!   Probably something to do with animals, but I can’t think of anything offhand.

Are you the sort of person who knows their Myers-Briggs type or Enneagram?

I had to Google those.  I don’t think I’m any of the Enneagram types!  For Myers-Briggs, introverted and intuitive.

Look out your window, what do you see?

A bit of grass, my car, the black wheelie bin (ready to be collected tomorrow), and the house opposite.

Where is your favourite place to go outside of work or your own home

The Lake District.  So glad that I decided to be spontaneous, for once in my life, and go for a day a few weeks ago, just before more restrictions were announced.

Do you have any good Christmas/Thanksgiving/Holiday movie recommendations? 

I like White Christmas.  And The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe – not a holiday film as such, but it’s winter for most of the time, and Father Christmas makes an appearance, so I reckon it counts!


Seven original questions:

  1.  What made you decide to start a Word Press blog?
  2.  Have you been writing more, less or the same as a result of the weirdness of 2020?
  3.  Would you rather read reviews of books or reviews of films/TV programmes?
  4.  Do you read blogs in languages other than your first language?
  5.  Which other social media sites do you use regularly?
  6.  Sport – do you prefer playing or watching?
  7.  Which is your favourite season?


Thank you!


My Family, the Holocaust and Me – BBC 1


Family history programmes are becoming increasingly popular, and they do work very well: they personalise and humanise history in a way that text books and ordinary documentaries can’t do, especially when talking about the murder of millions of ordinary people.  Many Holocaust survivors, and Second World War veterans, went to their graves without talking about what had happened: there was so much that the people in this programme didn’t know about their own grandparents and great aunts/uncles.

A lot of Holocaust programmes only focus on the death camps.  That’s understandable, but it means that other aspects of what happened are overlooked.  This programme didn’t: we did hear about the horrors of the camps, but we also saw Robert “Judge” Rinder visiting the site of an Einsatzgruppen massacre on the Lithuanian-Belarusian border, and we saw Louisa Clein (Maya in Emmerdale) and her sister Natalie looking into their grandmother’s involvement in the Dutch resistance, and how she gave her children up to foster parents for their own safety.  And it really was very well done.

The mass grave where hundreds of people, including some of Robert Rinder’s relatives, were buried, some of them still alive, is still there.  There’s something particularly sad about those little villages.  I’ve been to Babi Yar/Babyn Yar, but so many of the Einsatzgruppen massacres took place in little villages, or in forests, and nobody goes to visit the sites: how many people go to visit small villages on the Lithuanian-Belarusian border?  And that way of life, going back to the Middle Ages, was wiped out for good: communities in cities were to some extent rebuilt, but not those in villages.

This is highly recommended, and there’s another episode next week, which I’ll certainly watch.

We had three family stories in this.  Robert Rinder himself was looking into the history of some relatives on his father’s side.  His maternal grandfather was a Holocaust survivor, but his paternal grandfather, who featured in the programme but sadly died with coronavirus earlier this year, was a Cockney born and bred.  However, some of his relatives died in … ah, the wonders of Eastern European moving borders.  It was part of Russian-ruled Lithuania, which was in Poland in the inter-war years, and was then split between Lithuania and Belarus, even though most of the surviving population’s Polish … so the village where they actually lived is now in Lithuania, and the village 20 miles or so away, where they were murdered, is in Belarus.  He was able to speak to an elderly lady who actually remembered the massacre, remembered hearing the screams.  She talked about how the ground was still moving as they covered it up: people were still alive.  And the grave’s there – and it’s huge.  So many people, just gunned down.

We also saw a man called Bernie Graham visit Frankfurt, where his grandparents had come from.  His grandfather had survived, and been reunited with Bernie’s mum, who’d come to England on the Kindertransport: his grandmother hadn’t.  He’d never been to Germany before, because he’d felt uncomfortable about it. There’d been some sort of family rumour that his grandmother had died after the liberation of Auschwitz, but she hadn’t: she’d died in Sobibor.  He heard her story, and he also heard about the brutality suffered by his grandfather.  His grandfather had lost an eye, and he’d often said about how that was down to the Nazis, but hadn’t talked any more about it.

Bernie, named after an uncle who’d taken his own life in Dachau, said that he felt that he’d been born into a state of bereavement: his friends would talk about their grandmas and aunties and uncles, and he didn’t have any.

And we saw Louisa Clein and her sister Natalie visiting Amsterdam, to learn about their grandmother, and her sister who hadn’t survived.  The grandmother’s story was not what you’d expect at all: she’d been involved with the Dutch resistance.  They knew that, because she’d received a certificate from Eisenhower after the war, but they didn’t know the detail, and they heard about how she’d helped Allied airmen to escape, which was fascinating.  And she’d given her children up to foster parents, and that saved their lives.

But her sister had died.  She’d been taken to a transit camp in Westerbork after refusing to wear an “S” symbol, and then deported to Sobibor, where she’d been killed.  They were able to speak to a man whose father had been this great-aunt’s boyfriend, and had actually gone to Germany to try to find her after she’d been deported.  There was a system whereby some Dutch Jews were sent to another place in the Netherlands, at Barveneld, where they were able to live relatively normal lives and she’d have stood a good chance of survival.  Having been a teacher, she was considered important enough to be put on this list – but the news came one day too late.  She’d been deported the day before.  You couldn’t make it up.  So sad.

They said that they’d known very little about her: their grandmother didn’t talk about her.  And that now they felt that at least they knew about her life, and what she was like.  And that was what this programme was really doing: it was taking individuals, it was humanising the worst period of human history.  This was their grandma’s sister, a teacher, a dancer, someone who was stubborn enough to refuse to wear an “S”, who had a boyfriend who was so devoted to her that he went into Nazi Germany to try to find her, and at least now they knew all that.  It was very powerful.

This really was an excellent hour’s TV.  Not everyone feels comfortable watching programmes like this, but they are very well worth watching.

Royal History’s Biggest Fibs with Lucy Worsley: the French Revolution – BBC 1


  I thought that some of this was a bit patronising.  Surely most people realise that the institution of monarchy in France didn’t come to an end in 1789, or even 1793; and surely no-one thinks that the French Revolution was a peasants’ revolt.  Also, Lucy Worsley’s childish dressing up is extremely annoying, as is her use of the word “fibs” which I don’t think anyone over the age of eight is in the general habit of using …. although I did rather envy the large plate of French pastries which she apparently found necessary to illustrate the issue of food shortages.  Furthermore, there was a disappointing lack of reference to either tricoteuses or Charlotte Corday murdering Marat in the bath.  People should always mention these things when discussing the French Revolution.  Especially tricoteuses.

Having said all that, I thought she made some extremely good points.  There were three main themes which stood out for me.  One was the demonisation of Marie Antoinette – and I’d draw parallels with Henrietta Maria and Alexandra Feodorovna, as well.  All three had their faults, but they weren’t responsible for their husbands’ failures.  Yet people always seem to find it easier to blame a woman, especially a foreign woman.  One was the way in which French history romanticises the Revolution, conveniently ignoring the Terror, the fact that it wasn’t actually very democratic at all, and the fact that the First Republic only actually lasted for, er, twelve years.  And the third was the way in which British history views it completely differently, due in no small part to Charles Dickens and Madame Tussaud, and puts a lot of emphasis on Madame Guillotine.  I think it was probably also Dickens who popularised the image of tricoteuses.  I really was very disappointed that there was no mention of tricoteuses …

Poor old Marie Antoinette, then.  I think most people are now past the idea of her saying “Let them eat cake” but, as Lucy pointed out, the idea was so strongly held for decades that it even appeared in school textbooks.  I don’t think she ever stood a chance, even when she got married: it was too soon after the Diplomatic Revolution, and Austrians weren’t popular in France.  Then it took her a while to produce an heir … which was because Louis didn’t, er, make the effort.  And, as I’ve said, people love to demonise a woman, especially a foreign woman, and especially to make sexual allegations about her.  In poor Marie Antoinette’s case, she was even accused of abusing her own son.  That’s not widely reported now, but the “let them eat cake” story does still linger.

As for the French view of the Revolution, Lucy wasn’t nastily sarcastic like she was in the unpleasant series about American history, but she did poke a bit of fun at Emmanuel Macron (a man who irritates me a million times more than she does) for making out that the French Revolution was some great exercise in democracy which set the pattern for the entire world.  It was pointed out that the Storming of the Bastille only actually freed a few prisoners, most of whom were forgers and one of whom was an Irishman who thought he was Julius Caesar.  And that the franchise was only extended to some men, not all.  And no women.

I don’t think anyone sees it as a peasants’ revolt, but it does have this image as a mass uprising, whereas, as Lucy said, it started off with a group of upper-middle-class legislators having a meeting at a tennis court.  The “to the barricades” thing belongs to 19th century risings.  French history tends to gloss over that.  And it glosses over the Terror …

… whereas British history is obsessed with the Terror!   Guillotines!  Tumbrils!  Tricoteuses!  Oh, hang on, she didn’t mention tricoteuses.  The guillotine was apparently meant to be democratic, though.  I have to admit that I’d never thought of that, but it was a very good point.  English historians are very familiar with the idea of posh people being beheaded on Tower Hill, with a nice sharp sword rather than an axe in Anne Boleyn’s case, whereas common people were hanged at Tyburn; and Ancien Regime France had a similar system.  Then came the guillotine.  And it didn’t hurt – although I suppose we don’t really know that for sure, as none of its victims can tell us.  But there is still no denying the fact that a lot of people were guillotined, and that the Terror well deserves its name.

Even so, I think that there was still some romanticising in Britain over the French Revolution, especially given the repressive nature of Pitt the Younger’s government.  But I think British historians get more romantic about the American Revolution, even though it was against Britain!

To draw this back to the idea of “fibs”, the point was that the French and British views of the French Revolution are very different but both pretty biased.  Fair point.  Although I remember everyone making a big fuss about the 200th anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille, in 1989.  We had a “French day” at school – which must have been at least a week early, as we’d have broken up by the 14th.  We were supposed to speak French all day.  Very Chalet School.  Except that no-one really bothered.  But we did get croissants at break.  It was a bit mad that we, in Britain, made a fuss of that.  But then people make a fuss about the Fourth of July as well.  Oh, whatever!  It’s an excuse to eat …

We were also reminded about the obsession with decimalising everything – although, strangely, without any reference to the Brumaire/Thermidor calendar.  And about the use of hot air balloons.  I think the idea of that was to make the point that the revolutionaries were into science, although I don’t think anyone’s ever “fibbed” that they weren’t.   And, apparently, Robespierre wasn’t as bad as people make out.  Hmm.  Oh, and the Tricolore is not really a revolutionary or republican symbol, because the white is the Bourbon colour, and it wasn’t really a thing until the 1848 Revolution, not the 1789 one, anyway.  The word “Tricolore” always reminds me of our school French textbooks.  They were a big thing in the 1980s.

Anyway, despite Lucy’s rather irritating presenting style, I enjoyed this more than her American history series, when she was so spitefully sarcastic about the history of our most important ally, or the previous “Royal History” series when she kept putting across the BBC’s Euro-obsessive agenda instead of talking about what she was supposed to be talking about.  This was much better, and hopefully the rest of the series will be the same.  And I wonder what happened to all those pastries …



Wake by Anna Hope


This seemed appropriate for Remembrance Sunday.  It follows the lives of three women in London in the week leading up to the arrival of the Unknown Warrior’s cortege and the unveiling of the Cenotaph in Whitehall, 100 years ago.  The prose isn’t particularly classy, and it’s written in the present tense, which is annoying; but, after a slow start, I really did get into it and found it very interesting.  It’s quite a bleak book: no ceremony and memorial are going to bring back Ada’s dead son or Evelyn’s dead fiancé, help Hettie’s traumatised brother to start rebuilding his life, heal the physical and mental injuries of the various other young men who feature in the book, or fulfil the promises of creating a land fit for heroes to live in.  But it does end on a positive note, as we see that the interment of the Unknown Warrior and the ceremony at the Cenotaph form an act of national memorial and closure, and help people to begin moving forward.

It usually annoys me when people talk about historical events in terms of what’s happening today – the BBC are particularly bad at doing this! – but it was hard not to keep wondering why there was no mention of the Spanish flu.  Also, one of the things which has been particularly hard about this year has been that people haven’t been able to attend funerals, and that the other religious and cultural rituals associated with death have not been able to take place.  Just a couple of thoughts.  But this is about 1920, not 2020, and it does say a lot about the legacy, the wake, of the Great War.

It’s rather disjointed at first, because are three different stories.  Hettie’s a 19-year-old girl working in a dance club, where men pay her to be their dance partner (but nothing more), struggling to assert her independence from her widowed mother.  Evelyn, despite being from a well-to-do family, worked in a munitions factory during the war, where she lost a finger in an accident, and is now working in a War Office pensions bureau, wanting to do something to help, and to fill her days.  Ada’s a working-class housewife, who keeps thinking that she’s seen her dead son, and even consults a medium – who, fortunately for her, isn’t a charlatan, and gently tells her that she needs to accept that he’s gone.  Eventually, it all comes together, and we learn that one of Hettie’s dance partners is Evelyn’s brother Edward, who was Ada’s son’s commanding officer.

There’s some class stuff going on, as we see that a lot of men coming into Evelyn’s office are struggling for money and that intensifies as we learn that Edward ordered the shooting of deserters, by their personal friends.  But then we see that he had no choice, that he was just obeying orders, and that he’s traumatised as well.  Everyone’s suffering.  Ada’s relationship with her husband, who’s accepted that their son is gone, is suffering.  And neither Evelyn or Hettie know how to help their brothers.

The contrast between the lives of the two younger woman is fascinating.  Hettie, despite everything, is able to enjoy her youth: even though she’s working, she’s enjoying the dancing and the music, and her life’s ahead of her.  Evelyn, although she’s hardly old, feels that she’s missed out, that the war has stolen her life, that young people feel that they’re entitled to enjoy themselves but that that joy in life’s gone from her.  But, at the end, we see her accept a date with a work colleague, who lost a leg in the war but has been able to adapt, and we’re left to hope that a happy ending lies in store.

I suppose we think of the 1920s as being detached from the Great War, whether we associate it with the General Strike, flappers, jazz music, Prohibition, or umpteen other things.  But, obviously, it wasn’t.  And it’s fascinating how the first anniversary of the Armistice seems to have been a day of celebration, but, by the second anniversary, the mood had changed, and it became the season of Remembrance … as it still is, a century later.


They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old. 

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.


We will remember them.