Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays/Cool Yule/other greeting of choice. If anyone’s been reading my wafflings during this difficult this year, thank you so much. Stay safe, and let’s hope that 2021 is a better year for all of us!
Month: December 2020
The Chalet School in Guernsey by Katherine BruceStandard
Pity the Coronation Street scriptwriters, who’ve tried so hard to reflect the reality of Covid-era Britain but, not having crystal balls, couldn’t foresee the imposition of Lockdown Two and Tier bloody Three. And so the episodes we’re seeing now, filmed three months in advance, are sadly a long way removed from what’s actually happening. Now pity, a million times more, Elinor M Brent-Dyer (EBD), who moved the Chalet School and Jem Russell’s Sanatorium from post-Anschluss Austria to the safety of Guernsey, only for the Nazis to occupy the Channel Islands almost as soon as she’d put down her pen.
The need to get the School and the San over to the British mainland in the next book meant that EBD didn’t have much chance to write about their time in Guernsey, and this new “fill-in” … well, fills that in. It includes quite a lot of detail about life and restrictions in the early part of the war, which is fascinating from a social history viewpoint. The Armada editions of the wartime books, the ones in print when I was a kid, annoyingly had a lot of the detail specific to wartime cut out of them. It’s good to have so much included here. Our favourite characters may be fictional, but they live(d) in a real place, in a real time.
Fill-in authors do, obviously, have to work with what EBD wrote. And, as much as I love the wartime books – The Chalet School in Exile really is a very special piece of writing – , it does have to be said that some of what’s in them is a bit bonkers. Karen, Anna, Frau Mieders and her sister, Herr Laubach, and Emmie and Johanna Linders all somehow escape from/”get themselves smuggled out of” the Third Reich, and a whole gang of people, two of whom have escaped from a concentration camp, somehow all end up meeting up in Bordeaux. Too many escape stories told in detail would have just been too unconvincing, but I’m delighted that the one we get here is Karen’s … even though I maintain that Karen wasn’t actually a Pfeifen but a family friend (yes, I know that everyone else thinks she was a Pfeifen), and that Anna was Marie’s cousin rather than, as stated here, Marie’s sister (but the books are rather unclear on this). I’d love to know just how EBD thought they all managed to escape, and indeed to enter the British Isles without the necessary visas, but never mind!
A gripe. It traumatises me when people use “England” instead of “Britain” or “the UK”, and “Russia” instead of “the Soviet Union”. I am a pedantic historian. I always pick up on that. Moan over!
Then, getting back to what EBD wrote, there’s the rather unlikely coincidence of Bob Maynard just happening to have a friend who just happens to have an enormous house to let, which just happens to be close to where Paul Ozanne’s just got a new job. But, again, never mind! Ernest Howell’s appearance at the School is one of the scenes which overlaps with The Chalet School Goes To It/The Chalet School At War; but there aren’t many of them, and it wouldn’t have made sense had that one not been included.
It’s nearly all original stuff, other than that. Some things which never quite get explained by EBD are explained here, which Chalet School fans will enjoy – notably Rosalie Dene’s job change and Evvy Lannis’s comings and goings. It’s also great to see a positive portrayal of Marilyn Evans, who’s vilified in the “canon” books without ever actually appearing. I’ve got a lot of sympathy for Marilyn, the Head Girl who put her school work ahead of the vast array of duties which the Chalet School expects from its prefects. She was actually at the school to get an education and some qualifications! She appears in this book as a new girl, and her hard work is actually appreciated at this point.
As much as I love the books, I do get quite frustrated by the attitude towards Marilyn, and the attitude in the wartime books and immediate post-war books towards education, qualifications and university entrance in general. They don’t say anything very positive about women’s place in life, and that ties in with the very strange scene which we see at the beginning of the The Chalet School in Exile, in which it’s Jem Russell, rather than Madge Russell, who turns up at a staff meeting to say that the School’s going to be moving to the Sonnalpe, and Jem who makes all the decisions about moving to Guernsey.
Until then, Jem hasn’t really got involved in the running of the School. Why would he? He’s got more than enough to do with the San. And he respects the fact that it’s Madge’s school. Then, later on, Gay Lambert’s brother writes to Jem, rather than to Madge. And Jack Maynard orders Miss Bubb about, and in front of a pupil to boot! Miss Bubb’s the acting headmistress, and he’s only the owner’s brother-in-law. It’s rather odd, in a series which starts with a strong young woman making her own choices and decisions, and shows women managing perfectly well to run a school without any male input.
Anyway. In this book, Jem and Jack don’t deliberately take over, but we see Hilda Annersley coming to speak to Madge about leaving Guernsey, only to find that Madge is out … and talking it through with Jem and Jack, who both just happen to be around, instead. It ties in with what EBD wrote, but I do wish EBD had let Madge be the one to decide – or, at least, Madge and Jem jointly, given that the San was affected too and they obviously had to move together. But, hooray, in this book, Madge does go to the staff meeting at which all the details are discussed.
Before then, there’s a wonderful original, and wonderfully original, chapter in which we see some of the older girls taking part in a rehearsal/role play scenario of what might happen in the event of an invasion. It’s based on real life events, and it’s fascinating – a real taste of wartime Guernsey, and a reminder of how frightening those times were.
And there’s also a lot about Melanie Kerdec, a character who appears in the wartime books without it ever being made clear whether or not she’s the same Melanie Kerdec who was part of “The Mystic M” in The New Chalet School. Presumably she was, but we’re never told. Without wanting to post a lot of spoilers, in case anyone’s reading my waffle – is anyone reading my waffle?! – and is getting the book as a Christmas present, Melanie is a prominent character in this, in a classic “troublesome new girl eventually settles in and decides the school is great” storyline.
This is the second wartime fill-in in a row, and it’s really interesting to see our old friends – the characters are our friends, aren’t they 🙂 ? – against the background of such a difficult time, and in a setting which is firmly rooted in a particular time. We know what lay ahead. EBD didn’t. And the characters didn’t. What did EBD have planned for the Chalet School in Guernsey? We’ll never know, and it’s sad that she never got the chance to write it, but maybe this was some of it. And any Chalet School fill-in is always a good comfort read, and that’s something which I think we could all do with at the moment.
Britain’s Most Historic Towns: Manchester – Channel 4Standard
This was one of the best programmes I’ve seen all year. There should be programmes like this on every day. On every channel. At prime viewing time. What more could anyone ask for than to watch a TV programme which says that “Manchester is as great a human exploit as [ancient] Athens” (Disraeli), talks about Manchester “pumping the rich blood of economic vitality and revolutionary identity around Britain” and points out that Frederick Douglass was “fascinated” by Manchester because of the number of people here working to change the world for the better? And it showed a picture of Old Trafford. (OK, OK, it also showed a picture of the Etihad, but never mind that.) And it talked about the Cotton Famine. The Cotton Famine was my dissertation topic. I get very excited when people talk about it.
We got Peterloo. We got the Anti Corn Law League. We got the Manchester to Liverpool Railway (the Huskisson incident was not mentioned). We got Engels and Marx meeting up at Chetham’s (the fact that Engels’ office was in what’s now Kendals, which always amuses me, was sadly not mentioned). And, of course, we got the suffragettes. I just need to mention for the ten billionth time that I went to the same school as Christabel Pankhurst and her sisters. Then, at the end, we were shown a picture of Marcus Rashford. Marcus, being a very modest young man, is probably rather embarrassed at being mentioned alongside the likes of Richard Cobden, Elizabeth Gaskell, Emmeline Pankhurst and the organisers of the meeting which sadly ended in the Peterloo Massacre, but I thought that that was rather lovely.
This really was brilliant. Alice Roberts was so enthusiastic and so totally biased in favour of all the radicals and reformers of 18th, 19th, 20th and now 21st century Manchester. I got all excited, like I did when I was a teenager reading books by Asa Briggs et al about the role of Manchester in the Industrial Revolution. Yes, I really, genuinely am that sad and that weird. Always have been, always will be. Indulge me, OK. Christmas has just been cancelled. I needed cheering up. This cheered me up. So has United beating Leeds 6-2. Well, somewhat.
We started off with canals, cotton mills and railways – and a drone flying over the city to take pictures. This was obviously filmed recently, but they managed very well with social distancing – Alice Roberts met various historians, but only one at a time, and they stood well apart. Then we heard about the difficult conditions under which the mill workers lived and worked, and then moved on to the mess which was the constituency system pre 1832, and, of course, the electorail system too.
That, obviously, brought us on to Peterloo. We heard about the radical press here, notably the Manchester Observer, and then about the Massacre itself. If Mike Leigh hadn’t made such a mess of the film, we might hear a lot more about Peterloo: I’m still narked about that. Anyway. Even now, we get people saying that it wasn’t really a peaceful protest, or that it wasn’t really that bad. This, using documents from the time, kept in the wonderful John Rylands Library, made it quite clear that, yes, it was a peaceful protest, and, yes, what happened was that bad. We heard about the Peterloo Relief Fund set up to help the injured and the families of the dead. And we heard about the “fake news” put out about it all. It was all very, very much on the side of the peaceful protesters. And quite rightly so!
Strangely, there was no mention of the Chartists. That was a very odd omission.
However, we did hear about Richard Cobden and the Anti Corn Law League. Possibly a teensy bit of political agenda pushing here, the only bit of the programme I wasn’t keen on. Or maybe I imagined it. But let’s ignore that, and focus on the fact that the Anti Corn Law League eventually succeeded in bringing down food prices – at a time when, even during the Potato Famine, landowners were only interested in keeping prices up, and never mind the fact that people were going hungry. And, oh, how I wish that the Free Trade Hall had never been sold off and turned into a hotel! It’s such a big piece of our history. We used to have school Speech Day in there. It was always very boring, very hot, and at the same time as a crucial match at Wimbledon, but the fact that it was in the Free Trade Hall rather than the school hall was rather exciting.
On to Marx and Engels, and the interesting point was made that Elizabeth Gaskell probably did more to draw public attention to “the condition of the working classes” than Engels did. Lucky Alice Roberts got to visit her house, and also Chetham’s Library: both are sadly closed to the public at the moment 😦 , thanks to bl**dy Tier 3 regulations. Charles Dickens also got a mention, but I find Hard Times unspeakably annoying. Mrs Gaskell’s books are much better. And, yes, they would have reached a far wider audience than the Engels book did. Both them were rather patronising, quite honestly, but those were different times.
Then on to the Cotton Famine. I’ve just read an utterly ridiculous book which claimed that everyone in the Lancashire textile areas supported the Confederacy. It also said that the Confederacy only had six states, when it had eleven, so the author was clearly pretty clueless. And he said that Prince Albert was gay, which seemed a rather odd comment. But it annoyed me that a supposed history textbook has gone on sale spouting such rubbish. Yes, there was some support for the Confederacy, but the general feeling in the Lancashire textile areas (I’m saying “textile areas” because it was a whole different ball game in Liverpool) was pro-Union because of the slavery issue. Whether the war was actually about slavery or about states’ rights is a debate for another time, but there’s that famous letter sent to Abraham Lincoln from “the citizens of Manchester”, and the equally famous reply. And there’s a statue of Lincoln in the city centre … close to where one of the Christmas markets should currently be being held. Given the damage done to the regional economy by the Cotton Famine, that was a very big thing.
We were also told that Frederick Douglass was fascinated by Manchester. Well, of course he was. Anyone would be 🙂 . But I love the fact that he was.
And then to the suffragettes. Emmeline Pankhurst, of whom there is, finally, now a statue in town. Alice spoke to a woman who’d actually changed her surname to Pankhurst! That’s rather extreme fangirling, but it’s fascinating that someone does find Emmeline Pankhurst so inspirational that she’d do that. And we saw the Manchester – First in the Fight” banner which now lives in the People’s History Museum.
First in the Fight! “We are a city of changemakers.” “Greatest Hits of Radical Movements.” I actually Googled Alice Roberts to see if she had Manchester connections, but, as far as I can see, she hasn’t. She was just being gloriously pro-Manchester. We take all this as a compliment, obviously! We are very proud of being involved in the Repeal movement and the Suffragette movement and everything else. And, as I said, I thought it was rather lovely that that picture of Marcus Rashford was shown. We’re having a tough time at the moment. But we’ve had tough times before. We’ve come through those and we’ll come through this.
And this programme was brilliant. Not that I’m biased or anything …
Nadiya’s American Adventure – BBC 1Standard
This is historical and cultural, OK: it’s not just an excuse for me to talk about food! I have to admit that the first thing I did, on arrival in New Orleans in 2014, was go to the Cafe du Monde for a beignet. I did go and look at the historical sights, and have a ride on a Mississippi steamboat, after that; but, when it comes to New Orleans, it’s food first! Nadiya Hussain looked as if she was having a wonderful time, making and eating food from different New Orleans traditions. And what a refreshing change to see a BBC documentary in which everyone was just being nice to each other. No-one was pushing an agenda, making nasty remarks, or making accusations against anyone. Everyone was pleasant, cheerful, enthusiastic and positive. What a lovely, lovely hour’s TV! When we can travel again, could Nadiya be given her own series, please? Let’s all be nice to each other and eat cake.
Sadly, there weren’t any beignets in this programme. I was rather put out about that! But we did start with Mardi Gras … I’m assuming that this was Mardi Gras 2019. And King Cake – this is what we would know better as Twelfth Night cake (always reminds me of the disastrous picnic in Katherine L Oldmeadow’s Princess Prunella!), complete with a small figurine hidden inside, brought to New Orleans by French and Spanish settlers and now associated with Carnival rather than Christmas. In New Orleans, they get through the most enormous amounts of it, and we saw it all being made by hand. And we heard the bakers talking about what an amazing time of year Mardi Gras is, everyone feeling the love and sharing the love. I can’t see it happening in 2021, but fingers crossed for 2022.
Also in the French quarter, we got to see, and Nadiya got to make, the famous po’boy sandwiches. No-one’s 100% sure how they originated! But they’re very nice. And usually very big!
But, as we were reminded, New Orleans isn’t all about the French Quarter, and we then saw Nadiya visiting an African-American neighbourhood which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. There, she met a family trying to revive their local community with a restaurant serving soul food, the traditional African-American cuisine of New Orleans … although the actual term “soul food” only dates back as far as the 1960s.
And then it was out of the city and into the bayous, on a boat with a couple and their young daughter. Or should that be “bayoux”? There, she met five generations of a Cajun family, and was treated to gumbo and jambalaya, and a discussion about Cajun history. Now, certain BBC presenters – Simon Reeve’s travel programmes are now virtually unwatchable – would have done the whole “Evangeline” thing, used it as an excuse to make abusive remarks about Britain, then made abusive remarks about America, and then probably said that Nadiya was guilty of “cultural appropriation” for trying on a Vietnamese hat later on in the programme! Not in this. Everyone, Nadiya herself and all the people she met, was friendly and welcoming and genuinely interested in what each other had to say. This is the sort of programme we need! More of this, please!
Next up came a children’s jazz band, and rocky road for the kids! And then, finally, we were treated to members of the New Orleans Vietnamese community combining Creole crawfish dishes with traditional Vietnamese food to create something new – a melting pot, in fact. And, yes, Nadiya tried on a Vietnamese hat. And, no, no-one found that in the slightest bit offensive. They were interested in her, and she was interested in them.
This was just wonderful. Bravo, Nadiya, and bravo, all the people of New Orleans who made her so welcome!
Princess Alice: the Royals’ Greatest Secret – Channel 5Standard
I do wish that Channel 5 wouldn’t use such silly titles for their programmes. Princess Alice isn’t a secret at all! There’s been at least one previous documentary about her; there’s an excellent biography of her; she’s featured in dozens of other books and documentaries; and there was a lot of talk about her just two and a half years ago, when Prince William visited her grave during his trip to Jerusalem.
I always find her fascinating – partly because of her bravery in sheltering a Jewish family during the Nazi occupation of Greece, partly because of her Romanov connections, and partly because of the way she overcame severe mental illness and the really horrific “treatment” she was given for it, as well as coping with congenital deafness. I always find the slightly mystical streak running through several members of the Hesse-Darmstadt branch of the family intriguing, as well. I suspect that Prince Charles does too.
This didn’t say anything new, but it was all very interesting. The combination of comments from “experts” and video footage from the time worked very well, although I could have lived without the references to “The Crown”. Channel 5 have shown an awful lot of documentaries about the Windsors this year, and, whilst very watchable, they’ve got a bit samey. This was something different. What a fascinating woman!
As I said, it was nothing new to anyone who’s familiar with Princess Alice’s story, but what an amazing story it was! Her birth in Windsor Castle, and her early years in Britain and Germany … although it didn’t mention her father’s naval career, for some reason. Her marriage to Prince Andrea of Greece, adapting to a new country, her charitable and nursing work in Greece, and all the complexities of the Great War, the murders of her close relatives during the Russian Revolution, the political chopping and changing, the royal family being exiled and then returning, the Greco-Turkish War, and the military disaster which saw Andrea almost executed, and forced into exile.
Then their years in Paris, and Alice’s “religious crisis” and mental ill-health, and being bundled off by force to two sanatoria, where she underwent some really horrific treatment, at the behest of Sigmund Freud. It’s like something from some horrible dystopian film, the idea of exposing someone’s ovaries to strong X-rays. It’s a miracle that she ever recovered mentally from the treatment, never mind her initial illness. And then one of her daughters was killed in a plane crash.
Then, after all that, she refused to leave Occupied Greece for safety in Britain or Sweden or anywhere else, and not only worked with the Red Cross but sheltered three members of a Jewish family in her home, saving their lives. She seemed to be being absorbed back into the British Royal Family at the time of Prince Philip’s wedding to the then Princess Elizabeth, but no, she went back to Greece, founded a nursing order of nuns, turned up at the Queen’s coronation in a nun’s habit, and then stayed on in Greece, despite financial problems, until the monarchy was overthrown again. Then she lived out the rest of her life in Buckingham Palace … and was, eventually, buried on the Mount of Olives.
It’s an incredible story, and this documentary told it very well. Thoroughly enjoyable watching.
And, going back to the irritating references to “The Crown”, maybe documentaries like this will remind people that royal families are actually real people, not soap opera characters. How must Princess Alice have felt when that ridiculous 1950s Hollywood film was made about someone claiming to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, her teenage cousin who’d been brutally murdered? Even the film version of Downton Abbey gave a very inaccurate impression of the relationship between Princess Mary and the future Earl of Harewood, which I don’t suppose their family were very pleased about. Less soapy stuff, where real people are concerned, and more programmes like this one, please!
Ballet for Drina by Jean EstorilStandard
This is my first Drina book: I read a lot of ballet books as a kid, but these somehow passed me by. Then I found this one going cheap the other week, and decided to give it a go. It’s fairly formulaic, and the big secret’s obvious from very early on, but it’s a well-written children’s book and I enjoyed it.
Lorna Hill’s dancers are usually very nice, and Noel Streatfeild’s are usually very annoying: Drina is more of a Lorna Hill type, and is very appealing. The one thing that slightly annoys me is that the author’s rather sarcastic about other ballet books and their ridiculous ballet teachers. OK, to be fair, has anyone ever met anyone who talks like Madame Wakulski-Viret?! But this is a very standard ballet book too. Drina has a slightly exotic background, family don’t want her dance for unrevealed mysterious reasons, she misses out on a show due to sudden illness, circumstances prevent her from having more lessons but she’s determined to become a dancer anyway, she gets her chance when someone else gets injured at the last minute, the big secret is revealed, and you know that she’s going to become a prima ballerina. Fairly clichéd ballet book stuff, but it *is* well-written. And all the characters are very believable.
I did actually have ballet/dance lessons for a while. I was never going to be Veronica Weston or Posy Fossil, but I was genuinely quite enthusiastic to start off with. Unfortunately, useless fat kids like me were made to stand at the back of the class, and weren’t allowed to do anything other than chanting “Good toes, naughty toes” whilst sitting on the floor and waggling their toes, and doing a few basic movements whilst walking in a straight line. It was very demoralising – and it was really rather mean of the teacher to treat hopeful little kids like that. She could at least have let us have a go at doing something else! I gave up after a year or so. But I still liked the books!
I think the main reason that useless fat kids were only allowed to walk in a straight line was so that they didn’t take up too much of the hall. This left plenty of room for the favoured kids to do the polka. I desperately wanted to be allowed to do the polka. I can still hear the teacher chanting “Hop, polka, drop”. I practised it on my own. Assiduously. I really, really wanted to whirl around the room as if I were in a mid 19th century ballroom. No. I was never allowed out of that back row.
Not that I’m bitter about it or anything. Much. I mean, she could at least have let us try. Our mums and dads were actually paying the same for the lessons as those of the favoured polka cohort. Er, as I said, not that I’m bitter or anything … 😉 .
Things like this did not happen to people in books. OK, Caroline Scott went to the Wells and didn’t do very well there, but then she was swept off her feet by a handsome Spaniard and became a famous Spanish dancer instead, which was way better than doing the polka.
Having said which, this was after she’d magically “lost her puppy fat” when she was about 14. I waited hopefully for this to happen to me. I’m still waiting …
Jenny, Drina’s best friend, is also a fat girl and is also useless at ballet, but she’s the one who first introduces Drina to ballet classes. She’s lovely – so nice to see a positive portrayal of a “plump” girl – and very believable. All the characters are believable: there are the inevitable nasty girls who are up themselves and think they’re much better dancers than they are, but there’s no-one completely OTT. The only thing that stretches the imagination is the idea that Drina, an orphan who lives with her maternal grandparents, seems to know next to nothing about her mother and father. But that’s fairly mild compared to some of the stuff that goes on in ballet books!
So, all in all, this is pretty good, as a children’s ballet book!
Victoria Four-Thirty by Cecil Roberts (Facebook group reading challenge)Standard
I’m amazed that Cecil Roberts actually found time to write. As well as having a wife, he had affairs with the Duke of Kent (the Queen’s uncle), tennis player Gottfried von Cramm, Laurence Olivier and Somerset Maugham. Anyway, in between chasing after, or being chased by, famous blokes, he was a journalist, and also wrote several books. They included this one, published in 1937, about a number of very different passengers on the 4:30pm train from London Victoria, the boat train which travelled through France and Switzerland to Austria, and then connected with the Arlberg-Orient Express and went on to Hungary, Romania and Greece. You’d think that a journalist would have known that a) Salzburg was not in Tyrol and b) Russians had patronymics rather than middle names, but apparently not. But, despite that, it’s really very entertaining.
It’s a strange mixture. We’ve got a Ruritanian prince, but we’ve also got very harsh reality with a German actor who’s being persecuted by the Nazis because of his Jewish connections, and a number of passengers who lost loved ones in the First World War. And, perhaps more in the spirit of the 1920s than the 1930s, we’ve got the romantic ideal of leaving the world behind and going off to live amongst “simple peasants” in little villages. One lady has left London to become a nun in Transylvania. As you do. And one man is on the hunt for his errant nephew, who’s dropped out of his studies and is eventually found shacked up with a hunky cowherd in Alpine Austria. It should be noted that the cowherd is actually from a well-to-do middle-class family, as otherwise they’d have had no money, and that would obviously never have done. Oh, and there’s a bit of Orientalism as well – it turns out that a Turkish man with a French wife has a mini-harem hidden away in Istanbul.
It really is a very good read. I know I’ve just been a bit sarcastic, but most of the stories are genuinely moving and serious, with the shadows of the First World War and the Russian Revolution, and the menace of Nazism, hanging over many of the characters. It’s generally very well-written, and, as someone who much prefers lakes and mountains to beaches and swimming pools, I love the fact that the dream holiday destinations of the day are Tyrol and Ticino.
Obviously, this only applied to people with a lot of time and a lot of money: the comments about “everyone” heading off to the Alps in August are countered by a young porter who can only dream of taking his future wife on honeymoon to Lugano. But, if you did have the time and money, how lovely to travel on this luxury train … and to wonder about all the other passengers. Oh, and most of them are travelling alone. Even better.
So, who have we got? A young couple going for a Tyrolean honeymoon before taking up a posting in Burma. An author who’s lost the plot and is looking for a new one, and finds inspiration from a woman with a complicated story about her husband being thrown in prison. A single man who’s somehow ended up as a cash cow for his married siblings and their children, and has decided to leave them all behind and go and see the Pyramids – good for you, mate! The man looking for his nephew. The French-based Turkish man with the various wives.
Then there’s the elderly lady who’s a nun in Romania: this is a very moving story, because she’s come home to London to consult a doctor, who’s told her that she’s dying, and she knows she’ll never see her children, grandchildren or home city again. And a very dignified man who was once a senior officer in the Tsarist army, but, following the Russian Revolution, now works as a tour guide driving rich American ladies round Austria.
It’s all very bitty. I thought that, as with Love Actually, it would turn out that everyone was somehow connected, but they aren’t. And, given that they’re all from very different backgrounds, it wouldn’t make much sense if they were. There’s one chapter about each of them, and then we see them all briefly when they reach their destinations. Some of the stories are very sad. The German actor with the Jewish connections tries to gas himself. A Greek waiter who’s been working in London arrives back in Athens to find that his sweetheart’s been hit by a car and will never walk again.
And then there’s the Swiss maid who’s been working in France and has been seduced by her mistress’s nephew, who was then killed in an accident (keep up!) and gives birth to an illegitimate child, with the elderly nun acting as midwife. The baby is adopted by a widowed conductor who’s involved with the Salzburg Festival and decides that he’d like to have a child. The poor maid doesn’t have much choice other than to give the baby up.
Last but not least, there’s young Prince Paul of Slavonia, who’s been at school in England but is having to return home because he’s now King Paul of Slavonia, his father having been assassinated. If this is 1937 and he’s in his early teens, could he be the father of Leopold, Fazia and co in the Sadlers Wells books? Principal Role was published in 1957, and Leopold must be at least 20 then … er, no, that doesn’t work. Must be a different Slavonia! Bizarrely, this Slavonia – and bear in mind that there is a real place called Slavonia, in Croatia – is actually set in a real part of the Balkans, in Serbia, with its capital at Nis. That’s totally mad. Having a Ruritanian prince in the middle of all the reality is also totally mad, but the story of the grieving, frightened young boy is very touchingly told.
There are a lot of different characters and different stories, and so it’s very bitty and there’s no proper ending. There are that many characters that, by the time I’d got to the end of the first bit, I’d have been struggling to make a list of them. But, if you can handle the fact that the book’s episodic and there’s no story running right through it, this is well worth reading.
I was about to say “Oh, what wouldn’t I give to head off on a train to Tyrol or Ticino?”, but the answer is probably actually not much, because Austria’s in lockdown and, with trains not running between Switzerland and Italy due to virus issues, it’s probably a bit manic at stations in Ticino at the moment. But we can dream …
The Good Lord Bird – Sky AtlanticStandard
It’s quite strange seeing Ethan Hawke, who, as a teenager in Dead Poets Society, was a celeb crush for some of my schoolfriends over 30 years ago, playing a crazed (but probably rather accurate) version of John Brown! There are loads of antebellum books/films/TV series featuring elegantly-dressed men and hooped-skirted ladies sweeping down the staircases of plantation houses, or black-suited men and black-bombazine-clad ladies attending abolitionist meetings in Boston or Philadelphia, but this is the first one I’ve seen which has actually been set in Bleeding Kansas. And Bleeding Kansas was where the action was, in the 1850s. Then came the raid on Harpers Ferry.
I’ve been to Harpers Ferry. It rained.
It’s all seen through the eyes of a former slave boy called Henry, who’s dressed up as a girl because Brown misheard his name as Henrietta, and is nicknamed Onion because he mistakenly ate an onion which Brown thought was a good luck charm. And there’s also a prostitute called Pie. Er, right. James Caleb Johnson, the young lad playing Onion, steals the show even from Ethan Hawke’s amazing performance as John Brown.
This certainly isn’t reverential. Frederick Douglass is shown as having a blatant extra-marital affair – which, by all accounts, he did (and probably more than one), but which no-one ever mentions because he’s seen as such a hero. Brown himself is shown as being rather crazy, with one of his sons exasperatedly telling him to cut short his over-long prayers and preaching because the Good Lord has probably got sick of listening to them and has other things to do.
The whole thing is rather bonkers. And it’s got a very catchy theme tune which is completely inappropriate to the seriousness of the subject matter. But it’s fascinating. Bleeding Kansas, which in many ways was the dress rehearsal for the Civil War, does tend to be very overlooked. And John Brown’s become such a legendary figure – we all know the song! – that people forget that he wasn’t some sort of saint. If he were around today, he’d probably be described as an extremist. He was responsible for a number of murders. But his point was that those Abolitionist meetings in Boston and Philadelphia and wherever else weren’t achieving anything: slavery had been abolished in many other countries but there was no sign of that happening in the United States.
And thus you get into all those debates about what it is and isn’t acceptable to do for what you believe is right. It’s an intriguing story. I wasn’t sure that I was going to enjoy this, just because it is all slightly bonkers, but I really am doing.
This is all rather predictable, but it’s a lovely feelgood film. And there’s a lot of ’80s music in it, which is always a plus point. It’s inspired by the story of real Military Wives choir, who performed at the Festival of Remembrance in 2011 and then got the Christmas number one spot, but it’s been turned into a comedy-drama-with-sad-bits-too, like Calendar Girls.
We’ve got posh colonel’s wife Kate, who comes across like a prefect in a boarding school book, wanting all the women to join in group social activities whilst their partners are serving Afghanistan, and a lot of not posh women who are rather bemused by the idea. But they do all get quite caught up in it, and it does help them to bond. It also distracts them from their worries – and we warm to Kate as we understand that her son’s recently been killed in action, and that she’s looking for a way to try to cope. Then, inevitably, the husband of one of the women is killed, and the others come together to try to comfort her.
They aren’t keen on traditional choir music, and go for ’80s pop instead, which is great stuff! Then they’re asked to perform at the Festival of Remembrance. There’s a disastrous performance at a local market, which knocks everyone’s confidence. Then they aren’t sure that it’d be appropriate to go ahead after the aforementioned death. Then there’s a big falling out. But, of course, it all comes right in the end. Hurrah!
I don’t know how realistic a depiction it is of life at a military barracks, but it … well, the lifestyle wouldn’t appeal to most people. OK, it has to come across as a closed community or else the idea wouldn’t work, but no-one’s got a job, or any friends in the surrounding area. The teenage daughter of one of the women moans about being bored. I’m not surprised. It’s a bit 1950s, with all these women hanging around waiting for their husbands, and not doing much else. And no husbands waiting for wives, or indeed husbands waiting for husbands or wives waiting for wives. As I understand it, the real choir is also open to servicewomen – although I suppose that wouldn’t have worked for the film, because the idea was that the regiment was away in Afghanistan.
But, hey, it’s a nice film about female friendship and women supporting each other, and I liked it. And it’s a reminder of just how difficult it must be to be the partner of someone in the Armed Forces, or any other dangerous job.
I’d have gone to see this at the pictures, but it was only just coming out when we went into lockdown, so I didn’t get the chance. I’d have paid for either car parking or a return ticket on the Metrolink. I’d have paid for admission at Vue. I’d also have bought a drink, and maybe something to eat. Then I’d have gone for a wander round town afterwards, and bought another drink, and maybe something to eat, and maybe done a bit of shopping. As it was, with cinemas closed, I watched it on Amazon Prime, for which I pay anyway, and made my own drinks. So I’ve saved money, and calories, but it’s not exactly done the local economy much good. Such is 2020.
We need more feelgood films!
The Queen’s Rival by Anne O’BrienStandard
I did actually enjoy this book, about Cecily Neville, but it wasn’t what I was expecting. Anne O’Brien’s other books about medieval royal women, all excellent, have all been ordinary fictional prose. This one reminded me of being about 12, and being told to write a history essay in the format of a letter or diary because a teacher for some reason thought that kids would find that more interesting than just writing a normal essay. It was a strange combination of letters, signed “Your affectionate but thwarted sister”, “Your concerned brother by law”, etc, diary entries, articles from a fictional 15th century equivalent of a tabloid newspaper gossip column, diary entries and even prayers, not to mention recipes for eels in garlic sauce.
It was completely unrealistic – would anyone have put down their plans for overthrowing the king in a gossipy letter, which could well have been intercepted en route? – but it was a very entertaining read. Despite the rather bizarre format, all the history of England during the period from 1459, when Cecily and her younger children were left to face the Lancastrian forces at Ludlow Castle, and 1483, when her youngest son Richard III overthrew his own nephews (it finished before their disappearance) was in there. And much of that was family gossip. Nearly all the familiar stories, including the butt of malmsey wine, were in there: the only one missing was the Duke of Clarence putting Anne Neville to work as a kitchenmaid, which for some reason Anne O’Brien didn’t include. But I hope she reverts to her usual style of writing in future. This was a bit odd!
Some of the letters were between Cecily and other members of the Yorkist dynasty, but most were between her and her sisters and other members of the Neville family, which allowed the author freer reign than more political letters would have done It didn’t go as far as the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower, as I’ve said, so we didn’t get to see the author’s thoughts on what Cecily might have believed about that. We saw Cecily being rather scathing about her nephew, the Earl of Warwick, Margaret of Anjou, George of Clarence and, as time goes on, Edward IV. I don’t think anyone could argue with any of that!
In particular, she was shown as being very critical of her daughter-in-law Elizabeth, and the entire Woodville family and their grab for money and power. Again, whilst we can’t know what Cecily thought, that was probably pretty much it! I did initially assume that the title “The Queen’s Rival” meant that Cecily was a rival to Margaret of Anjou, but, as I read on, I felt that it was cleverly ambiguous – was she a rival to Elizabeth Woodville as well? And, as ever, people were very quick to blame the woman. Edward didn’t have to let the Woodvilles gain money and power and advantageous marriages, did he? He was the king. They were a minor gentry family. They hardly forced him.
So what of the tangled web of claims of illegitimacy? We were shown that Cecily was devoted to her husband, even though she eventually acknowledged that he made mistakes. We were also shown that she thought very well of her son Richard, who, unlike George, seemed loyal to the family. It was even indicated that it was Cecily who suggested that Richard should marry Anne Neville, not Richard himself. As far as the Eleanor Butler story went, the picture given was that Cecily – like everyone else over the past five and half centuries – couldn’t possibly have known what had happened, didn’t find it hard to believe that Edward would have promised anything to get a woman into bed, but wasn’t at all convinced that he’d said anything binding.
The portrayal of events here was that she agreed to go along with it, partly because, especially after all the dynastic warfare she’d seen during her lifetime, she felt that it would be better for the country to be ruled by a grown man than by a young boy … but also because, otherwise, he’d have opted for trying to declare his brother, rather than his nephews, illegitimate, by bringing up the Blaybourne story again.
The book was weirdly ambiguous about the Blaybourne story. Anne O’Brien’s rubbished it in her previous books. It is rubbish, surely. Yes, there’s an issue with the dates – as a very poor TV programme a few years ago emphasised – but only by a few weeks. It’s hardly unknown for a baby to be born a few weeks prematurely. Richard could even have come back during the few weeks he was away: he wasn’t that far from Cecily. And, as this book did say, a premature birth could explain why only a small christening was held. So could umpteen other factors. The argument that Edward was tall and blond whereas his father was small and dark is irrelevant: most of the Plantagenets were, famously, tall and blond. George of Clarence included. Henry VIII looked nothing like Henry VII, and Edward VI looked nothing like Henry VIII! But, most of all, even if anyone actually believed that Cecily had been carrying on with an archer, how could anyone believe that the Duke of York would have accepted an heir who wasn’t his biological child? It’s just nonsense.
So why was the book so ambiguous about it? We did see Cecily make the points about a premature birth etc, but we also saw her refuse to answer questions. I don’t know why Anne O’Brien did that, especially as she has rubbished the story in other books.
Was there any truth in it?
Was Edward betrothed to Eleanor Butler?
Was Henry VI really the father of his son Edward?
Was Catherine de Valois really married to Owen Tudor?
Was there anything going on between Richard III and his niece Elizabeth of York?
What really happened between Prince Arthur and Catherine of Aragon?
Fascinating, isn’t it 🙂 ? Never shall I understand why schools make kids learn about stuff like the three field system and the lives of medieval monks. If you want to get kids’ attention, or indeed adults’ attention, this sort of thing is what does it – letter format, diary format, or anything else!