The Architect’s Apprentice by Elif Shafak


This is one of the recommendations in the Duchess of Cornwall’s Book Club.  One of the very few good things about this nightmarish situation we’re in is seeing what sort of books famous people have on their bookshelves, seeing as everyone seems to position themselves in front of the said bookshelves when they’re doing interviews from home.  You do wonder if they sneakily shift a few books which don’t suit their image out of the way of the camera, but never mind!   This one’s set in Constantinople/Istanbul during the 16th century, and what a joy to have a book which is set in the Ottoman Empire but isn’t primarily about either harems or invasions of Europe!  It’s about an elephant keeper who’s also an architect’s apprentice.  Now that’s different 🙂 .

OK, what did I know about the Suleiman the Magnificent, in whose reign the book opened?   He had a Ukrainian wife referred to as Roxelana.  He thrashed the Hungarians at Mohacs, conquered Belgrade, besieged Vienna, threw Knights of St John off Rhodes and then tried to throw them off Malta, and there was that naval battle against Charles V where a Jewish pirate defeated that Genoese admiral after whom that ship which sank in the 1950s was named.  Oh, and he allied with the French against the Habsburgs, but England didn’t get involved because Henry VIII was too busy sorting out his family problems.  OK, what about the Suleimaniye Mosque?   Amazing place.  Seen it twice.  Who designed it?   Er, absolutely no idea.  Books about the Ottoman Empire don’t mention architects.  They only mention harems and invasions of Europe.

We did get harems in here, and we did get invasions of Europe, but the book was mainly about the life of people on the fringe of the court.  And it was fascinating.

I was rather confused at the start of the book, because the main character’s name was Jahan and he said that he came from Agra.  Hang on, I thought this was about the Ottoman Empire, not the Taj Mahal?   That bit didn’t become clear until right at the end, when our man Jahan, a 12-year-old orphan escaping his cruel stepfather at the end of the book, ended up helping to design the Taj Mahal whilst in his 90s.  But the book was largely set in Istanbul, although we also saw some of the invasions of Europe, and also a trip to Rome.

It was a complex book, and there was a lot going on.  Just to get back to the sultans, as well as Suleiman, we also saw the reigns of his son and grandson, Selim II and Murad III.  Selim II, I asked myself?  He was the one with the Venetian wife from what’s now Croatia.  Lost the Battle of Lepanto, which Spain is always claiming as a great success but which I credit to Venice.  I went to Lepanto (Naupaktos) once, and I was so excited about being there that I spent ages taking photos on the beach and ended up right at the back of the ice cream queue, which is really not like me.  Murad III?  He was the one who exchanged letters with Elizabeth I.  Oh dear.  We really do learn about the Ottoman Empire from either a Western viewpoint or else from some weird hangover viewpoint left over from the Enlightment interest in harems, don’t we?

Anyway.  Mimar Siman, the architect to whom Jahan was apprenticed, was one of the greatest architects of all time.  He designed over 90 mosques, including the Suleimaniye Mosque in Istanbul and the   Selimiye Mosque in Edirne/Adrianople, as well as vast numbers of palaces, Turkish baths, schools, bridges and mausoleums.  A lot of the book was about the actual building work, and the idea of architecture as some sort of metaphor for life.  There was also a love story, with Jahan being in love with Mihrimah Sultan, Suleiman’s daughter, a woman he could never marry.  And there was a rather confusing thread about plots against Siman and various people conspiring with each other, which all came out near the end even though it’d never been very clear that there was a mystery in the first place!

Lots of different groups of people featured.  Eunuchs.  Labourers.  Court officials, including the Grand Astronomer whose wonderful observatory was destroyed on the sultan’s orders after only three years.  Sephardi Jewish booksellers.  Roma gangs, who helped Jahan out of many predicaments.

And, of course, there was Chota, the elephant with whose birth Jahan assisted, and who became the sultan’s official elephant 🙂 but remained Jahan’s closest friend.

The historical timeline’d been messed about with a bit, to suit various aspects of the plot, but the author did explain in an afterword about what she’d changed and why she’d changed it.  And it was brilliantly written.  You’ll need to concentrate, and it’ll help if you’ve got a bit of idea about the Ottoman Empire to start with, but this is highly recommended, as something different.




Lad: A Yorkshire Story


What an absolutely lovely film this is – and that’s from a Lancastrian 🙂 .  It was made in 2013 and didn’t do much at the time, but it’s become a “lockdown hit” on Amazon Prime.   Our “lad” is Tom, a 13-year-old boy living in the Settle area – so that’s about an hour’s drive across the Pennines from here, and it’s a beautiful drive, especially on a sunny day -, whose life falls apart when his dad dies suddenly, his brother leaves to join the Army, and his mum struggles to pay the mortgage on one wage.  After getting into a bit of trouble with the police, he’s ordered to do community service, which consists of helping a Yorkshire Dales park ranger called Al, who becomes like an uncle to him and, although there’s a sad ending, helps him to learn to cope with what’s happened and to see the way ahead.

It’s a gentle, slow-moving film, with some glorious shots of Malham Cove and the countryside around Settle and Austwick, and it really is worth watching.  The only problem is that it makes you feel all the more frustrated about being told you can’t go out into the countryside!

There’s a curious lack of grandparents, aunties, uncles and cousins or even family friends to help support Tom and his mum Sarah.  However, in the general community, everyone’s nice to everyone else – other than a baddie bank boss who isn’t very sympathetic to the family’s financial problems after the dad’s death – and there’s no aggressive agenda, so anyone (the Guardian etc) who prefers hatred and aggression to goodness and kindness won’t appreciate it, but I think most people will.

Tom and Al are the main characters, but there are sub-plots about Tom’s growing friendship with Al’s granddaughter, and about Sarah, who trains as an HGV driver when she can’t manage on her wage from working in a shop after losing her husband.  Not that much actually happens – if you’re waiting for someone to fall in Malham Tarn or off a cliff, you’ll still be waiting at the end of the film – but it’s just a really nice film, sweet but not sentimental.  Not historical, but still highly recommended!

A Most English Princess by Clare McHugh


The idea for this was brilliant, the execution rather less so.  It’s the author’s first novel, so maybe allowances should be made, but do editors just not proof-read the books?  Using “England” and “Britain” interchangeably is a common problem in books by American authors, admittedly, but I’m pretty sure that no-one in the 1860s would have used the expression “golden ticket”!   However, the subject matter, the life of Vicky, the Princess Royal, later the Empress Frederick, is fascinating: there’s an excellent biography of her, but she’s been overlooked by novelists.

The style of writing is more suited to a young adult novel than adult historical fiction – don’t be expecting anything of the calibre of Elizabeth Chadwick or Sharon Penman – but the characterisation is accurate and the factual information’s all in there … Vicky’s childhood, her early marriage, her rather unhappy life in Berlin, and the tragic story of how the unification of Germany, which Prince Albert mistakenly thought would be a force for good, turned into a triumph for Prussian militarism.

The book rather strangely stops short in 1871, as the Franco-Prussian war ends and Vicky’s father-in-law is proclaimed Emperor of Germany, with Bismarck as Chancellor.  Maybe the author’s planning a sequel?  At that point, things could still have turned differently, if Vicky and her husband Fritz had had their chance … but they never did.  It’s one of the great “What ifs?” of modern history.

The rather childlike style of writing works quite well in the early chapters, when Vicky’s a young girl. However, it does become rather irritating later on, once she’s married.  The actual content is so interesting, though – the hostility she faced in Berlin, the conflict within the Prussian royal family, her son Willy’s disability and the weird and rather horrific treatments he was subjected to (would he have turned out differently if he’d not been put through all that?), the wars against Denmark, Austria and Prussia, and the triumph of reaction and militarism.

It’s historically accurate, which is always a huge plus point, and the characters do come across well.  It’s very biased towards Vicky, and against the Prussian court, but I’d have found it strange if it hadn’t been.  The name “Prussia” was wiped off the map after the Second World War, and survives only, in is Latinised version, in the names of football teams: that’s how negative the view of Prussia was, especially in Anglophone countries, and I think that that feeling still lingers, one way and another.  When you look at what went on, especially the attitude towards Catholics and Jews, it’s hard to find too much to praise in the regime of Bismarck and Kaiser Wilhelm I.  The causes of the Great War are more debatable, but that was after Vicky’s time.

We also see a lot of her family life – and it does give quite a positive portrayal of her relationship with Willy, which became so difficult later on.  Her sister Alice features quite a lot too, although it’s very odd that their brother Leopold’s haemophilia isn’t mentioned.  Again, it’s all very accurate, but the style of writing really doesn’t work that well in what’s meant to be a historical novel for adults, and includes so much about political history.

All in all, not a bad first effort, and a brilliant choice of subject, but the style of writing really could have been a lot better.


Wartime Britain – Channel 5


  The star of this programme, with all due respect to the family reconstructing life in wartime Britain, was a trilby-hatted potato being serenaded by Betty Turpin (sorry, Betty Driver).  “Potato Pete, Potato Pete, look who’s coming down the street.”  I love the wartime information cartoon characters – Potato Pete, Dr Carrot, and, also featured in the first episode of this two-parter, Mrs Sew-and-Sew.  So much better at getting the message across than the likes of the irritating “obesity tsars” we get now.  Nice mention of the work done by Guides and Scouts, as well: we don’t hear much about the important contribution made to the war effort by young people.

I’ve had it up to here with lockdown.  My respect for the generations who got through six years of war has always been high, but it’s gone stratospheric since all this started – and it was fascinating to see how, despite all the talk of keeping calm and carrying on, so much attention was paid to looking after the nation’s mental health, whether it was putting morale-boosting music on the radio and encouraging employers to letting it be played in workplaces, or promoting the idea of “victory roll” hairstyles.  Or having a laugh with the Colonel Bogey “balls” song (you know the one).  And, of course, getting Betty Turpin to serenade a trilby-hatted potato.

It wasn’t the best programme I’ve ever seen, it has to be said.  Referring to the Second World War as “World War II” seems to be endemic now, and I suppose could be forgiven.  Referring to the Queen as “Her Royal Highness” rather than “Her Majesty” really couldn’t be forgiven, though, and saying that GIs were in Britain in 1940 was even worse.  And a lot of it was same old, same old – using gravy browning to draw on stockings, thinking that carrots help you to see in the dark (because RAF men joked about how that was how they were able to see what they were doing), etc.

But there were some fascinating snippets in there, which aren’t mentioned so often.  If the binmen noticed food in your bin, you could get into trouble for wasting food at a time of shortages.  (Potatoes were not affected by shortages, as so many of them could be grown in the UK, hence the Potato Pete song encouraging people to eat potatoes!)   Even growing up in the ’80s, we had the mentality that it was a sin to waste good food.  I never understand younger people chucking stuff out because it’s five minutes past its sell-by date, although I don’t think doing that’s as common now as it was twenty years ago.  And, whilst I think most people are familiar with the idea of “make do and mend”, we don’t usually hear about bemused servicemen coming home on leave to find that their clothes had been transformed into outfits for their female relatives 🙂 .

Another good point made was about the role of older children in the war – all the work done by Guides and Scouts, and the importance of young people aged over 14 in the workforce.  Also mentioned was how families made their own toys for little kids, because toy factories had been turned over to producing goods for the war effort.

And there was a lot about hair and make-up – and how part of the reason for focusing on this was to cock a snook at Hitler, who subscribed to the idea of “pure natural womanhood”.  Sanctimonious people going on about how people shouldn’t moan about hairdressers and beauty salons being closed during lockdown could do with watching this part of the first episode.  OK, if people don’t want to wear make-up or do their hair, that’s obviously up to them, but my eldest great-aunt, who lived through two world wars, was still slapping on a faceful of make-up every day when she was in her 90s and living in a care home, and I really do get that.  Anyway, I haven’t got the confidence to leave the house looking “natural” – it might work if you’re stunningly beautiful, but it certainly doesn’t for me!  Using beetroot lipstick, boot polish mascara and cornflour/calamine lotion foundation when you couldn’t get anything else … brilliant!

But the main thing that really came through was that, as far as possible – obviously not so easy with so many people away in the Armed Forces or doing other war work, and many children having been evacuated – people got through it together. Yes, all right, we all know about the people who broke rules on rationing and all the rest of it, but they were a minority, and things like sewing circle and dances were so important.  Even during air raids, you’d often be with neighbours.  It helps so much when people pull together.  And people understood the importance of keeping up morale.  Also, they had a trilby-hatted potato.  I’m going to be earwormed by that potato song for days …




Harlot Queen by Hilda Lewis


To mark LGBT history month, a novel about the much-debated issue of Edward II’s relationships with Piers Gaveston and Hugh le Despenser the younger.  Now, why is there no equivalent word to “mistress” for a male lover?   “Master” just doesn’t work in this context: you wouldn’t talk about Catherine the Great having a lot of “masters”.   You can say “paramour”, or just “lover”; but Hilda Lewis, born in 1896, rather charmingly describes first Gaveston and then le Despenser as “the king’s sweetheart”.  I’ve always liked the word “sweetheart”.  So much nicer than “partner” or “boyfriend/girlfriend” 🙂 .

As a slight aside, it’s been suggested that a statue of Anne Bonny and Mary Read, two 18th century female pirates thought to have been lovers (or, if you prefer, sweethearts), be put up on Burgh Island in Devon.  But the parish council have rejected it, and a statue relating to the local pilchard industry has been suggested instead.  Seriously?   On whose planet are pilchards more interesting than female pirates?!

Anyway, to get back to the book, it says something rather nice about the late Hilda Lewis that she, born the year after Oscar Wilde’s trial, and writing in a style very much of her generation (like Jean Plaidy’s books, it seems very dated now, but I quite like it), in a book published in 1970, starts with a pillow talk conversation between Edward and Gaveston. And she makes it quite clear that, whilst Edward had rotten taste in men and very little common sense himself, this was a true romance … much more so than Isabella’s relationship with Mortimer, to whom she firmly refers as a “paramour” rather than a “sweetheart”.

So, were Piers Gaveston and Hugh le Despenser Edward II’s “sweethearts”, or was he just good friends with them?  Well, like Hilda Lewis, and I think like most people, I’m convinced that both of them were his lovers, and also that people weren’t particularly bothered about that, just about the fact that both of them were seen as greedy, disrespectful, and in receipt of a lot of money, power and influence to which they weren’t entitled.  But that was Edward’s fault, not theirs, and, whilst neither of them were very attractive characters, it was rather unfair that they got the blame: they didn’t force him to give them anything.  The same thing happened with Alice Perrers, the mistress of Edward III. Having said which, the Despensers, both father and son, were pretty nasty pieces of work.

Hilda Lewis is rather mixed in her sympathies, but she’s generally pretty sympathetic towards the “Harlot Queen”, Isabella, known to English historians as “the She-Wolf of France”, and I assume that the title of the book’s meant to be ironic.

It’s fascinating how much these three extra-marital relationships, Edward’s with Gaveston and le Despenser, and Isabella’s with Mortimer, influenced the history of England at this time.  Edward annoyed all the barons, and indeed the rest of the royal family, by handing so much power and money over to Gaveston, and, later, to the Despensers – and the Despensers were also downright cruel, not to mention stealing other people’s land.  Both of his lovers ended up being killed by the barons.  Of course, there was a lot more going on than that – he was totally humiliated by Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn, he was unlucky in that the country was hit by poor harvests and outbreaks of disease, and, as the book reminds us, he inherited huge debts from his father.  But I doubt he’d have been anything like as unpopular had it not been for the way that the Despensers put everyone’s backs up – and he let them.

Then there was Isabella’s relationship with Mortimer.  This one’s particularly interesting, because most kings have had lovers, but few queens have done, and certainly not so openly.  And plenty of kings have been overthrown, but, with the odd exception – Tsar Peter III of Russia being the obvious one – not usually by their own wives!   But she made exactly the same mistake as Edward did, letting her lover become too powerful and wind up all the barons … and he ended up going the same way as Edward’s lovers did.

How much of it was about these relationships, and how much of it was just part of the general tide of history, the clashes between kings and barons?  I think that the signing of the Magna Carta’s become such an iconic moment in English history, and even in world history, that we tend to forget everything else that went on – the Provisions of Oxford and the wars between Henry III and the de Montforts, Edward I and the Model Parliament, and Edward II and the “Lords Ordainers”.  And even the overthrowing of Richard II by Henry IV.  People tend not to have strong opinions about Henry IV, but there is this very strong feeling against Isabella – because she was a woman, and because she overthrew her husband.

Hilda Lewis’s sympathies do seem to jump about a lot.  At first, she’s sympathetic towards Isabella, and very critical of Edward and Gaveston.  But she shows how much the relationship means to Edward, and then suggests that maybe Gaveston isn’t that bad after all.  No sympathy for either Mortimer or the Despensers, and she turns against Isabella, but then she shows sympathy for Isabella again.  But then that probably reflects public opinion at the time.  Fickle, as always   The only people who don’t get criticised at all are Edward III and Philippa: she’s very keen on them 🙂 .

The history in this book is generally pretty accurate, which is wonderful.  I really can’t be doing with people who write about real historical figures but twist it all to suit themselves!   But then, at the end, she has Isabella living in seclusion and never seeing her grandchildren, which isn’t what happened, and she also goes for the “Fieschi letter” storyline (the Fieschi letter having been sent to Edward III by an Italian monk, suggesting that Edward II survived and escaped).  The book includes the well-known story that Edward II was murdered by having a red hot poker stuck up his backside, which a lot of historians now no longer believe … but then it suggests that that wasn’t true, and that Edward escaped, and lived as a monk, and that he and Isabella met up in old age.

It’s unlikely.  But history is full of legends about people who were said to have died but allegedly haven’t.  And, hey, false news and conspiracy theories have been going on since the dawn of time.

In summary, this is a very readable portrayal of a complex series of complex relationships – the marriage of Edward II and Isabella, who did have their moments, the relationship between Edward and Gaveston, the relationship between Edward and the grasping Hugh le Despenser, the relationship between Isabella and the power-hungry Mortimer, the loving relationship between Edward III and Philippa of Hainault – and how they and the history of England all got tangled up together.  Good read!



Valentine’s Day Lockdown Lists


A bit of Valentine’s Day lockdown timewasting … strange ways in which couples in books met, most romantic places which couples in books visited, key worker heroes in books (other than doctors, there are strangely few of these), and worst proposals in books.  Useless fact of the day – speaking of strange ways to meet, the song by The Hollies, about a couple who meet when they share an umbrella at a bus stop, was inspired by a no 95 bus, which goes within a few yards of my house.  Except that it didn’t then: it’s been re-routed since.  I know that people needed to know that.  As I said, timewasting …

During lockdown, people are finding it difficult to meet potential partners, except online.  Five strange ways in which couples in books met: 

  1. Meggie Cleary and Ralph de Bricassart in The Thorn Birds.  He was her priest.  Don’t try this one at home.
  2. Judy Abbott and Jervis Pendleton in Daddy Long Legs.  He funded a college scholarship for a girl from an orphanage.  She was the girl.  He wanted her to write him letters telling him how she was getting on … but he didn’t tell her that they’d actually met umpteen times and he’d concealed his identity.  I used to find this terribly romantic when I was about 9.  It now seems a bit weird.
  3. Henrietta Rawlinson and Adam Swann in God is an Englishman.  She’d run away from home and was washing her face in a puddle near Warrington.  He gave her a lift on his horse.  As you do.
  4. Madge Bettany and Jem Russell in The School at the Chalet.   They were both on a train which caught fire.  Madge bravely risked her own safety to help an unpleasant woman escape through a window.  Jem was impressed by her pluck.  Very feminist, really 🙂 .
    5. Florentyna Rosnovski and Richard Kane in The Prodigal Daughter.  They met when she was working in a shop of which he was a customer.  Seems normal enough … but she was actually hiding her real identity, and it turned out that their dads were sworn enemies.  Oh dear.

And, because of the infernal travel restrictions, we can’t go anywhere … five very romantic locations visited by couples in books:

  1. The Lake District is the most romantic part of the UK … and features in a lot of poems, but not nearly enough books.  However, lucky Damaris and Brian in Elsie J Oxenham’s Abbey books don’t just go to Grasmere, but move there to live permanently.
    2.  Venice is the most romantic city outside the UK, and is where Katy Carr and Ned Worthington in What Katy Did Next get engaged.  They aren’t a very exciting couple, and it isn’t a very exciting romance, but the fact that they get engaged in a gondola makes up for a lot.
    3.  The Italian lakes (I like water, OK) – the setting for The Betrothed, the eponymous couple being Lucia Mondella and Renzo Tramiglia.  There’s a lot of plague in this, but never mind.  Also visited by Elio Perlman and Oliver (who appears to have no surname) in Call Me By Your Name.
    4. Lake Geneva – (more lakes!) – where Amy March and Laurie Laurence get together in Good Wives.  There seems to be this idea that Amy betrayed womankind by stealing her sister’s man, but she really didn’t: Jo had turned Laurie down
    5.Russia – ignore all the political stuff: Russia is a very romantic country.  Yuri Zhivago and Lara Antipova in Dr Zhivago are one of its many well-known fictional couples.
  2. Five key worker heroes in books not already mentioned:1. Doctor – Gilbert Blythe, in the Anne of Green Gables books.
    2. Vet – Guy Charlton in the Lorna Hill Sadlers Wells books.  Guy is my hero, OK – I had to mention him somewhere!
    3. Farmer-cum-heroic-fetcher-of-food-for-entire-town – Almanzo Wilder in the Little House books.
    4. Policeman – there are loads of policemen in books, but, for some reason, most of them are either idiots or else just annoying.  The best I could come up with was more of a secret agent than a policeman, but he’ll have to do – Bill Smugs/Cunningham in the Enid Blyton adventure books.
    5. Postman/delivery man – this was even worse!   I’m struggling to think of any postmen in books, other than Courtney Elliot in the Adrian Mole books, and he’s only a minor character.  I suppose it’ll have to be Postman Pat, who does feature in books as well as TV programmes!

And, just because lockdown is not actually very romantic, unless you actually enjoy being stuck in, five really bad proposals:

1.  Mr Darcy to Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice – he tells her that her family are common and vulgar, and that he’s tried to get over his thing for her, but it hasn’t worked, so will she marry him.  She says no.  They do get together eventually, but he’s got his act together by then.
2.  Rhett Butler to Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind – this is the best book of all time, and the proposal scene is brilliant, but it’s awful as well!  Her second husband has just died, and Rhett says that he needs to go away on business so will she please get engaged to him before she goes, as, otherwise, she’ll probably have married someone else by the time he gets back.  He does talk her into it.
3. Reg Entwistle to Helena (Len) Maynard in Prefects of the Chalet School – the unheroic Reg, who’s been pestering Len for months, is fished out of a stream by her middle-aged uncle, and put to bed in her parents’ house.  She says he looks dreadful.  He then says “I take it we’re engaged.  Like it, darling?”.  She says that, yes, they are, but they mustn’t tell anyone until the end of the school term.  It’s grim.
4. St John Rivers to (his cousin) Jane Eyre, in Jane Eyre.  He says that he only wants to marry her because he wants someone to go to India with him, to be a missionary trying to convert people.  You do wonder how he’d feel if a missionary from India turned up in his Yorkshire parish and tried to convert all his congregation to a different religion.  Jane is not keen on the idea of marrying someone she doesn’t love.  He tells her that she’s “formed for labour, not for love”.  She turns him down.  Thank goodness.
5.  Bill Thistleton to Anastasia (Tazy) Kingston in The Troubles of Tazy. He says  “Are you game to fix up with one of us? [either him or his brother]”.  Either one will, presumably, do.  I think that this is the worst fictional proposal ever: even St John Rivers didn’t mention his brother (although, to be fair, he didn’t have one).  She does actually accept.  Him, not his brother.

Lockdown Timewasting over.  Thank you to anyone who’s read that.  Stay safe xxx.






Silenced: the hidden story of disabled Britain – BBC 2


  I was expecting a programme to mark the 50th anniversary of Alf Morris’s landmark Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act last year, but there wasn’t one – maybe due to the problems of filming during lockdown? – and, strangely, this programme didn’t even mention it.  It was rather confused, starting by talking about physically disabled people, then switching to mentally disabled people, then switching back to physically disabled people and leaving the story of the rights of mentally disabled people stuck in the 1930s, but it made some interesting points.

It was very distressing to hear the story of the family from Birkenhead whose mentally disabled daughter was taken away by the authorities, against her will and theirs.  Her brothers were under the impression that she’d died, and only learnt 70 years later that she was still alive, and had been in an institution all those years.   By contrast, praise was heaped on Ludwig Guttmann, about whom we heard so much about during the London Paralympics, for doing so much to change attitudes towards physically disabled people in Britain … although the programme seemed quite critical of doctors who’d tried to treat those injured during the First World War.  Maybe the most telling moment was at the end, when campaigners talked about able-bodied and physically disabled children wanting to go to school together, none of them wanting to be separated from their friends.

Ironically, the programme started by reminding us about when Cerrie Burnell, the presenter, who was born with half of one arm missing, became a presenter on CBBC, and some parents complained.  Parents, not kids.   It then went back to the late 18th/early 19th century, making the point that mechanisation and industrialisation made it difficult for disabled people to find work, and forcing many into the workhouse as a result.

Then it jumped forward to the late 19th century, to talk about a woman called Mary Dendy.  Why had I never heard of her?  Although she was originally from Wales, she ended up in the Manchester area, and was one of the founders of the “Lancashire and Cheshire Society of the Permanent Care of the Feeble Minded”.  At this point, we left the history of physically disabled people and moved solely on to the history of mentally disabled people: as I said, the programme did jump around a lot.  Mary Dendy was distressed at seeing people, especially children, just left in workhouses to die, and founded a settlement at Sandlebridge, near Alderley Edge, where mentally disabled people could be cared for.  To that extent, she meant well … but she seemed to have no idea of mentally disabled people being able to care for themselves and make choices, and she wanted them kept away from society as a whole.

And then we came to the difficult subject of eugenics.  As most people know, the idea of eugenics did have a lot of support in the first half of the 19th century, including from some very well-known and well-respected figures.  Times change, thankfully.  Although Britain never had a policy of forced sterilisations in the way that some countries did, the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913 led to people being forcibly removed into institutions, and there was very much an idea that men and women should be segregated to avoid any possibility of their having children.

It remained in force until repealed by Harold Macmillan’s government in 1959 … long after the idea of eugenics had been completely discredited by its association with the Nazis.  But we never heard about that, because the focus then switched to physically disabled people, and the argument that, especially in the inter-war period, able-bodied people were trying to “mend” physically disabled people and “cure” their disabilities.

I must say that I’d dispute the criticism of doctors who provided false legs for men who’d had legs amputated as a result of injuries and gangrene in the First World War.  And, indeed, the general criticism of people with prosthetic limbs.  Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, but I did find it quite odd.  My late grandfather had a false leg.  He had a leg amputated due to a combination of a car accident and poor circulation resulting from diabetes.  Having a false leg was what was right for him.  I don’t see why that’s any more “ableist” than a short-sighted person such as myself wearing glasses or contact lenses, or a deaf person wearing a hearing aid.  Cerrie doesn’t want to have a prosthetic arm, and that’s what right for her, and it’s appalling that she was criticised for that when she was on CBBC.  But, if someone else makes a different choice, then surely that’s up to them.

However, there were some horrific stories of the treatments to which people were subjected, often when they were only children – one woman spoke about having her legs broken over and over again, to try to get them to grow back straighter.

Then it moved on to the work done by Dr Guttmann, and then to the campaigns for disability rights.  I do think it odd that the Alf Morris Act wasn’t mentioned, but the focus was more on the protest movements than the actual legislation.  It was a shame that it didn’t go further back, really: it said “history”, but it did said next to nothing about anything prior to the early 19th century.  But I think that the idea was to mark the 10th anniversary of the Equality Act, which was also last year, and to focus on what still needs to be done.

When we finally get out of this bloody pandemic, it’s going to be a different world, and, as happened after the Boer War, the First World War and the Second World War, we’re probably going to see a lot of social and economic change.  Given all the economic problems caused by the situation, some of that will inevitably be bad, but hopefully some of it will be good too.

This wasn’t a particularly good programme, unfortunately: it jumped around a lot, it didn’t seem to want to give space to different viewpoints, and the position of people with mental disabilities wasn’t brought up to date.  But, as I said, it did make some interesting points. It just could have been a lot better, because it had an important story to tell.


The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner (Facebook group reading challenge)


The month’s challenge was to read a book from a genre you wouldn’t normally touch with a bargepole, which for me meant either sci-fi or (with the honourable exception of the Narnia books) fantasy.  I really couldn’t face sci-fi, so that left fantasy; and I thought I might get on OK with this one because it was set in and around Alderley Edge, an area I know quite well.  In fact, were it not for Lockdown III, I’d probably have been there today.  The first weekend in February usually means an outing to see the snowdrops at Rode Hall, and then a stop off at Alderley Edge on the way back, for a walk through the woods and out to the Edge, where the dwarfs, elves et al hang around in this book, and then a nice cup of tea at the aptly-named Wizard tearoom.   Sadly, not this year 😦 .

The book does draw heavily on the legend of the wizard of Alderley Edge, and most of the places mentioned in it are real and familiar, so I did enjoy reading it … although I was rather puzzled as to why everyone in Alderley Edge sounded as if they were from Bolton.  It was very well-written as these things go, with dwarves, elves, wizards and shape-shifting witches, and it was interesting how a lot of it included elements of Norse and Celtic mythology, but fantasy is really not for me.   There’s overlap between history and folklore, and also between folklore and fantasy, but actual fantasy is a step too far: I’m much better with historical fiction.  But that’s obviously not Alan Garner’s fault: if you do like fantasy, this is a very good book.

The legend of the wizard is that a farmer was approached by an old man wanting to buy his white horse.  After failing to get any other offers, he agreed – and the old man told him that he was a wizard, and that there were 140 knights with 139 white horses sleeping under the Edge, ready to do battle with evil.  It’s not clear why there were one horse short, but they were.  He showed the farmer a huge treasure trove, and said he could take as much as he liked in payment.  Some versions conflate this with Merlin and the Knights of the Round Table.  In this book, the white magic is controlled by a stone, the weirdstone, and the farmer stole it, and it was passed down through the generations, eventually coming into the possession of a young girl called Susan.

Susan and her brother Colin came to Alderley Edge to stay with their mother’s old nurse and her farmer husband, whilst their parents were working abroad.  Made a change from being dumped at boarding school or on a maiden aunt, I suppose.  Alderley Edge and the whole “Golden Triangle” has become so closely associated with footballers’ wives, wealthy business people from Manchester and the whole Cheshire Set thing that it was lovely to read about an ordinary farming couple, even if they and their friends did sound way more Bolton than Bollington.  Alan Garner knows Alderley Edge far better than I do, so presumably he knows the accent and the dialect, but it didn’t half sound Bolton to me.  Anyway!

The farmer got quite involved with it all, which was different: parents; guardians and other relatives don’t usually feature much in fictional children’s adventures.  He seemed entirely unfazed when two dwarfs turned up at his farm, and even suggested that they could get a bus from Macclesfield to Shutslingsloe, where they were meeting the wizard.  That sort of thing was why I chose this book.  I’m guessing that most fantasy books do not involve people suggesting that dwarfs get buses from Macc.  I should really go and walk up Shutlingsloe (“the Matterhorn of Cheshire”) some time, when lockdown’s over and that nice ice cream place there is open again.

Before all this, Susan and Colin had gone for a wander in the woods and up to the Edge, but had been attacked by a lot of baddie elves before being rescued by the wizard.  However, a load of witches and other baddies also came after them, and stole Susan’s bracelet, which she’d belatedly realised contained the weirdstone mentioned by the wizard.  She and Colin got it back, but were pursued, and there was a detailed and rather claustrophobic description of how they the two dwarfs who came to their rescue – one of whom was killed in the final battle towards the end of the book, which was very sad 🙂 – escaped through the old copper mines which have been in the area since Roman times and probably earlier, although there’s been no mining there since the 1870s.

They then had to get the weirdstone to the wizard, whom the dwarfs were due to meet on Shutlingsloe.  The weirdstone contained all sorts of magic, but evidently couldn’t send messages to suggest meeting sooner and nearer.  The bus idea having been abandoned, the children, the dwarfs and the farmer set off down the Congleton Road, but, instead of going on towards Capesthorne Hall, Little Moreton Hall, Biddulph Grange and Rode Hall, turned left, past Gawsworth Hall (not being able to go for days out during lockdown is doing my head in – can you tell?  I’m desperate to get to the Lakes and Blackpool, but I’d quite like to get out into Cheshire too) and headed for Shutlingsloe.

All the baddies turned up and there was a great battle.  The baddies got the weirdstone.  Oh no!  But, at the last minute, hurrah, the wizard arrived, evil was defeated, and the wizard used the weirdstone to suppress the forces of evil.  You knew that was going to happen, didn’t you?  But hooray for the wizard!

As I said, it was probably pretty good as children’s fantasy go, but fantasy is just not my thing.

Picture of the Edge, taken last year:



Love and Death in Vienna by Bunny Paine-Clemes


Oh dear.  “Life was a Sachertorte, and she had arrived with a spoon to lick the whipped cream of its sweetness.”  “His soul?  Sometimes he felt her sucking it, like a greedy vampire.  She was a child with a straw, and he was the seltzer water.”  “I am the seltzer water, you are the straw” … it’s not exactly the most romantic line ever, is it?   And I suppose it might be quite nice if life was a Sachertorte (although someone possibly needs to explain to the author that the whipped cream comes on the side and isn’t actually part of the torte), but it’s not really the sort of line you can take very seriously 🙂 .  I was a bit put off before I even started reading this, after the author said in the foreword that she asked for the scenes to come to her in dreams.  OK, whatever works for you, but it just seemed rather odd.

The book’s about the affair between Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria-Hungary and the 17-year-old Baroness Mary/Marie Vetsera, who famously and tragically died in the  Mayerling Incident of 1889.  The whole thing was hushed up, and Mary was buried without even her mother being allowed to attend.  First it was claimed that Rudolf had had a heart attack.  Then that he’d been poisoned.  Then that it was a suicide pact.  There’ve been claims that it was a double murder by foreign agents, or that Rudolf was killed by Mary’s angry relatives and she was shot by accident, or that Mary died due to a botched abortion and Rudolf killed himself out of grief; but the suicide pact explanation, with Rudolf killing Mary and then himself, seems the most likely, and that’s the one which Bunny Paine-Clemes has gone for.

What’s even less clear is how long the affair had been going on for – was it just a few months, or had it been going on for a few years?  No-one really seems to know.  Mary was only 17 when she died, but it’s possible that an affair had started when she was only 15 … and Rudolf in his late 30s, and married with a child.  The story given in the book is that Mary was obsessed with Rudolf from an early age, and that they were introduced by a family friend of hers who was also a relative of his, and began an affair.

It was an odd relationship.  Rudolf already had a long-term mistress, an actress – and, with all due respect, an actress or maybe a married noblewoman would have been the usual choice of mistress for a crown prince, not a 17-year-old unmarried baroness.  Mary’s family, obviously, hoped for a good match for her – and there was a real chance that she could have married the Duke of Braganza, the Miguelist pretender to the Portuguese throne, living in exile in Vienna.  Instead, she got embroiled with Rudolf.

The author clearly has a lot of sympathy for Rudolf, but she goes overboard which a lot of what she says.  He apparently wanted to end all discrimination on the grounds of race and class.  Excuse me?  He, his mother Sisi, his brother Maximilian and his cousin Franz Ferdinand all had more liberal ideas than Franz Joseph, but that’s going a bit OTT!  And, apparently, the Hungarian nobility did too.  That’ll be the same Hungarian nobility of whom many members were involved in the White Terror of the 1920s and the pro-Nazi government of the late 1930s and early 1940s.  Hmm.

Sorry, but I really find it hard to have much sympathy for Rudolf.  There’s a rather amusing scene in which we see him chatting to the Prince of Wales about how they’re both stuck in a rut until their respective parents vacate their thrones by dying, but Bertie/Edward did not infect his wife with an STD, causing her to become infertile, and get involved with a girl who may have been as young as 15 when their relationship began.  Rudolf did.  I can sympathise with the fact that he seemed to be suffering from mental illness, whether it was depression or whether it was brought on by the STD, but the book makes it sound as if Mary did all the chasing.  I appreciate that the idea of “MeToo” was not exactly around in the 1880s, but she was barely an adult.

Did Rudolf talk her into a suicide pact?  It seems likely.  What a tragedy.

It’s a sad story, and an interesting one, and one which still attracts a lot of attention.  But it’s quite hard to take this style of writing seriously, and I’m also not very comfortable with the idea that a teenage girl with a crush is the one driving a relationship with a married man who’s twice her age and knows very well that he could be infecting her with gonorrhoea.  Not a great book.  But I’ve got a piece of Sachertorte in the freezer, and I really want to eat it now …


Calico and Silk by Christine Evans


This is the final book in Christine Evans’s “Gorbydale” (Rochdale?  Or maybe Oldham?  Or somewhere in the Rossendale Valley?) trilogy – completed not long before the author’s tragic sudden death last January.  The Cotton Famine and the American Civil War are long over – although we see how the effects of an economic shutdown last for many years – and there’s not that much history in this final book; but it’s a very readable family saga.  And it’s interesting to see Elizabeth Blackwell and her sister Emily make appearances, and also to see disabled character Matt lead a fulfilling personal and professional life.

There are more daft names (Hadrian) and slightly daft plots (man thought to have been eaten by alligators comes back from the dead but then collapses and dies of alcohol poisoning in the street, wife accidentally kills husband with laudanum overdose).  The alligators are in Louisiana, BTW: there are no alligators in Rochdale.  At least, I hope there aren’t.  But it’s generally a good read.

If you haven’t read the first two books in the series, it might be rather confusing, especially as there are two different families involved, and two different branches (plus assorted relatives by marriage) of one of those.  But all three taken together aren’t bad, and there are so few books about the Cotton Famine (my dissertation topic) that I get very excited whenever I find one!   I was just so sorry to hear about Christine’s sudden death, and am glad that she was able to see her work, or at least the first two-thirds of it) published whilst she was alive.  I was also very sorry to hear about the recent death of Sharon Penman, one of my all time favourite authors.  Sad news.  But their books live on, at least.