This is the Marie Curie biopic which was meant to be released in cinemas last June, but ended up going straight to various “platforms” instead.  This meant that I saved the £4.99 cinema entry fee, the cost of getting to the cinema and back, and the amount I’d have spent on a cup of tea and possibly an ice cream, but I’d gladly pay if we could get to a point where cinemas could reopen.  Possibly not for this film, though: it was a bit boring.

It really shouldn’t have been, because it’s the most incredible story – how, at a time when it was incredibly difficult for women to work in science, one woman made scientific discoveries which changed the world, winning the Nobel Prize twice, once for physics (in 1903, jointly with her husband and another scientist) and once for chemistry (in 1911).  The film also showed her important work, alongside one of her daughters, in treated wounded soldiers during the First World War.  Plus we saw her marriage (although I doubt that a biopic of a male scientist would have involved people frolicking naked in a pond), the births of her two daughters, the tragic death of her husband after he was run over by a cart, and how France turned on her when it became known that she was having an affair with a younger, married man … which rather bizarrely got a bit mixed up with the fallout from the Dreyfus Affair.

But, somehow, the film just didn’t really hold my attention.  Maybe it’s because I’m not a scientist: there was quite a lot of sciency talk in it.  There was nothing particularly wrong with it, but it just wasn’t all that interesting.  Oh well!


Six Minutes To Midnight


This film sounded very interesting, being based around the very strange but true story of the Augusta Victoria College, a German finishing school for young female relatives/associates of high-ranking Nazi officials, based not in Germany but, from 1932 to 1939 in Bexhill-on-Sea on the Sussex coast.  Unfortunately, the storyline was just stupid.  It was supposed to be a thrilling espionage drama, but it was unconvincing and verged on the farcical.

Our hero, played by Eddie Izzard, was a British spy masquerading as a teacher, although he seemed to do little teaching other than to train the girls, who were remarkably ill-disciplined by anyone’s standards, never mind Nazi standards, to sing “It’s A Long Way To Tipperary”.  At one point, he tried to hide from the police by stealing a uniform which a brass band player had left lying on the beach whilst he went for a swim (as you do), then marching with the brass band, without an instrument, whilst the flugle player whose uniform he’d nicked marched alongside him in his underwear.  It would have been quite funny in ‘Allo ‘Allo or Dad’s Army, but this was supposed to be a serious spy film.

Meanwhile, Judi Dench did her best as the sweet little old British headmistress (the headmistress of the actual school was German, and presumably carefully chosen by the authorities) who didn’t realise that the Nazis weren’t actually very nice people, and joined in when the girls all made Nazi salutes and chanted Nazi slogans because she thought it was just a confidence boosting things; but the idea of the character made no sense.  This was the summer of 1939.  My school was offering free places to girls who’d come to the UK as refugees from Nazi persecution.  People knew jolly well what was going on.  And that would have gone for sweet little old ladies in idyllic seaside resorts as much as for anyone else.

Maybe part of the problem was that no-one seems very sure exactly what the point of the school was.  Possibly so that the girls could try to spread Nazi ideals in British society, but, seeing as they hardly ever left the school, and didn’t come into contact with anyone outside it, I don’t quite see how that was meant to work.  Were they all meant to hang around after leaving, and impress people with their ability to walk elegantly because of all the time they’d spent balancing books on their heads?

A decent scriptwriter would have come up with a plausible explanation.  Instead, all we got was that the other teacher, a young German woman, was a Nazi.  However, other than chatting to other Nazis at a music evening, there didn’t seem to be much point to her either.  Well, not until our hero went out to meet his superior officer, and she followed him and shot the said officer dead.  Presumably she was also responsible for the death of a previous teacher, whose body turned up on the beach, but that was never really explained, even though our hero was meant to be finding out about it.  A lot of things in this film were never really explained.  Anyway, the police turned up and thought our hero had shot his boss, so he went on the run … but was captured after the incident with the brass band and the underwear.

He was then visited in the local nick by two government officials, a senior one with a posh voice and a junior one with a not-posh voice.  But then, in a “thrilling” twist in the tale (it actually wasn’t that thrilling), it turned out that the posh bloke was a Nazi spy.  Our man escaped again, and was helped out by the local bus driver, who was obsessed with people not getting mud on his kitchen floor but was happy to give our man a change of clothes – thankfully, not a uniform this time.  Then our man teamed up with the junior official.

Oh, and everyone kept saying “English” where “British” would have been more appropriate, which was interesting given that the film was made by the Welsh Film Board.

Meanwhile, the Nazi teacher was arranging for the girls to be evacuated by plane, necessitating their climbing up a hill with their suitcases (in broad daylight – presumably this was OK, as no-one happening to walk past would have found this at all suspicious), hanging around until it got dark, and then waving flares to show the plane where to land. Despite the fact that it was broad daylight and the plane couldn’t land until it got dark, they didn’t have time to stop when one of the girls dropped her case and it fell down the hill, even though it was only a small hill and it would only have taken two minutes to retrieve the case, but never mind.

Mysterious planes often land in strange places in Enid Blyton books, and indeed in James Bond films, but I didn’t really get why, the UK not requiring exit visas, the girls – there were only about a dozen of them – and the teacher couldn’t have just hopped on a train to the nearest port (Google informs me that it’s only about 55 miles from Bexhill to Dover), got on a ferry, then got on a train to Germany.  There might even have been direct sailings from Harwich to Hamburg at that time.

However, our hero had managed to get through to Whitehall, the plane was intercepted, and he and the sweet little old headmistress turned up, deterred the Nazi teacher from shooting all the girls rather than risk their being interned (???), and a lot of hugging went on.  The girls were then taken back to the school, where they lined up and sang “It’s A Long Way To Tipperary”.  I think we were actually supposed to feel sorry for them, which opens up all sorts of thorny questions – OK, they wouldn’t have had much choice about being sent to the school, but they were in the late teens, so old enough to understand what was going on.  But the film never got into anything as deep as that.

I’m not even sure why it was such a big deal that the girls were leaving, and why they were so desperate to stop them.   It’s not like they were spies.  All they did was mess around in the dormitory, go swimming, and try to learn English.  Why not just let them go home?  If the idea was for them to try to spread Nazi ideals, then wouldn’t it actually’ve been better to have them out of the UK, goodbye and good riddance, rather than trying to keep them here?!

The whole thing was just silly, quite frankly – and it was a shame, because someone could have made a very good story about this school.  Maybe, one day, someone will, but this certainly wasn’t it!




The Shadow Women by Angela Hunt


OK, seeing as we’re heading into Semana Santa (or Holy Week, but it sounds better in Spanish) and are already into Passover, a bit of Biblical fiction.  The Bible contains more family feuds, affairs, murders and general drama than any soap opera’s ever done, so Biblical fiction can be very entertaining.  I was once explaining a Bible story to my little cousin whilst I was babysitting him and he had some religious studies homework to do, and he said that I made it sound like EastEnders – and that’s because a lot of it does!  This one’s the story of the Book of Exodus, told from the viewpoints of Pharoah’s daughter (identified here with Merytamon, one of the daughters and, later, wives of Ramesses II), Miriam (the sister of Moses) and Zipporah (the wife of Moses).

Angela Hunt gets a bit bogged down in practicalities at times.  How Moses managed to speak to the Hebrew slaves when, having grown up in Pharoah’s palace, he wouldn’t have spoken a word of their language, is admittedly a very good question, but I’m not entirely sure that the reader needed to see him, on arriving in the Land of Goshen, asking Miriam where the toilets were.

Incidentally, it’s weirdly relevant to today.  No panic-buying (OK, panic-gathering) of manna allowed – you can only take enough for one day at a time (or two, if it’s the Sabbath).  When Miriam’s got an illness feared to be contagious, she has to go outside the camp and quarantine herself for seven days.  And Zipporah first meets Moses whilst she and her sisters are being hassled by some Edomite men, when all they’re trying to do is get water from the well.

Anyway, to get back to the point, whilst I could have done without the bit about toilets, Angela Hunt’s obviously done a vast amount of research into the history of Ancient Egypt, and then tried to tie it into the story in the Bible.  Trying to tie up Bible stories and real history is a historian’s nightmare, because we’ve got no real idea what’s legend, what’s based on fact, and what’s a bit of both, so all credit to her for trying.  And, in some ways, she’s tried very hard to follow the Bible story, even whilst tying it into documented Egyptian history.  Obviously everyone knows that Moses looked like Charlton Heston and was only in his 30s at the time of the Exodus, but the Bible does actually say that he was 80, and that’s what this book says too.  Some bits of the story have been conveniently altered or ignored, but, to be fair, she does explain that in an afterword.

I’ve got mixed feelings about her interpretation of the three women, though.  The story of Pharoah’s daughter finding a baby, in what we still call a “Moses basket”, in the bulrushes, and, even though she knew he was the child of slaves and condemned by her father to die, taking him in and bringing him up as her own, is one of the most heartwarming stories in the Bible … but Angela Hunt’s turned her into some kind of child-snatcher, who was desperate to steal a baby to pass off as her own for fear of being set aside as a barren wife, and deliberately went out looking for one!  And Miriam’s given her proper role as a leader, but, on a personal basis, is shown as being rather bitter and grumpy most of the time.  Zipporah’s the one who comes out with the most credit.  But they all get given a voice here, which they don’t in the Bible.

Merytamon does generally come across fairly well, apart from the baby-snatching bit, to be fair.  The historical figure of Merytamon, the daughter of Ramesses II and Nefertari, and later one of the Great Royal Wives of Ramesses II, did exist.  In Islamic tradition, Pharoah’s daughter was Pharoah’s wife, and daughters of the pharaoh did often end up as wives of either their father or one of their brothers.  The idea in this book is that she actually passed Moses off as the natural son of Pharoah and somehow got away with it for years, which I’ve never heard anyone else suggest, though.

The book’s got her dying long before Moses came back from Egypt, but she’s the main figure in the early part of it, although some of the early part’s also told by Miriam – who’s given a back story here, with the reader being told that she had a stillborn child and that her husband died as a result of mistreatment by the Egyptians.  I’d like to have seen a bit more sympathy shown towards Miriam, especially with that sad back story.  Angela Hunt’s made her very stroppy!

As for Pharoah, people have tied themselves in knots trying to work out who the “Pharoah of the Exodus” was.  Other people claim that the whole thing’s just a story, because there’s no evidence that the Ancient Egyptians used slave labour.  We just don’t know.  I think I must have been told as a kid that “Pharoah” was Ramesses II, because I’ve always thought that, for no obvious historical reason.  And the Yul Brynner Pharoah who’s challenged by Charlton Heston is Ramesses II !  However, even though Ramesses is supposed to have lived into his 90s, if Moses was 80 at the time of the Exodus then it’s pretty unlikely that the Pharoah at the start of the story and the Pharoah at the time of the plagues could have been the same person, so Angela Hunt’s got Ramesses II at the start and Seti at the end.

She does seem to take the story very literally.  Some people do.  Some people don’t.  No-one really knows, so you can’t criticise anyone for what they think.  And a lot of it’s not very clear in the Book of Exodus.  Was the Cushite woman Zipporah?  Or was the Cushite woman someone else?  And what exactly was Miriam upset about?  In this book, the Cushite woman is someone else, a maid called Femi.  Zipporah is unwell and thinks she might not have long to live, so she urges Moses to take Femi as a second wife, which he does, and Miriam gets narky about it all, but doesn’t get on with Zipporah either.  But then they all kiss and make up.

Another thing that’s not clear is what Zipporah’s dad was called.  There are a lot of Bible-isms, with people’s names changing.  In this book, he starts off as Reuel, then changes his name to Jethro.  There’s an interesting suggestion that he was the one who told Moses all the stories about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  If you’re someone who takes it all literally and believes that Moses wrote the Old Testament, then he must have got the stories from someone, and it can’t have been any of the Hebrew slaves because they were supposed to have forgotten everything.  So that idea does work.

All in all, you can drive yourself mad trying to make it make sense from a historical point of view, and probably won’t get very far, but a lot of the stories in the Bible really are entertaining. The horrible Mr Brocklehurst in Jane Eyre is not at all impressed that Jane thinks the best bits of the Bible are the bits with good stories, but Jane is surely right 🙂 .  As I said, more family feuds, affairs, murders and general drama than any soap opera!






Russia Vs The World – Channel 5


What on earth was this rubbish?  I’d been looking forward to it, seeing as it promised to tell “the epic story of Russia and how a millennia [sic] of explosive drama ….” but it was just awful.

It started by jumping from Grand Prince Vladimir of Kievan Rus to Ivan The Terrible, and ignoring the five centuries in between.  Hey, let’s make a programme about “the epic story of England”, and jump from William the Conqueror to Elizabeth I.   And that was just the start.  A small sample of things which it totally failed to mention – the Mongol invasions, the Battle on the Neva, the Time of Troubles, the Schism, the Table of Ranks, the Pugachev Rebellion, the Napoleonic Wars, the Decembrists, the Crimean War, the liberation of the serfs.  It did however mention James Bond, Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, Rasputin, Vladimir Putin going scuba diving, Boris Yeltsin’s drinking habits and Roman Abramovich.

Then it concluded by saying that Russia had come full circle from Grand Prince Vladimir to Vladimir Putin.  Presumably apart from Vladimir Putin not being a Russian Orthodox saint, and Grand Prince Vladimir neither being interested in scuba diving nor having spies who went to watch Arsenal.

Seriously, Channel 5?  I thought you’d got your act together with history programmes, but what on earth was this?

I think it was just meant to be Cold War-esque propaganda making out that Russia is the Big Baddie.  I don’t want to see stuff like that.  We’re supposed to have moved on from those days, and I don’t want to see any sort of propaganda on British TV.  Out of two hours, about twenty minutes was spent on pre-revolutionary Russia.  Then even the Civil War was pretty much skipped over, and it was on to Stalin, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Chernobyl, the fall of the Soviet Union, Boris Yeltsin sitting on a tank, and then loads and loads about Vladimir Putin.

The argument seemed to be that Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great and Catherine the Great (apart from Vladimir and Nicholas II, every other monarch was completely ignored) were dictators (Catherine would not be impressed with that at all) who paved the way for Putin.  Well, that’s logical, isn’t it?  Three monarchs in 500 years.  You might as well say that Henry VIII, George IV and Victoria are the reason that Boris Johnson could do with losing a few pounds (on which score I sympathise with them).  You could look at any country’s history and pick three monarchs in 500 years, and claim that they somehow typify the country’s leadership.  Then it completely contradicted itself, by saying that it was actually the KGB in charge, not Putin.

Not impressed.  We don’t need this sort of programme on TV.  And, if you say you’re going to talk about a millennium of Russian history, even if you don’t seem to know that the correct word is “millennium” rather than “millennia”, then please, er, do so.

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier


  Mary Anning, whose work as a fossil hunter and palaeontologist in Lyme Regis in the first half of the 19th century had a significant impact on the understanding of prehistoric life, is about to be commemorated on three special edition coins, and, when cinemas finally reopen, we should be able to see a film about her.  She’s the focal point of this book by Tracy Chevalier, although most of it’s written as if from the viewpoint of her friend and fellow palaeontologist, Elizabeth Philpot.

Mary, as a woman, an unmarried woman, a working-class woman and a Nonconformist, wasn’t able to become part of the scientific establishment, and her importance has been overlooked, and it’s interesting to see that come across in the book.  It’s also interesting to see how people struggled to reconcile the finds made by her and others with what we now call Creationism: explanations mentioned in the book include rocks having been created with fossils already in them, and icthyosauri missing Noah’s Ark and so being wiped out by the Flood.

It’s frustrating, though, that the book includes a fictitious tale about Mary and Elizabeth falling out over some smooth-talking bloke whom they both fancied but who wasn’t interested in either of them, and then some rather Gothic melodrama about Elizabeth rushing to London, whilst ill, to defend Mary against allegations of faking her finds, swooning away at the Geological Society and nearly dying of pneumonia.  Would anyone put something like that in a book about male scientists?  And I gather that the forthcoming film centres not on Mary’s work but on a fictitious romance between her and the geologist Charlotte Murchison.  See also “Becoming Jane [Austen]” and “Miss [Beatrix] Potter” – again, because they were women, the focus just had to be on their love lives rather than on their work!

There’s plenty to go off whilst sticking to the truth.  Elements of Elizabeth Philpot’s life actually were rather like the plot of a Jane Austen novel – and the author makes that point several times, as we see Elizabeth and two of her sisters moving to Lyme Regis because they can’t afford to continue living in a genteel, suitably ladylike style in London.  But, as the author points out, not everyone meets a handsome man and gets married.  However, Elizabeth leads an interesting life as a fossil collector, and befriends Mary Anning, then only a child and twenty years her junior.

Mary’s life is even more fascinating.  She and one of her brothers – the joint discover of their first ichthyosaur – were the only two surviving children of ten born to a working-class couple struggling for money, and her father died of TB when she was young.  Most of the fossils she collected were sold to bring in an income – and what started as a little seaside souvenir shop attracted the attention of all the leading lights of British science.  Her fame spread abroad too.   Plenty of drama, as well – she was nearly buried alive by a landslip.

Parts of the book are told from Mary’s viewpoint, with the names of the creatures shortened (which seemed a bit patronising, as if a working-class person would say “ichie” and “plesie” because they couldn’t manage “iccthyosaurus” or “plesiosaurus”), and the narrative in what’s supposed to be Dorset dialect.  It sounds like Yorkshire with a bit of Cockney thrown in to me, but I’ve never been to Lyme Regis, so I may be talking rubbish and it may be entirely accurate!

The story of Lt Colonel Birch, the bloke over whom they fall out in this book, seems to have been that he sold his collection of fossils, most of which he’d got from Mary, and donated the money to the Anning family as an act partly of recognition for their work and partly of charity.  I’m not quite sure why that’s been made into a tale of Mary and Elizabeth both being obsessed with him, Mary seducing him and a lot of gossip, but, hey, I suppose romance, seduction and girly fallings-out make for better novels than fossils do!

This is an interesting book and it’s good to see both Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot getting the recognition that they deserved …. but would anyone writing a book about the collaboration between two male scientists chuck in a plotline about them falling out over a girl and then one of them swooning away at a scientific society?!  It seems unlikely.



Roman Kemp: Our Silent Emergency – BBC 1


*Trigger warning – mental health issues.*

There’s a lot of talk in the media about mental health issues these days, but, sadly, the number of suicides remains high, especially amongst young men.  Roman Kemp (and the fact that Martin Kemp and Shirlie Holliman’s son is 28 makes me feel extremely old) made this programme about mental health and suicide after his close friend, Capital Radio producer Joe Lyons, took his own life.  Roman said he lives only three minutes from Joe, and would have rushed straight round if Joe had felt able to ask him for help.  Tragically, he didn’t: neither Roman, nor anyone else in their friendship group, nor Joe’s loving family, were aware of how badly Joe was struggling.

People here in Greater Manchester may be aware of the Shining a Light on Suicide project being championed by Sir Alex Ferguson, Mark Hughes and Andy Burnham.  One of the things it suggests is making a safety plan of what to do and whom to contact if you feel that you’re at risk of harming yourself, and this was also something that was mentioned in Roman’s programme.

No-one really feels very comfortable talking about this sort of thing, but we need to be.  Roman also talked about his own struggles with depression, and the fact that he’s been on medication for it for many years – and the fact that some people, especially young males, don’t feel able to talk about it.  I think women and girls do talk about it more, but it’s still not spoken about openly in the way that physical illnesses now are.  Roman said that more than three quarters of young men feel unable to confide in their friends and relatives about their issues, and that was borne out by the discussions he had with people who’d lost a friend or relative to suicide.

One of the lads he spoke to, who’d attempted suicide himself, said that he wasn’t even sure that he wanted to end his life – he just wanted to get away from everything in his head.  He just wanted it to stop, and it wouldn’t.  A lot of people will have been there.  Everything going round and round in your head.  Maybe other people driving you mad.  Maybe feeling trapped in an uncaring workplace, or a difficult domestic situation.  But, if those safety plans are in place, maybe people’ll be able to see another way out.

It’s been said over and over again that mental health problems need to be destigmatised, but it still seems to be something that many people feel unable to talk about, and it continues to be a particular problem amongst young men.  Please, please, if you’re struggling, ask for help.


Barkskins by Annie Proulx


  Hooray, I have finally finished this very long and overrated book!   I don’t know whether there’s something wonderful about it which I just didn’t get, or whether it’s an emperor’s new clothes thing and reviewers just felt obliged to say that it was brilliant because it was supposed to be about environmental issues (deforestation).

It began as the story of two French indentured labourers in 17th century “New France” (i.e. Quebec).  One ran away, married a wealthy Dutchwoman and set up a successful business.  The other one remained a labourer and married a First Nations woman.  Edward Rutherfurd or James Michener could have made an excellent job of telling the history of Quebec through the history of these two families, but this book jumped about all over the place … various different parts of Canada, various different parts of (what became) the United States, Britain, France, the Netherlands, China and New Zealand.  There were a lot of different characters, and it didn’t stick with any of them for more than five minutes, so it was impossible for the reader to get really involved with any of them.

As for being about deforestation … well, it wasn’t, really.  There was some interesting stuff about forests, especially in relation to the culture of some of the different First Nations groups, but it was all just too bitty.

The characters kept losing track of who was related to whom.  I’m not surprised!   And there was very little political history in it: I appreciate that it wasn’t meant to be about political history, but, given that it covered a 300 year time period with lots of gaps, it was difficult to follow where it was up to without any mention of world events.

It’s a shame, because it was a promising start, and it could potentially have been very good, but I just wasn’t impressed.  However, it has had a lot of good reviews, so maybe it’s just me.  When I get chance, I shall try watching the TV adaptation, and see if I get on any better with that!


Mothering Sunday – other mothers


This is Mothering Sunday – let’s use the correct, historical, term, please 🙂 .  Obviously there are lots of mothers in books, but, especially in older books, there are a lot of children who are brought up by grandmas, aunties, older sisters, stepmothers, female guardians, female cousins, foster mothers, nannies or governesses; and there are also a lot of other women, such as family friends and teachers, who play an important role in characters’ lives. So let’s hear it for all those fictional characters, many of whom gave up their own chances of careers or romance to look after our heroes/heroines, and also for *all* the women who play, or have played, an important role in our own lives.

Sometimes, these fictional ladies get a bad press.  Think about Cinderella’s wicked stepmother, or Jane Eyre’s villainous Aunt Reed.  But most of them are wonderful, and here are just five who sprang to mind:

  1. Madge Bettany in the Chalet School books.  At the start of the series, Madge, aged twenty-four, has sole reponsibility (her brother is unhelpfully working in India) for her twelve-year-old sister Joey, and their guardian’s just died after messing up their finances.  Unable to take a job and look after Joey at the same time, Madge starts her own school – but soon gets two pupils, one in her teens and one aged only six, dumped on her full time as well.  But she just gets on with it – and, happily, her having three kids in tow doesn’t put off Dr Jem Russell, whom she meets and eventually marries, and with whom she has six children.  And they end up looking after four nieces and two nephews as well
  2. Marilla Cuthbert in Anne of Green Gables.  Marilla and her brother Matthew were looking to take on a boy to help on their farm.  Instead, they end up with Anne – and Marilla becomes a wonderful mother-figure to her.  It’s a lovely, lovely story.  I love the relationship between Anne and the Cuthberts.
  3. Sylvia Brown in Ballet Shoes.  I actually find Sylvia a bit annoying, because she takes freebies from friends and lets her servants go unpaid, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that she, a young, single woman, somehow ends up bringing up three girls whom her great uncle bizarrely collects and leaves with her.  Let’s also hear it for Nana and for the two female academic doctors: they too play a big part in helping to bring up the Fossil girls.
  4. Izzie Carr in What Katy Did.  Aunt Izzie is one of many characters in books who go to live with a widowed brother or brother-in-law, act as his housekeeper and bring up his children.  We’re never really told whether or not they’re happy about this.  Maybe, for some of them, it was a good option.  For others, it probably wasn’t.  But a lot of them don’t seem to be appreciated as much as they should have been, and I think that Aunt Izzie’s probably one of those.
  5. Jo March Bhaer in Little Men.  Let’s not go into Louisa M Alcot’st family’s rather “interesting” ideas about life and education, and, instead, focus on the fact that Jo becomes a mother figure to several Lost Boys who end up at her boarding school/home.  Marmee March is often hailed as an ideal fictional mother figure, but she really does get on my nerves.  Sending Jo to a posh party in a burnt frock?  Letting Beth’s canary die?  Nah.  Her daughters do a much better job!  I prefer young Jo to adult Jo, but, even so, I think adult Jo is a great example of a mother figure in a scenario which isn’t that of a traditional family.
    I don’t think we get so many of these Other Mother figures now, because the Victorian trope of the Motherless Heroine has pretty much died out; but, even if there’s a loving mother around, grandmas, aunties and other older female relatives or friends can still play a huge part in a child’s life.Here’s to all the wonderful mother figures in fiction, and here’s too all the women who’ve influenced our lives xxx.


Children’s TV nostalgia


I share my birthday with Mr Benn.  Well, sort of.  He first appeared on our TV screens on February 25th, 1971, so he’s just celebrated his 50th anniversary, on the same day as I sort-of-celebrated my birthday.  I’m younger than him, so he’ll get his Covid vaccination before me.  Yes, my brain really did bizarrely come up with that thought.  Anyway, this all got me thinking about the TV programmes we used to watch when we were little kids.  We were still watching some of them when we were big kids.  It was totally uncool to watch Play School or Rainbow once you were past about 6, but most people in my class at secondary school were still watching Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds when we were more like 14.

Mr Benn was more a programme for little kids, though.  So was Bod.  And the Mr Men and Little Miss programmes.  These were animated programmes, so there were no actual human presenters them, which was pretty cool because presenters were grown-ups.  Dastardly and Muttley used to be on just after school, and He-Man and She-Ra were also really big whilst I was at primary school.  Some of them were really ’80s – The Mysterious Cities of Gold was another, as was Pigeon Street, and then there was Danger Mouse, and Inspector Gadget, and Batfink, and Around The World With Willy Fogg – but there were classics like The Flintstones and Scooby Doo as well.  Pigeon Street was really feminist, because Long Distance Clara was a female lorry driver!   Oh, and there was Willo The Wisp as well.  I loved Mavis Cruet.  Most fairies were thin.  I really appreciated the fact that there was a fat fairy!

And The Raccoons was on at weekends.  I think it was actually on as part of those Saturday morning kids’ TV shows.  Tiswas was a bit early for me, and I never really got Swap Shop, but I liked Going Live and Number 73, and, although I was a bit old for kids’ TV by then, I watched The 8:15 From Manchester because it had “Manchester” in the title.  In the holidays, there was Wac-a-Day.  We’re wide awake!  Mallett’s Mallet.

Of the programmes with adult presenters, The Sooty Show and Emu’s World were very popular in our house.  We had Sooty, Sweep and Soo puppets.  We were never really into Jackanory, and only watched Crackerjack occasionally, although I still laugh whenever anyone says “Ooh, I could crush a grape”.  For reason, we never really got into Blue Peter either.  We weren’t that into programmes with presenters.

We watched Grange Hill, and a short-lived ITV school series called Behind the Bike Sheds.  And T-Bag.  And, when we were very young, we watched Bagpuss.

There were some programmes we watched at school as well.  Mainly in the third year infants.  I don’t know why, but for some reason I remember that as being the year of watching TV in the classroom.  Zig Zag did history programmes.  I can’t remember much about You and Me, except the theme tune went “You and Me, Me and You …” and some of the boys in the class would sing “Poo and Wee, Wee and Poo”, much to the teacher’s annoyance.  And there was Why Don’t You.

I’m going to remember a million other programmes as soon as I post this.  We really do seem to have spent a worrying amount of our childhoods watching TV 🙂 .

A lot of them had very catchy theme tunes.  The Mysterious Cities of Gold, Dogtanian, Pigeon Street, He-Man … most people who grew up in the ’80s can still sing those theme tunes, which is rather embarrassing.  And know the words to the Wac-a-Day song, but possibly won’t admit it.  They stick in your head and never leave it!   And which TV programmes you watched as a kid really do mark out which generation you belong to!   You can read older books, or play older games, but you can only watch what’s on TV at the time!   There were no nostalgia channels in our day.

So happy 50th anniversary to Mr Benn, and I’m now off to think of all the programmes I’ve missed out.





What Comes With The Dust by Gharbi M Mustafa


  This is the first time I’ve come across a novel about the Yazidi genocide of 2014.  Thousands of men who refused to convert to Islam were murdered, thousands of women and girls were taken into sex slavery, and many young boys were forced to become child soldiers.  Despite the wonderful work of Nadia Murad and Amal Clooney, little’s been done to try to bring the perpetrators to justice, and around 3,000 women and girls are still missing.

This actually isn’t a very good book – the main character makes so many unlikely escapes that even the author mentions James Bond, someone is murdered with an overdose of Viagra, and another character apparently has a rare blood subtype shared by only around 40 people in the world – but it’s worth reading because of the subject matter.  It also contains some interesting information about Yazidi culture, and explains why Yazidi religious beliefs have long been misunderstood.

The main character’s a young woman called Nazo, who’s been betrothed to a cousin, wants to marry someone else, and has a secret admirer called Omed.  The Yazidi people live in small communities in NE Iraq, NE Syria and SE Turkey, but mainly in NE Iraq, in the Mount Sinyor area, where most of their holy sites are, and that’s where Nazo’s village is – and it’s where the genocide occurred.  When IS attack, she and her 11-year-old deaf-mute sister Sarah are taken as slaves.  Her lover’s murdered, but Omed manages to escape.

And then we see how Nazo and many other women are sold or given to IS fighters, or to any other men who’ll pay for them, or put into a pool of women for men to take and rape.  Her series of dramatic escapes isn’t really very likely, but that shouldn’t detract from the depiction of the horrors that Yazidi women and girls were put through.  This wasn’t the Trojan War: this was Iraq in 2014.  This happened.

Meanwhile, Omed manages to reach a Kurdish-controlled area of Syria, where he and other Yazidi refugees join the fight against IS, alongside the Peshmerga (the forces of Iraqi Kurds).  He meets and marries a female Yazidi fighter called Soz, the sister of a woman whom Nazo had earlier befriended but seen murdered.  Then Omed is killed too, by someone who’d been at school with Soz – as happened in the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, we hear about how people turned against former friends and neighbours.

Naz and Soz eventually both start new lives in Germany.  But many Yazidi women enslaved by IS are still missing, or have returned to their villages but been unable to reintegrate into their communities because they were raped, and, in many cases, bore children as a result of rape.  There doesn’t seem to be much support available for them, and, although the Pope’s brave visit to Iraq recently brought events there back into the news, what happened has fallen a long way from the forefront of international attention.

This isn’t a great book, as I said, but it’s a story that needs to be read.