The School on the Moor by Dorita Fairlie Bruce


OK … this is an ordinary school story, from 1931, which bizarrely turns into a cross between Escape from Alcatraz and Raiders of the Lost Ark before reverting to being, er, an ordinary school story!   It’s quite a well-written book, but the mixture of genres is a bit bizarre.

Our heroine is Toby, short for Tabitha.  What is it with boyish “shorts” in Girls’ Own books?  I mean, what’s wrong with “Tabby”?!  Toby is the new girl.  It’s a little bit different from standard school stories in that i) Toby is in the VIth form and ii) she is a day girl at a boarding school.  Oh, and there’s a bit of animal stuff thrown in as well – Toby has a pony, and an anthropomorphic dog (which, again, seems rather odd in a school story) rejoicing in the name of Algernon.

It starts off in a standard sort of way.  Toby has a boyish name, and a widowed father, and has never been to school before.  She’s keen to get in with the in crowd, and hopes to do so by virtue of playing well in a tennis match … but her hopes are thwarted by someone else’s misdeeds, and she can’t clear her name without sneaking.  Of course, it all comes out in the end: Toby’s name is cleared, she gets her place on the tennis team, and she gets to be everyone’s friend.

There’s a sub-plot about a girl who wants to go to art college but can’t afford it, and, of course, that all ends up happily, thanks to Toby.  And there’s a prestigious prize, which, needless to say, Toby wins.  And there are some naughty younger girls, and a bully who, thanks of course to  who else but good old Toby, meets her just deserts.

So that’s all standard stuff, and all makes for good reading if you like school stories.  However, we’ve got two very odd sub-plots thrown in.  One involves Ursula Grey and Lesley Musgrave, who feature in the Dimsie books but are now in their 20s, Lesley being one of Toby’s teachers and Ursula being a famous cellist.  A prisoner escapes from Dartmoor jail (the school’s in that area), and it turns out that he is Lesley’s brother and Ursula’s fiance, and has been wrongly convicted.  Of course, he comes across Toby, who, rather than screaming blue murder, can tell just from looking at him that he’s as pure as the driven snow.  She, Lesley and Ursula arrange for an old school chum of his, who has a small private plane which can be landed on the moor – as you do – to rescue him and fly him off to relatives in Africa.

On top of that, Toby thinks that the Ark of the Covenant is hidden on Dartmoor.  Now, I thought that the Ark of the Covenant was supposed to be in Ethiopia.  Yes, I know that Indiana Jones went looking for it in Egypt, but that was presumably just because it worked better for the purposes of the film.  But apparently there’s a legend that it was taken to Tara.  That’s *the* Tara, the one in Ireland, not Gerald O’Hara’s plantation.

I have to confess that I’d never heard of this idea, but, according to the “oracle” that is Wikipedia, “Between 1899 and 1902, adherents of British Israelism dug up parts of the Hill of Tara in the belief that the Ark of the Covenant was buried there, doing much damage to one of Ireland’s most ancient royal and archaeological sites”.  I mean, we all know that the Holy Grail is buried somewhere near Glastonbury, right?  And that the descendants of Aeneas, the “hero” (he’s such a wimp!) of the Aeneid, came to Britain?  And were the ancestors of King Arthur, whose sword is probably also somewhere near Glastonbury?  Evidently a very popular place, Glastonbury.  I went there a couple of years ago.  Nice vegetable pasties.

Anyway, this idea obviously *did* exist, and Dorita Fairlie Bruce had obviously come across it.  So Toby has heard some sort of local story that, rather than being taken to Ireland, the Ark was taken to Dartmoor.  And she thinks she’s found it.  I suppose it makes about as much sense as some of the things that happen in the Enid Blyton “Secret” and “Adventure” books, but it just doesn’t fit into an ordinary school story at all.   Not quite as bad as someone vanishing into space in a Chalet School book, but not far off.

However, at this point, Dorita Fairlie Bruce does return us to reality, and it turns out that what Toby has found are some items removed from a local church in the mid-17th century, and hidden to protect them from Cromwell’s troops, and that the local story which Toby has heard has got tangled up with the Lost Ark thing because the bloke who hid the church stuff was, like the prophet who’s supposed to have hidden the Lost Ark, called Jeremiah.  If anyone’s actually reading this, are you still with it?  It’s really not the kind of thing you expect to come across in a school story!

The sub-plots were crazy and really didn’t belong in the book.  It would have been enough to have said that Toby had come across some buried treasure which turned out to be from the Civil War period, and the escaped prisoner storyline wasn’t needed at all.  But it’s always nice to learn something new, and I really had never come across that idea of the Ark being in Ireland before!  So, er, there you go!




Highland Pony Trek by Patricia Leitch



Despite having no interest at all in ponies, I was very keen on the “Jinny” books in the mid-1980s; but I don’t remember ever coming across any of Patricia Leitch’s one-off books back then.  This is quite a nice, gentle book, with a happy ending.  A widow and her three teenage children face having to sell their Highland home – the sort of home you come across in Lorna Hill books, i.e. a big house with plenty of land attached – as their plan of letting out rooms to guests is not raising enough money to pay their bills, and the only son must of course go to university.  The son then comes up with the idea of setting up a pony trekking business, the running of which falls mainly to Fiona, the elder daughter.

Fiona’s a very believable character – determined to keep their home from sale, but still getting thoroughly fed up with all the hard work and how annoying some of the guests are, and having a strop at her long-suffering admirer, Tom.   There are various traumas with the guests, and then the ponies get out and run riot over land owned by their well-to-do neighbour, who consequently bans them from trekking across his land.  It all turns out well when one of the trekkers accidentally uncovers the local sheep stealer as an ice cream van driver who is stuffing dead sheep in his freezer (as you do), and the neighbour is so grateful that he lets them use his land again.

It’s quite an entertaining book, and makes a change from the usual pony stories about gymkhanas or breaking difficult ponies or not being able to afford a pony.  Finding a dead sheep in an ice cream van’s freezer is certainly an unusual storyline: I don’t think even Enid Blyton ever came up with that one!  Generally a nice book, all in all.

Super Greed: the Fight for Football – Sky Documentaries


This morning, before the Spring Statement, Sky News sent a reporter to Bury Market, to interview some of the people who run the food bank at Radcliffe.  Our region was very badly hit by the pandemic, and we’d had more than our fair share of socio-economic problems even before it.  And, in April 2021, with all that going on, when we were just starting to emerge from Covid restrictions after being under them for longer than any other part of the country, United and City signed up for the proposed Super League.  Liverpool too.  It was absolutely shameful.  For all the clubs. How on earth did the owners get it so wrong?  And it was the owners: the players and the managers more or less said that they were as disgusted as the fans were.  Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wasn’t even told about it until after the news had made its way into the press.

It was a bit ironic that this programme was made by Sky, given that it was Sky Sports who enabled the set-up of the Premier League.  But the Premier League’s not a closed shop.  It’s competitive.  There’s promotion and relegation.  And, yes, it’s been dominated by a small number of clubs, but Blackburn won the title in its second year, and Leicester won the title in 2016.  Relatively small clubs (no offence intended) such as Bournemouth and Huddersfield Town have played in the Premier League.  And the money doesn’t all go to the Premier League clubs.   It makes its way down, throughout the English game – although even that didn’t stop Bury going out of business in August 2019, nor Bolton Wanderers, founder members of the Football League in 1888, from very nearly following them.

Even the talk by one of the reporters on this programme of “the traditional Big Six” was nonsense.  What tradition?  When I was a kid, we had a “Big Five” – United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Spurs and Everton.  Give it a couple of seasons and maybe we’ll have a “Big Seven”, with Newcastle in there.  Or maybe, given the current goings-on, Chelsea’ll drop out of that “Big” group.  Who knows?   All the best to Nick Candy’s consortium with their bid to buy Chelsea, by the way.   Until a couple of weeks ago, all I knew about Nick Candy was that he was married to Holly Valance, but he’s a Londoner and a lifelong Chelsea fan.

Going back, again, to when I was a kid, United’s chairman was Martin Edwards.  People used to call him for all sorts, but he was still one of us.  The Edwards family were self-made people from Salford, lifelong United fans.  Then along came the Glazers. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got nothing against any of the Glazers personally, and I’ve certainly got nothing against Americans, but what did they know about United, about Manchester, about football in general?  I remember once being on holiday somewhere in the US, Atlanta I think, and hearing the local American football club referred to as a “franchise”.   I mean, what?   A “franchise” is where you go for a hamburger.  A football club is an intrinsic part of a town or a city, of people’s lives.   And people, if they’re lucky to get tickets, travel to away matches, to other towns and cities.  Not to other “franchises”.  They do here, anyway.  They even do in Russia.

That was how it all seemed here, that it was about greedy foreign owners who knew nothing about the clubs.  The one exception being Spurs, whose owner had been born above a pub in the East End.  People pointed to the fact that Bayern Munich, who dominated German football to a far greater extent than any club dominated English, Spanish or Italian football, hadn’t got involved – because they were owned by their fans.  (Paris St Germain hadn’t either, but that was because their owners wanted to keep in with UEFA and FIFA.)

But it was different abroad.  Barcelona were also owned by their fans.  One of my initial reactions had been that Barcelona fans would be horrified.  Barcelona, mas que un club, surely they of all clubs would see how wrong this was.  But … well, it must have been representatives of club members who’d made the decision.  Juventus had exactly the sort of chairman we looked back to from the supposed good old days (er, not that English football in the 1980s was exactly “good”) – Andrea Agnelli was Turin born and bred, a lifelong fan, and had succeeded his father as chairman.  Florentino Perez, the chairman of Real Madrid, and the driving force behind it all, was a Madrileno.  None of that fitted the way it looked to us.

What was different?  Well, according to this programme, it was mainly money.  Italy and Spain had also been very badly hit by the pandemic, and some of the clubs involved had already had huge debts.  And, especially in Spain, the media and the government backed the Super League.  Sky put this down to the influence of Perez himself.  Who knows?   Italy was hardly mentioned, which a shame.

There was a lot of talk here, at the time, that the Government backed the Super League plans, and that there’d been secret meetings involving people connected with United.  I’ll just say that, whilst I can’t know for certain, I genuinely don’t believe a word of that, based on what I know of the people allegedly involved.  Anyway, with the fans of the clubs involved, the fans of other clubs, and every part of the media so vehemently opposed to the plan, the Government came out against it.

But it wasn’t about the Government, or even the media.  It was the fans who killed the proposal.  The fans of the clubs involved, who held huge demonstrations against it.  Sky spoke to someone from Marca, a publication which does not generally have anything positive to say about English football, and he said that the Super League proposal had been killed by English football fans.

And he was right.  And I think we can be rather proud of that. The whole thing collapsed within a week.

Watch this, if you get the chance.  It’s not perfect – as I said, it barely mentioned the mood in Italy – but it was very, very interesting.  And be proud, that we put football above money.  There are still all sorts of issues going on with English football, but we got this right.  The owners got it wrong, but the fans put it right.




The Strangeways Riot: 25 Days of Mayhem – Channel 4


I feel awful for saying this, but my teenage friends and I rather enjoyed the Strangeways Riot.  Our school bus went right past the prison, and we used to wave to the rioting prisoners on the roof.  And they used to wave back to us.  We thought we were *it*.  Classmates who lived on different bus routes were super- envious of us.  The fact that these people with whom we were exchanging cheery waves were some of the most violent people in the entire country, convicted criminals who’d committed horrific offences and ruined innocent people’s lives, in some cases even taken innocent people’s lives … er, didn’t seem to occur to us.  I feel awful for saying it now, as I’ve said, but, at the time, it all seemed quite exciting.

The Strangeways area itself was uber-cool at the time.  The HQ of Joe Bloggs jeans, which, along with black hooded tops, were the Madchester uniform, was very close to the prison.  A few months after that, we went on a school trip to London, and, as it was a trip, we didn’t have to wear uniform (probably so that no-one would be able to identify the school if anyone misbehaved). Pretty much every kid turned up in a pair of jeans and a black hooded top.  We strutted round London thinking that we were the bees’ knees.  Capital city?  Stuff that.  Manchester ruled!

We were actually going to see some boring classics plays, as the headmistress thought befitted a group of Nice Girls from a Nice School, but we drew a veil over that.  It didn’t exactly fit with the Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays.  No-one needed to know that that was what we were in London for, did they?

And, of course, the riot had absolutely nothing to do with being cool.  Two people died.  Scores of others were injured.  £55 million worth of damage was done.  The prisoners’ relatives and friends went through horrendous emotional turmoil as false reports came out that tens of people had been murdered.  There was nothing cool about it.  It had nothing to do with Madchester music, it had nothing to do with the James Stannage phone-in on local radio (which we were all really into at the time), and it had nothing to do with the fact that United had had an absolutely terrible league season but were about to win the FA Cup.  And it certainly had absolutely nothing to do with us.  But, when you’re what school stories describe as a “Naughty Middle”, you can tend to think that everything’s about you and your world; and, when I look back at that time, it’s all mixed up together in my head.

I’m doing that again now, aren’t I?  Making it all about me and my world.  Suppose that I try writing something about, you know, the riot and the documentary …

I was quite glad that Channel 4 played Fools Gold and Step On You as the background to some of the footage, and showed people turning up outside with picnics, as if it were some sort of outdoor theatrical event.  At least we weren’t the only ones who, ahem, rather enjoyed it and got it mixed up in our heads with all the Madchester stuff.

Incidentally, Kay Burley, then a very new reporter with Sky News, even claimed that it was the start of 24 hour rolling news.  I’d say that that was more the Gulf War, which happened later that year, but I suppose you *can* make an argument for it having started with the Strangeways Riot.

In amongst all the music and pictures of people having picnics, we did actually hear from some of the prisoners and staff involved in it all, and we did get the background to the riot.  Crime was rising, for a number of social and economic reasons, and, at the time, it was thought that putting people in prison was the best way to deal with it.  Prisons became dangerously overcrowded, and the way in which prisons were run hadn’t really been reformed for years.  Warders were even allowed to use tranquillisers on prisoners, which seems horrendous now.

Everything built up, and a number of prisoners started a riot in the Anglican chapel, and managed to grab the keys.  The staff, vastly outnumbered and with no way of keeping control, pulled out.  And what tends to be forgotten is that it was only a minority of the prisoners who were rioting.  Others, especially sex offenders who knew that they faced brutal attacks from other prisoners disgusted at what they’d done, were terrified.  Meanwhile, ongoing building works made it possible for the rioters to get out on to the roof.

And that’s what we remember.  The prisoners on the roof.  We had no idea what was going on inside the building.  But all sorts of reports were coming out.  There was talk of massacres.   Of sex offenders being carted off to Crumpsall Hospital (that’s our local hospital, officially known as North Manchester General but still referred to by most people by its historic name) with castration wounds.  A large number of reporters set up shop on the roof of a nearby warehouse, and they were talking to the prisoners.  And the authorities were going mad about this.  The rioters had everyone’s attention.  Everyone was listening to every word they said.

I’m not sure what the wider national, or possibly even international, coverage was like – the national press were also busy covering a major anti poll tax riot which took place in London at that time – but, in Manchester, it was practically all that anyone was talking about.  Well, that and the FA Cup run saving Alex Ferguson’s job.  It seems unthinkable now, but then, a fortnight before Easter 1990, a joke was doing the rounds – “Alex Ferguson OBE – out before Easter”.  Can you imagine if that’d happened?   Don’t even go there!  Anyway, the attention was off Fergie for a while, because the local media were all over the riot.  And the Home Office ended up asking the editor of the Manchester Evening News to go into the prison and find out what was going on.  Not a prison chief, a police chief, a senior politician or someone from the military.  The editor of the Manchester Evening News.

So, once he’d been in and seen what was going on, we knew that the inside of the prison was being wrecked but that, thankfully, the reports of a massacre weren’t true, nor were the reports of serious prisoner-on-prisoner violence.  And, as the programme’s narrator said, it had moved from being a riot to being a siege.  A small hardcore of prisoners remained on the roof.  And someone came up with the idea of using sleep deprivation to try to get them down.  So, the next thing we knew, loud music was blaring out over the Strangeways area at night, a helicopter was flying overhead, air raid sirens were being used, and bangers embedded in potatoes were being lobbed in.  Bangers.  Embedded in potatoes.  It sounded like something from a Carry On film, not an attempt by the authorities to bring an end to a major disturbance.   And all this was going on just down the road, on our school bus route.

Meanwhile, riots were breaking out at other prisons across the country, the last few prisoners wouldn’t give in, it was all just crazy, Maggie Thatcher was really not a happy bunny, and, eventually, prison officers went in, and the last few prisoners came down in a cherry picker, like … I don’t know, a cross between an action movie and a pop video.  They were giving clenched fist salutes to the watching crowds of press and members of the public, and people were cheering.  Looking back on it now, it … well, sometimes fact’s stranger than fiction, and this was one of those times.

Afterwards, prison practices were changed, and the prison was rebuilt.  It’s now supposed to be called HMP Manchester, as if changing the name’s going to erase the memory of the riots.  Everyone still calls it “Strangeways”.  And those of us who lived in the local area during those strange 25 days in the spring of 1990 will never forget what happened – but, unlike the people who worked there, and the people who were imprisoned there but weren’t involved in the riot, we don’t bear any scars from it.

Kenneth Baker, who was the Home Secretary at the time, said that it marked “a watershed in the history of the prison service”.  It was one of the biggest national events of its time.  And we had a close up view of it from the top deck of a school bus.  Strange (pun intended).  Very strange indeed.  Thanks to Channel 4 for this.  I know that it was intended to be a documentary about a very serious prison riot and the very serious things which it told us about our prisons at the time, but, for those of us from North Manchester, it also brought back a lot of memories of a very strange and never forgotten time.


Dilly Goes To Ambergate by Margaret Biggs



Girl from orphanage (a word which seems a little dated even for the 1950s) is given a scholarship to a posh school by a kind trustee.  This one (and this is another Margaret Biggs one-off book, the third of three which I’ve read close together!) sounds as if it *should* be a GO trope, but it actually isn’t.  The only other book I can think of which uses this storyline, and even then it’s college rather than school, is Daddy Long Legs.  How I adored that book when I was a kid!  Now, I find Jervis Pendleton’s behaviour exceedingly strange and really rather creepy.  But anyway.

I quite enjoyed this book.  Dilly, the main character, was very believable, and so were the other girls, the teachers, and the various other characters such as the kind trustee.  However, the plot was just a bit too twee, for lack of a better word.  Dilly, like Amanda at Malory Towers, went swimming in the sea, nearly drowned, and was rescued by a girl whom she’d previously disliked.  She was wrongly accused of stealing something, and then cleared.  She dramatically scored the winning goal in a lacrosse match, despite having suffered an injury and fainted on the pitch.  Despite never having ridden before, she soon became such a wonderful rider that she almost won a competition, but threw it to allow a friend a longed-for moment of glory.  And, of course, she fell foul of snobs, but won them over.

By the time I got towards the end end, I was starting to feel that the book should have been called Dilly Pulls It Off, because it was starting to feel like a spoof.

And then, at the end, the kind trustee and his wife, whose daughter had become Dilly’s best friend, decided to adopt Dilly and give her a family of her own.  Someone writing in Edwardian times might have got away with it, but it was all just a bit too tropey and predictable for a book written in the 1950s.  Good characterisation, silly plot!

Bobby at Hill House by Margaret Biggs


This is another one-off school story from Margaret Biggs.  It’s a collection of tropes of the genre; but they’re put together very well, and the characters all come across very well.

We’ve got:

  1. The girl who’s known by a boyish “short” – our heroine is Bobby, short for Roberta.
  2.  The girl who’s sent away to school due to a change of circumstances at home – Bobby’s guardian gets married, and his wife decides that she can’t cope with looking after a teenage girl.   Unusually, with fictional boarding schools usually being in the countryside, Bobby is sent from Cornwall to London: Hill House is in Highgate.
  3.  The new headmistress who shakes things up – Miss Bennett relaxes a lot of rules and gives the girls more choices in what they do.
  4. The girl who thinks she’s a cut above the others – Julia’s family have been involved with Hill House from the start, and she isn’t impressed by the changes.
  5. The girl from a poor background who thinks that others will judge her as a result – this is Stephanie, known (see plot point 1) as Steve rather than as Steph or Stephie.  Mind you  Stevie Nicks isn’t Steph or Stephie either, but the book predates Fleetwood Mac!
  6.  The girl with no confidence, who turns out to be absolutely brilliant at something  – this is Davida, known (see plot point 1 again!) as Davey, who turns out to be a brilliant pianist.
  7. The unexpected long-lost eelationship – it turns out that Miss Bennett and Bobby’s guardian’s wife are old schoolfriends who have lost touch.
  8. The nasty teacher – Miss Merton, who eventually leaves.
  9. The teacher who marries a pupil’s widowed father – Miss Bennett gets together with Julia’s dad.
  10. The childhood sweetheart – it’s hinted that Bobby will eventually marry Flip (Philip), John’s other ward … which is a bit icky because, although there’s no blood relationship, they’ve grown up together as siblings.
  11. The happy ending – everyone starts to get on.

That sounds as if I’m being sarcastic.  I’m really not.  It’s a lovely book, and the tropes are all fairly realistic ones – no-one turns out to be a princess in disguise, or runs away and falls over a cliff, or anything like that!    Not bad at all.



The Dogs and the Wolves by Irene Nemirovsky


I thought that this was set in Kyiv, and I got horribly confused about why so little time appeared to have elapsed between the pogrom of 1905 and the outbreak of the Great War in 1914.  However, apparently it’s a fictional city which is very like Kyiv, so presumably that allowed the author to change the date of the pogrom.

I did see one blurb which said that the city was Odesa, where around a third of the population was Jewish at that time.  It isn’t: it’s clearly meant to be Kyiv.  Odesa had pogroms too, some of the early ones unusually carried out by Greeks rather than Russians or Ukrainians, but it was also the city of freedom, the Wild West of the Russian Empire, the city into which Jews who’d fled the Pale of Settlement were able to disappear, the city from which people came from Poland, Byelorussia (as it was then), Greece, Moldova and Armenia, as well as Mother Russia and Ukraine, and of course there were Crimean Tatars there too.  It’s a fascinating city, and it’s devastating to think that it may soon face what Kyiv’s facing already.  Which isn’t relevant, but it’s hard not to think about it whilst writing this.

It’s one of those books which are supposed to be great tours de force … meaning that, when you don’t really get them, you end up feeling very guilty and feeling that you must be really thick.  Or wondering if other people are doing an emperor’s new clothes thing and just pretending to have found them absolutely wonderful.  And I *didn’t* really get it.  It’s very short, which doesn’t help.  I’m not keen on short books, other than children’s books.  You don’t have time to get to know the characters.

Anyway.  We’ve got two branches of the Sinner family.  I thought Sinner was mainly a Tyrolean name, as in Jannik Sinner, but apparently it’s assumed that the author chose that name as a sort of pun, as in sins are being committed … even though she was writing in French.  The rich Jewish family and the poor Jewish family.  Our heroine is Ada, from the poor branch.  During the pogrom, she and her cousin Ben seek refuge with the rich branch, where they meet Harry.  They all then end up in Paris, having not met since.  Ada and Ben marry, and Harry marries a rich French Catholic girl.  Neither marriage works out very well, and Ada and Harry meet again and begin an affair.

Irene Nemirovsky, despite originally being Jewish (she later converted to Catholicism herself), and dying in Auschwitz as a consequence, has been accused of perpetuating anti-Semitic stereotypes in this book.  The rich Sinners are bankers.  With the poor Sinners, Ben’s mother’s a terrible social climber.  And there are a lot of very stereotypical comments about appearances – you can imagine the sort of thing.

I’m not sure that she deserves that criticism.  It’s always awkward when people write about minority groups, but … well, think of all the British Asian comedians who joke about British Asians, and America Jewish comedians like Jackie Mason who joke about American Jews.  OK, this book isn’t a comedy, but think about Maisie Mosco’s books and all the social climbers in those.  A lot of people who start at the botton *are* social climbers. Why wouldn’t they be?  And, yes, a lot of wealthy Jews made their money in finance, purely because they were banned from other professions.  If you look at Quakers, or French Huguenots in the 18th or 19th centuries, you’ll also see a lot of people making money in finance or business because they’re banned from professions.

Just going off the point slightly, I was thinking about the reference which Maisie Mosco makes in Almonds and Raisins to the Board of Guardians, as it then was – set up by well-to-do Jews in Manchester because they were nervous that the presence of large numbers of poor Jews might create a bad image.  Set up in 1867, and I really want to write an essay on my pet subject of Manchester in the 1860s, but it would be completely irrelevant!   Nick Gage, in his books about Greek immigrants in Massachusetts, makes similar comments – wealthy Greeks offered poor Greeks jobs, because they were worried that the presence of large numbers of poor Greeks might create a bad image.  The impression which some of the characters clearly have in this book, and the impression which I think a lot of readers have taken from the book, is that the wealthy Sinners are worried about being dragged down to the level of the poor Sinners.  None of us can know what Irene Nemirovsky intended, but maybe it was more a case of the wealthy group being worried about the impression given to wider society by the presence of the poorer group?

It was probably a combination of both.  Anyway, the idea is that Harry’s very respectable, and bourgeois in every sense of the word , whereas Ben, who would probably have done better in Odesa than in Paris, is a bit of a bad lot, mixed up in dodgy dealings.  But everyone’s lives come crashing down when news of the affair breaks, and when Ben involves Harry’s bank in his illicit schemes.

It ends with Ada giving birth to Harry’s child in an unnamed Eastern European country, away from both men, having managed to escape from France in the face of threats from an unnamed force – is this the Nazis, or is it internal forces within France?  It’s all meant to be very symbolic and we’re meant to find the book absolutely wonderful, but it just wasn’t really for me.  And I only got it because I thought the first bit was set in Kyiv, and then it wasn’t!  Oh well!

Christmas Term at Vernley by Margaret Biggs


Most school stories, apart from the early ones written by Angela Brazil et al, are series, but this one’s a one-off.  Probably for that reason, it’s not particularly well-known; but it really isn’t bad at all, and it’s quite original.  There are a few real tropes in it – one of our heroines rescues someone who’s fallen through the ice (this is in the Home Counties, not Jo March’s New England or Jo Bettany’s Tyrol, but, hey, there have been winters when it’s been cold enough to skate in the Home Counties!), and the other one confuses salt with sugar – but the main plotline is something refreshingly different.

The school is divided into two houses, and one of the houses always wins everything, whilst the other one never wins anything.  It seems rather unlikely that, year on year, one house should be better at academic work, sport, and even organising firework displays on Bonfire Night …  but, as we see all too often with football teams, you do get these crises of confidence which not even a major change of personnel seems to help to solve.

In the term in question, Judy, the new house captain of the house which always loses, is determined to change things, as is her younger sister Philippa.

There are various adventures – some at the school, some at the nearby village (in which all the locals seem remarkably keen to help out the schoolgirls, even giving a “penny for the guy” when they’re ordinary working folk and the girls are from very wealthy families), some on a school trip to London and some when our two heroines go out for tea with their brother.  Then, needless to say, the losing house wins out in the end, at the last minute, and the girls from the two houses become friends rather than just seeing each other as rivals.

So there’s nothing really unexpected, but at least none of it’s unrealistic – apart from the bit where they accidentally set off a load of fireworks indoors but somehow manage not to set the place on fire – and the characters are all very believable.  And it’s rather enjoyable.

It’s quite a shame that it isn’t part of a series, although a lot of the characters would have been leaving at the end of the academic year anyway, but it’s a pretty good one-off school story.   Not an all-time classic, but a lot better than many individual books in series which are memorable.  I’ve got another two books by this author, and am looking forward to reading them.

Behind the Curtain: Travels in Eastern European Football by Jonathan Wilson


This book is amazing.  I ordered it after a conversation with my young nephews about the interaction between the rise of Shakhtar Donetsk to surpass Dynamo Kyiv and the geopolitical divisions within Ukraine.  Sound like a flippant thing to say?  It isn’t: it really isn’t.  The book mentions it, and it was written *before* the conflict in the Donbass broke out in 2006.   It also makes the interesting point that Karpaty Lviv are part of it too.  I’d never really thought of that, probably because Karpaty aren’t that well-known here, but it’s a good point.  Football says so much.  Look at how Barca ended up practically at the centre of the row after the Catalan independence referendum.

The first time I realised that Yugoslavia was going to disintegrate into civil war was well before it did.  It was in 1990, and I was watching a programme called Trans World Sport, which, in those days, was one of the very few opportunities you got to see even a few minutes of tennis on TV outside tournaments played in the UK.  Red Star Belgrade, Crvena Zvedza, were playing Dinamo Zagreb, and horrendous violence broke out between the Serbian and Croatian fans.  It sounds daft, but the venom was so intense that I knew then that there was going to be a war.  According to this book, Red Star fans actually claim to have started the war.  They also claim that they were responsible for the fall of Slobodan Milosevic, later on.  It doesn’t surprise me.  I don’t mean that as anything against Red Star/Crvena Zvedza, just that it doesn’t surprise me that football can be so close to politics.

The book does stop short of attributing the 1989 revolution in Romania to football, but it does say that it worked the other way round – that Dinamo Bucharest’s winning the double that year, ahead of the Ceasescu-backed Steaua Bucharest, probably wouldn’t have happened if the revolution happened first.

Incidentally, as a kid, I used to ask why Leningrad didn’t have a decent football team.  I always had Russia on the brain, and it seemed odd that such a major city didn’t have a top class football team.  I never got a satisfactory answer, so, when I went to Russia in 1996, by which time Leningrad had changed its name back to St Petersburg, I asked a tour guide.  “It does have a football team,” he explained, “but they are very bad.  Like the blue team in Manchester.”  Those were the days.  Zenit got their act together a few years later, and have been Russian champions for the past three seasons.  The book barely mentions Zenit, but it does say a lot about the various Moscow teams and how they were affected by Soviet politics, and the firm belief in Georgia and Armenia that Stalin, despite the fact that both he and his head of the secret police were Georgian, would only allow teams from either Moscow or Kyiv to win the Soviet league title.

Sorry, that’s irrelevant.  To get back to the book, the author says at the start that he was the only kid in his class who was cheering for Red Star/Crvena Zvedza in the 1991 European Cup Final, rather than for Chris Waddle’s Marseille.  Me too, Jonathan, me too!  I was another kid with a thing about Eastern Europe.  Red Star won, and played United in the Super Cup.  The leg in Belgrade was cancelled, and only the leg at Old Trafford was played.  War had broken out by then.

As I’ve said, it sounds flippant, which it really isn’t, to talk about football rivalries and wars in the same breath, because we don’t really have that in England.  I’m not playing down what our own clubs have been through.  I grew up hearing about the Munich Air Disaster.  My dad, as a 12-year-old schoolboy, attended United’s first match at Old Trafford after the plane crashed, along with my late grandfather.  A distant relative on my mum’s side died at Hillsborough.  But, although obviously we have club rivalries which relate to regional rivalries which go way beyond politics – United and Liverpool, Newcastle and Sunderland, etc – we don’t have the political issues here.  Well, we do now, with all these goings-on over Chelsea and Roman Abramovich, but that’s not about domestic politics.

None of our clubs have had their president shot dead by a Falangist, like Barcelona, been purged by the Nazis because they’ve got a number of Jewish staff members and board members (Bayern Munich), been purged by Nazi sympathisers for the same reason and then been put under the control of a man who deported 40,000 people to Auschwitz (MTK Budapest), dissolved by Stalin for contributing the majority of players to a Soviet side which lost to Yugoslavia (CSKA Moscow) or had their chairman deported to a gulag because the head of the Stalinist secret police didn’t like him (Spartak Moscow).

We don’t have clubs named after freedom fighters (Levski Sofia, Red Star Belgrade, Partizan Belgrade), and we don’t have clubs which became bound up with Juan Peron (Boca Juniors).   And we don’t really have the complicated regional political issues which are mixed up with football in Spain and to some extent Italy … and, of course, Ukraine.  Romania too, I suppose – there are some issues in Cluj over Transylvania’s complicated Hungarian-Romanian ethnopolitics.  Nor do we have clubs affiliated to the Army or secret police organisations.

OK, that’s a lot of talk about issues which don’t exist in England, rather than issues which *do*, or did, exist in Eastern Europe!  And, of course, I’m saying “England” rather than “the UK”, because obviously Glasgow and Derry and various other places have different issues.

Anyway.  To get back to the book!   There’s a chapter each of several different countries behind the old Iron Curtain, and each one’s fascinating.  What Ukraine’s performance in the 2006 World Cup, Slovenia’s in Euro 2000 and Croatia’s in Euro 1996 did for each country’s sense of identity and self-belief.  And Hungary in the 1950s … when I went to Budapest in 2000, people were still talking about *that* match at Wembley in 1953, as if it’d been the greatest moment in Hungarian history.  The author claims that the Magical Magyars’ defeat by West Germany in the 1954 World Cup final was what led to the 1956 Uprising.  That’s possibly pushing it a bit, but he makes a very convincing argument.

There are also very interesting chapters on corruption and other goings-on in football in Russia, Georgia and Romania (although nothing about Ukrainian football and some of what allegedly went on, or was attempted, with the Kanchelskis transfers), and Poland and Bulgaria also get their own chapters.  I could go on and on, but I don’t suppose anyone’s going to read this anyway. Still, I’m enjoying writing it.

I suppose he couldn’t cover everywhere, but I’m curious about the omission of the Czech Republic and Slovakia.  I remain convinced that the Velvet Divorce was linked to the omission of the Slovak verse of the Czechoslovakian national anthem at the 1990 World Cup!  Maybe Czech and Slovak football just isn’t questionable enough.  East Germany doesn’t get a mention, either.  Nor does Belarus, nor Albania, nor Lithuania, Latvia or Estonia, but they aren’t major footballing nations in the way that the Czech Republic and Slovakia are.  And the book’s now 16 years old, so it would have been written too early to mention the rise and fall of Anzhi Makhachkala.

Anyway, this book is very strongly recommended.  It isn’t for everyone, and not everyone likes to read about Eastern Europe or football, never mind both, but I loved it!




Fly-by-Night and The Team by K M Peyton


  I read the Patrick Pennington books when I was 11 or 12.  I think I got them from the “junior library” at school, just before I (temporarily) decided that I was way past “junior library” books and moved on to the likes of Barbara Taylor Bradford.  No, *not* Virginia Andrews!  So I knew Ruth Hollis as Patrick’s girlfriend, and, later, his wife, but until recently I had no idea that Ruth was the star of two books of her own.  Pony books.  I was going to say that my idea of pony books was a world away from troubled teen Patrick, who spent time in prison, but, actually, my favourite pony books were the Patricia Leitch “Jinny” books, which were themselves a way from the traditional pony books about well-to-do crowds competing at gymkhanas.

BTW, did anyone else, admittedly when only about 7 or 8, see adverts at the back of books for “My Friend Flicka Part I/II/III” and think that “Flicka Part” was a strange name?  OK, that was obviously just me.  I was only about 7 or 8 at the time, as I said!

The books about Ruth are, like the “Jinny” books, a definite attempt to move away from traditional pony books.  Ruth’s dad sells bathrooms.  The family have moved to a new housing estate where there just happens to be quite a bit of spare land, and Ruth, a pupil at the local comprehensive school, has to save up her own money to buy a pony as cheaply as possible, has a brother who rides a motorbike, and does a paper round in order to pay for his feed etc.  Although her friend Peter’s widowed father marries a Neapolitan opera singer, which definitely seems more Lorna Hill than K M Peyton!

Also, the books aren’t just about ponies and gymkhanas and winning prizes and so on: there’s quite a lot about the characters’ family lives and relationships as well.

I can’t say that I was ever *that* keen on pony books.  I remember reading the Jinny books, and some of the Linda Craig books, but they haven’t been part of my life in the way that the Chalet School books have, or the Little House books, or the Lorna Hill Wells books.   But, if you *are* into pony books, these two are really rather good.