The Memory Keeper of Kyiv by Erin Litteken

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This isn’t a particularly well-written book, but it’s the first time I’ve ever come across a novel about the Holodomor (or Holodymyr), the man-made famine which killed millions of people in Ukraine in the 1930s, and it does get across the message of the horrors which people endured at that time.   There’s a film called Mr Jones, which I watched a while back, but that shows the events from the viewpoint of a British journalist: this book tells it from the viewpoint of a (fictional) Ukrainian girl who lived through it.   It uses a dual time narrative, which I’m personally not keen on, and the writing and descriptions are fairly basic, with a bit too much dialogue; but it does tell an important story.  There’s also quite a lot of general information about Ukrainian culture in it.  Especially about food.

I should imagine that we’re going to see quite a few historical novels set in Ukraine, over the next year or so.  I hope that they’re not going to turn Ukrainian history into a tragedy narrative, because it isn’t, and it can actually be very problematic – Khmelnytsy, Petliura, Bandera -; but the Holodomor was a tragedy, made even more so by the fact that it was largely due to Soviet ineptitude and repression, that some areas were deliberately starved by the Stalinist authorities, and that what happened was largely covered up until Gorbachev’s time.

It was part of a wider famine across several parts of the Soviet Union.  Gorbachev, although he was only a baby whilst it was happening, has spoken about the loss of relatives and neighbours, including two aunts and an uncle, to starvation, and he declassified the documents from the time.   However, it was particularly bad in Ukraine.   No-one’s sure how many died, with estimates ranging from 2.5 million to 10 million, but we’re certainly talking millions of people.  Some people and some countries consider it to have been genocide, and there’s certainly a strong argument in favour of that view.

So how did this happen, in Ukraine, the breadbasket of Europe?  Well, bad weather was certainly a factor, and it’s possible that rodents, insects and plant blight may all have played a part in it too, but it was basically due to Soviet ineptitude.  They tried to force collectivisation on the agricultural workers, insisted that some of the land be turned over to producing cotton rather than grain, failed to account for the need to produce fodder for animals as well as food for humans, imposed quotas which couldn’t be met, and allocated higher food rations to urban workers at the expense of rural workers.   People were shot for trying to escape from the areas with no food and prosecuted for trying to glean bits of food from the fields, offers of foreign aid were refused, and a lot of grain was wasted due to inefficient transportation and storage.

On top of everything else, Walter Duranty of the New York Times saw fit to report that stories of starvation in the Soviet Union had been wildly exaggerated, and that things under communism were all hunky dory.  And then the Soviets covered up what had really happened.  Gareth Jones, the “Mr Jones” of the aforementioned film, who had tried to tell the world what was going on, was murdered by Soviet agents.

There’s a school of thought which holds that the Stalinist authorities actually did it on purpose – that it was a way to try to suppress Ukrainian nationalism, at a time when Russification was being used to try to bring about uniformity, and when there was severe repression aimed specifically at Ukraine.  The poor agricultural policies led to resistance, and, as a result, whole villages in Ukraine were blacklisted, and banned from receiving any food at all, and the grain which they produced was requisitioned and distributed elsewhere.   Was it genocide?   I don’t personally think that the shortage of grain was deliberately engineered: the Soviets needed Ukrainian agriculture, and they needed the food to supply urban workers.   It was ineptitude.  Communism only works in a small scale setting: central planning and quota-setting for somewhere as large as the Soviet Union was never going to work.   But does the deliberate withholding of food from people, and the commandeering of such supplies as they produced for themselves, constitute genocide?   Well, there’s certainly a cogent argument that it does.

OK, history essay over!   This is a novel, not an academic work.  We’ve got an elderly lady in America in 2004, having flashbacks to her youth in Ukraine, and a rather irrelevant sub-plot about a romance between her widowed granddaughter and a handsome neighbour.   I could have done without the sections set in 2004, but, as I’ve said, dual timelines seem to be all the rage these days.  The interesting parts are set in Ukraine in the 1930s, with the elderly lady as a young woman.  It’s written in American English, which is obviously fair enough for an American author, but which may read strangely to readers from other Anglophone countries.  The style of writing isn’t wonderful, and there’s a bit too much dialogue and not enough description; but it is the author’s first ever book.

There’s a tendency in a lot of cultures to look back to some mythical golden idyll before something happened.  Think William Blake’s “green and pleasant land” pre the Industrial Revolution, the introduction to the Gone With The Wind film, about the antebellum South, or the idea that it was grand to be an Englishman in 1910, before the First World War.  I think that this book does fall into that trap.  Life in rural Ukraine before Stalinism was not a bed of roses: the grandparents of our protagonist, Katya, were probably born into serfdom, and then came the First World War, followed by the 1917-1921 war.  But, certainly, things were a lot better than they were during the horrors of 1932-33.

Without giving the whole story, we see Katya, the protagonist, as a happy young girl, and then her life and those around her turning into horror as the Stalinist secret police (always described as “activists”, for some reason) take over, try to enforce collectivisation, and take all their food supplies.  (The title’s a misnomer: we don’t even see Kyiv in the book, and the scenes in Ukraine are based around a village near the town of Bila Tservka, around 50 miles from Kyiv.)  Most of her family and many of her neighbours are either shot dead, are deported to Siberia, or die of starvation, and Katya herself is raped.  When the winter of 1932-33 is over, she and her brother-in-law Kolya go to look for the other viillagers, and find house after house containing frozen bodies.  Gorbachev’s spoken of how half the people in his village died during that winter.

A visiting cousin talks of cannibalism, and there are many accounts of that having really happened. In one chapter, Katya and Kolya go to the nearest town, and see piles of bodies along the roadside: again, there are many accounts of how people died in fields or along the sides of roads. They eat worms, grass, anything they can find, and even flush out rabbits’ burrows to take the animals’ grain supplies: all these things really happened during the Holodomor.

The book very much takes the view that Stalin was deliberately starving people: one character actuallly says that Stalin wants them all dead.   Katya and Kolya see vast amounts of food piled up in storage facilities, often rotting, dead horses being covered in carbolic acid to prevent people from eating them, and people being prosecuted for taking any food or grain from the fields.   People were denied the food on the grounds that their farm or village hadn’t met the quotas imposed by the authorities.  The afterword talks about how foraging in the woods or fishing in streams was illegal, as all the land and water was deemed to belong to the state, and how large amounts of food were exported to other countries during this time.

We do see someone who’d been with the secret police seeing the error of his ways, but too late.  And we see a 10-year-old boy informing on his own parents, because of the brainwashing that took place in the communist youth organisations.

The book makes clear that collectivisation caused considerable demotivation, and that that was yet another factor leading to the drop in agricultural production.  We hear how the the characters want to be working for themselves, not feeling that they’re just small cogs in a big and impersonal state wheel.  All sounds rather Thatcherite, doesn’t it?  Communism doesn’t work, except on a very small scale in Israeli kibbutzim.  And it inevitably brings about totalitarianism, which in turn brings about repression.

In the book, Katya’s diary from 1932-3 is turned into a book by her granddaughter, because the story needs telling.  Well, yes, it does.  Why is this story so little known?   Many people had left Ukraine for Canada, the US and elsewhere in the 1920s, but presumably those back home weren’t able to write and tell them. There were reports in the foreign press, and some offers of foreign aid, but Walter Duranty’s reports would have been widely read in the West, and … well, what are we doing at the moment to help the Uighur and Rohingya peoples?   Not much.

The author’s explanation is that the rest of the world didn’t want to antagonise Stalin as they needed his support against Hitler, but that wasn’t until later in the decade and into the 1940s, so I’m not entirely getting that idea.   She also says that people who were able to leave famine-stricken parts of Ukraine after the Second World War were so afraid of the Soviet authorities that they wouldn’t speak out even once they were settled in other countries, and explains that her Ukrainian great-grandmother was terrified of the police and even of unsolicited phone calls.

One moan, and this was probably a typo – a female character’s patronymic is given as Mykolayovych, rather than Mykolayevna.  Also, I found it odd that the Yiddish word “blintze” was used rather than the Ukrainian word “nalynsky”, but the author mentions in the afterword that her great-grandmother said “blintze”, so maybe she came from a village with a mixed population.

OK, end of essay.  I get a bit carried away when I’m writing about Eastern European history.   As I’ve said, this isn’t a particularly well-written book, and I’m not a fan of dual time narratives, but, especially if you can get it on the cheap Kindle deal offer, this is well worth reading, because this story does need to be far more widely known.

 

Lucy Worsley Investigates: The Witch Hunts – BBC 2

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Do not get me started on the subject of the “Witch Way” bus route, which runs very close to my house and is so named because it originally linked Manchester with the Pendle area, and some bloke evidently thought that using Pendle Witch Trials as a silly gimmick was appropriate.  It isn’t.  At least they’ve removed those pictures of a very sexy-looking witch, sat astride a broomstick, from the sides of the buses.  And, when I visited Salem in Massachusetts in 2019, I was rather bemused to see the “Witch City Mall”, home to a variety of shops, restaurants and beauty parlours.  I appreciate that tourism is big business, but the witch hunts which took place in Britain, across Europe and in America, mainly from 1450 to 1750, weren’t some sort of Disney film.  Thousands of people, most of them women, were judicially murdered; and we saw Lucy Worsley getting distressed, to the point of tears, as she talked about the horrors to which these women were subjected, the terrible fear that other women must have felt that they could be the next to be accused, and how little we hear of their voices, their real stories.

In Britain, witch hunting on a large scale, with the involvement of the central authorities, really began during the reign of James I of England/James VI of Scotland, who was apparently convinced that witchcraft caused a storm which nearly sank his ship as he returned from Denmark, where witch hunts were already common, in 1590 (at which point he was king of Scotland, but Elizabeth I still ruled in England).  This programme focused on the North Berwick trials, which took place shortly afterwards, and particular on the case of Agnes Sampson, the first to be accused.

As a slight aside, do people still take lucky mascots/charms into exams with them?  I used to take a miniature Good Luck Care Bear (remember care bears?!) and a lump of coal, but my elder nephew (aged 13) recently had school exams, and apparently lucky mascots aren’t a thing any more.  Or maybe they are, but only for girls.  I know that some men have lucky pants or lucky socks which they wear for football matches, but I don’t really want to think about other people’s pants, so let’s not go there.   However, lucky charms/amulets, often used by women in childbirth, were apparently considered a sign of witchcraft by the supposedly “godly” witch hunters – although not as much so as marks on the body.  As Lucy explained, there was a strong sexual element to the witch hunts.   There always is, isn’t there?  Men using religion to try to control women.  People getting caught up in some sort of hysterical frenzy.  And all these people, mostly women, being tortured into making confessions, and horribly executed – with Scotland having one of the highest rates of witch execution of any country.

Thankfully, even Lucy realised that this wasn’t an occasion for dressing up.  We got a lot of shots of her sitting in the back of a car, walking around and reading original texts, but she was dressed in Puritanical black and white, as she explained how the Reformation turned up the religious temperature, and both Protestants and Catholics alike got caught up in an obsessive fear of the devil and his works, with local folk healers/wise women, living peacefully in their communities, generally the main targets.  Agnes Sampson, an ordinary women from a small village, found herself hauled up before the king, and then physically and mentally tortured until, broken, she confessed to whatever they asked, and gave the names of other people as well.

As Lucy described the horrible death which Agnes met, garroted and then burnt at the stake, she did become quite emotional, and was really rather moving.  This is a horrible part of history.  Lucy said that the stories of the witches weren’t well-known.  Well, maybe the stories of the Scottish witches aren’t, but the stories of the Lancashire witches are, because they’ve been turned into novels, and even used as gimmicks by tourist authorities and bus companies.   And the term “witch-hunt” is still widely used, to describe a frenzied campaign against people, often innocent, who are perceived to be some sort of threat.   But, as Lucy said the voices of the real women involved aren’t often heard.  She tried very hard to put those voices across, in what made for a fascinating hour’s TV.   Very, very good programme.

A Pony To Jump by Patricia Leitch

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  I read all Patricia Leitch’s Jinny/Shantih books in the 1980s, but I’d outgrown them by the time that the Kestrels series, of which this is the second, came out.   This is along similar lines -pony book, lower middle class families rather than the upper class/upper middle class families usually found in pony books, slight touch of mysticism.

The two main characters actually rather annoyed me.  One of them had a badly behaved dog which caused havoc everywhere.  Think Bruno Maynard in the Chalet School books.  There are few things which I dislike more than badly behaved dogs.  The other one called her grandmother “Narg” because it was “Gran” spelt backwards.  Why??!  Why not just call her “Gran”?

However, as a short pony book for a child of primary school age, it’s quite entertaining – there’s a bit about learning to jump, as the title suggests, and some drama with feuds at the riding school, a charity pageant, a famous showjumper turning up and a horse being stolen.   I won’t be bothering with the rest of the series, but, if I’d read this when I was 8 or 9, I’m sure I would have done.

 

Ariadne by Jennifer Saint

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Novels retelling Greek myths and legends from the viewpoints of some or all of the women involved seem to be all the rage at the moment.  I’m quite pleased about this- with most schools no longer teaching the classics, these ancient stories might have been at risk of dying out in the English-speaking world, which would have been a great shame.  When I was about 7, I had a book of Greek myths (I think it must have been the one by Enid Blyton), and I loved it.  I also loved the way that Colleen McCullough wove Greek myths into The Thorn Birds, but that’s beside the point.  I read this one for a Facebook group reading challenge, but I was going to read it anyway.

I may well be reading something into nothing here, but I sensed a mental health theme in this book.  There’s a *lot* of talk about the gods cursing women with “madness”, of having your mind taken over or taken away – first with Pasiphae, then with the Maenads, then with the women of Argos; and it’s strongly suggested that Ariadne’s sister Phaedra was suffering from post natal depression.   I might just be oversensitive on this issue, but this theme did seem to keep recurring.

Women generally come off badly in Greek myths and legends.  They’re rarely given a voice, and they’re treated pretty badly by gods, by mortal men, and even by jealous goddesses.  Ariadne was the daughter of the King of Crete, Minos, and half-sister of the Minotaur, who was born as a result of her father Minos disobeying Poseidon, and Poseidon taking revenge by making Minos’s wife Pasiphae fall in love with a bull.  Minos, after defeating Athens in war, demanded that Athens send seven young men and seven girls every few years (the number of years seems to vary!) to be fed to the Minotaur, who was kept in a labyrinth designed by Daedalus.  Theseus, a Greek prince,  volunteered to be one of those sacrificed, but killed the Minotaur with Ariadne’s help.  They sailed off into the sunset together … or so Ariadne thought, until Theseus abandoned her on the island of Naxos.   Theseus, of course, is known as one of the greatest Greek heroes, and his treatment of Ariadne is never counted against him. 

The book’s told in the first person, but some of that’s by Ariadne, and some of it’s by her Phaedra, who was later married off to Theseus.  The title’s a bit misleading, really, but maybe it just sounded more catchy than “Ariadne and Phaedra” or “The Princesses of Crete”.  It would have been interesting to have had Pasiphae telling her story too, but I suppose that only so much could be fitted into one book.  How women did suffer in Greek myths.

There are various versions of the various myths.  And, because most books have each myth as a separate story, you don’t always realise how they all fit together.  Medea, who ran off with Jason, was the stepmother of Theseus.  Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, had a child by Theseus.  Daedalus and Icarus, when they escaped and Icarus flew too close to the sun, were fleeing from Minos.  Dionysus went to war with Perseus, who killed Medusa and then married Andromeda.  Most versions show Dionysus wanting to marry Ariadne and therefore forcing Theseus to abandon her, and look unfavourably on Ariadne for betraying her father, but, in this version, it’s made clear that both Minos and Theseus are bad lots – Minos in general, and Theseus in his treatment of women.  Theseus is shown as raping Hippolyta, whereas in some versions they’re in love.  And Ariadne’s sister Phaedra, usually depicted as a villainess who tried to seduce her stepson and then made false claims about him, is shown as feeling betrayed because Theseus lied to her, telling her that Ariadne was dead, and not telling her about his son Hippolytus – and the false claims element of the myth is neatly sidestepped in this book, by showing Theseus getting the wrong end of the stick.

Because the book generally follows the myths, it wasn’t possible to show either sister as having a happy ending.  Phaedra took her own life – in this version, in despair.  Ariadne married Dionysus, aka Bacchus, the god of wine, and was happy with him and their children for a while, but she also met a sorry end. 

There are various different myths about what happened to her.  Jennifer Saint, who seems determined to paint most men as baddies, has chosen the version in which Ariadne fell victim to a war between Dionysus and Perseus.  However, in this book,  she first of all made the discovery that Dionysus was whipping his female followers, the Maenads, into a frenzy, and asking for first animal sacrifices and then the sacrifices of human babies.  I’m not familiar with the story about the babies at all: I’m not sure whether it’s the author’s own invention or a rather obscure myth.  I suspect the former, as Google didn’t seem to know about it either!   And Euphrosyne, usually the goddess of joy, was brought into this as a desperate woman seeking help and sanctuary, and the Maenads as doing the same.   

The war between Dionysus and Perseus is “canon”, though.  In this book, a lot of emphasis is paid to Dionysus caring more about trying to win the women of Argos, the city ruled by Perseus, as followers, than he did about Ariadne and their children.  I think that Colleen McCullough would have approved of that: a big theme of The Thorn Birds is men being more interested in their own aggrandisement than in their families.  And, as this was the version of events chosen, it ended – very abruptly, as if the author was rushing to finish the book – with Perseus killing Ariadne with the head of Medusa, another woman who fell victim to the jealousy of the gods.

All in all, it was an interesting read, although rather rushed at the end.  But it was also a bit depressing.  In The Thorn Birds (yes, I do realise that the two books have nothing to do with each other), Justine succeeds where Meggie didn’t, in being a strong independent woman and also in finding a man who puts her first.   At the end of this, both sisters end up dead because of the actions of men who didn’t care about them enough.  But, hey, that’s Greek myths for you – they don’t tend to end happily!

This is Jennifer Saint’s first book, and, for a first book, it’s not bad at all.   Recommended.

 

 

 

The King of Warsaw – All 4

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This is something different.  It’s in Polish with English subtitles, so requires a lot of concentration, but it’s interesting.  It’s a crime drama set in Warsaw in 1937, and the protagonist is Jakub Szapiro, a Jewish boxer and member of an organised crime gang, whose aim is to become head of the gang – and therefore be the “King of Warsaw”.   It’s set against a background of clashes, some violent, some just psychological, between right-wing groups and left-wing groups, Catholics and Jews, and secular Jews and ultra-Orthodox Jews.   Meanwhile, a young lad from the ultra-Orthodox community aims to join a gang after the murder of his father.   And Jakub’s wife wants to emigrate to what was then British Mandate Palestine, but Jakub feels that Warsaw is his city and can’t bear the thought of leaving it.

The first episode was really just setting the scene, but it looks promising.  Warsaw was such a mixture of cultures and factions at the time.  And it’s the same issue as with Peaky Blinders – members of a community which is marginalised, but not isolated and set apart by religion, may well be drawn to organised crime.  And at what point do you feel that you’re actually a stranger in your own city, as well as being a stranger from the Establishment?   Without going too far into the unpleasant scenes before the Cup Final, feeling estranged from the Establishment usually leads to a stronger sense of regional identity, and that seems to be what’s happened with Jakub Szapiro – but his wife can see that they’d be safer away from Warsaw, rather than trying to rule it.

A promising start.

The Stone Rose by Carol McGrath

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This is the final book in Carol McGrath’s trilogy about unpopular medieval queens of England; and it’s about Isabella of France, who’s probably better-known than either Eleanor of Provence or Eleanor of Castile.  The title relates to a fictional character who’s the daughter of a stonemason, but it’s an odd choice.  It rather makes the reader imagine Isabella singing alongside Ian Brown, maybe about how her glorious marriage to the English heir turned out to be fools’ gold, or about telling Roger Mortimer that she wanna be adored …er, right, let’s leave it there, because “This Is The One” and “Waterfall” are both used as football songs at Old Trafford, and that’s all a bit painful at the moment and I’m just hoping that Erik ten Hag’s tenure will see The Resurrection.

OK, OK, Isabella of France.  You know the story.  The She-Wolf of France and her lover, Roger Mortimer, overthrow her gay husband, Edward II, and get someone to murder him by shoving a red hot poker up … well, you know that bit of the story without my having to spell it out.  Then they’re overthrown in turn, when her son, Edward III, takes control.  And there’s that thing about the Scottish bloke in the cave with the spider.  However, most of what we think we know about those times is what was written years later.  What actually happened?  Well, we know the basics, that Edward became unpopular because of the defeat at Bannockburn and the influence of his favourites, and that he was deposed by Isabella and Mortimer, but we don’t really know the detail.

Carol McGrath’s done a very good job of creating a novel from what did happen and what may have happened.  My one real issue with it is that it’s too short.  There’s a huge amount of English political history in the book, plus a certain amount of social history, plus some nice little titbits about fashions, the growing popularity of knitting and life at court, plus some of the history of France at the time – she doesn’t go into the dissolution of the Templars et al, but she does include the history of the Capetians, as they were Isabella’s family – and that, alongside the development of the characters and their relationships with each other, is a lot to fit into a novel of fewer than 400 pages.  But saying that you wish a book had been longer is surely a great compliment to it.

Incidentally, we don’t see Robert the Bruce, with or without his spider.  I just mentioned that story because I like it!

There’s a fairly recent theory that Edward II escaped to Italy.  We don’t actually know.  It’s not talked about very much.  The Princes in the Tower seem to have cornered the market as far as royal mysteries and conspiracy theories go.  But there is a theory.   On top of that, the term “She-Wolf” wasn’t used about Isabella until Elizabethan times, and it really isn’t clear from the sources from the time whether Isabella and Mortimer were lovers, nor whether Edward and Piers Gaveston were lovers, nor whether Edward and the younger Hugh Despenser were lovers. There’s also the fact that, whilst Edward was probably bisexual, people in the Middle Ages didn’t really identify as straight, gay, bisexual or anything else related to sexuality.  As for Bannockburn (and this book doesn’t actually show Robert the Bruce, with or without a spider), yes, it was a disaster, but Edward II’s reputation’s also suffered from being his sandwiched in between Edward I and Edward III, whose reigns both saw huge military success.  Pretty hard to compete with those two.

This book is generally very, very good.  Yes, it’s sympathetic towards Isabella, and it makes the point (perhaps a little too often) that she was a strong, independent woman,  but it’s not overly biased against Edward.  Someone once said that Charles I was “a very silly man”.  So was Edward II.  He allowed himself to be overly influenced by Gaveston and the Despensers, and, because of that, he became alienated from his wife, from other members of his family, and from the nobility in general.   He was a weak man, with very little common sense and that’s what this book shows.   Isabella is shown not as a “she-wolf” but as an intelligent woman who wasn’t willing to be dominated by men … which, unfortunately, is how some men would define a “she-wolf”.  Does any strong, independent woman risk being labelled a “She-Wolf”?  Maybe not a She-Wolf, but female politicians are inevitably labelled “bossy” and “domineering”.  Isabella’s certainly not shown as being callous and calculating, and I think that that’s fair enough.

There are also various sub-plots.  One involves Agnes, the fictional character mentioned above, and her future husband Gregory.  The main plot only covers the period from 1311 to 1330: Agnes and Gregory, in 1352, tell the reader what happens after that.  Another is the story of the Tour de Nesle affair, which saw her two sisters-in-law and their alleged lovers executed.  And another is the story of the de Clare sisters, who all played prominent roles at Edward II’s court.  And then there’s the romance between the future Edward III and Philippa of Hainault.

Overall, it’s a fascinating book.  The history’s spot on, insofar as it can be – I won’t give away which versions of events Carol McGrath chooses for her book – ,the characters come across well, and there’s a lot going on.  As I said, my one and only real criticism of it is that it needed to be a bit longer.

 

Kicking Off: the Rise and Fall of the Super League – BBC 2

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This was a rather puerile documentary.  I really didn’t need to see pictures of toilet flushes or cartoons of Popeye, and I’m not sure what Edith Piaf singing “Je ne regrette rien” was supposed to have to do with anything.   Sky’s documentary on the same subject made most of the same points, but in a rather more sensible way.

However, there were two points which neither programme made.  For one thing, there are now a lot more UEFA member states/national associations, and therefore a lot more leagues requiring places in European competitions, than there used to be.  Eleven of the former Soviet states are UEFA members, and there are now seven members in place of the former Yugoslavia and two in place of the former Czechoslovakia.  That’s seventeen extra leagues.  It’s rather a lot, really.   For another thing, people keep messing about with sports.  When I were a lass and dinosaurs roamed the earth, the rugby league season ran parallel with the football season, cricketers wore white and no-one had ever heard of T20 (and don’t get me started on the IPL), and doubles matches in tennis were the best of three full sets, five full sets for men’s doubles in Grand Slam events.  People tinker with sports.  Let’s just thank goodness that the mad idea of making football matches shorter, which was actually mentioned in this programme, has never been seriously considered.

So what did it say?  Well, pretty much what the Sky documentary said – and Sky a) got in first and b) said it all much better.  In the good old days, football clubs were owned by local business people.  Then Silvio Berlusconi got involved.   Then the Champions League came along.  Then new owners, often state-linked organisations from the Middle East, came along, and, rather like The Gilded Age, suddenly we’d got the old aristocracy (United, Liverpool, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus, AC Milan, Inter Milan) being challenged by the nouveaux riches (led by City and Paris St Germain).   A lot of the traditional big clubs had got into a lot of debt, and then along came Covid and made all the financial problems umpteen times worse.

As the Sky documentary did, this very much put the blame on the Spanish and Italian clubs involved, especially Real Madrid.  And added a nasty little dig suggesting that United were somehow in league with 10 Downing Street – could we just lose this silly conspiracy theory, please?!   And then made the point that it was English fans who killed the idea off … possibly with a little help from the Government, after Boris threatened to kill it off by legislation.  Well, if Parliament could abolish purgatory, as it did in Henry VIII’s time, it could certainly do away with the Super League.  But it never came to that.  The English clubs pulled out, and the idea collapsed.

One suggestion which this programme made, which I don’t think Sky’s did, was that the cack-handed way in which it was all dealt with was because the owners concerned had all inherited their money, and didn’t have a clue about how the world really worked.  This is an old, old story when it comes to old money versus nouveaux riches.  But I don’t think that the argument works here.   OK, we’re now on to the second generation of Glazers at Old Trafford, and the Agnelli family have been big shots in Turin for decades.   But the driving force behind this was Florentino Perez of Real Madrid, and he worked his way up, in Franco’s Spain.  How someone who’s made such a success in business could have made such a mess of this is an interesting question, but the BBC didn’t ask it.  Maybe he’s just too used to getting what he wants.

Is he going to get it anyway?  Remember that song by The Adventures of Stevie V?  Did they ever even record another song, BTW?!  Money talks, mmm, mmm, money talks. Dirty cash I want you, dirty cash I need you, ooh. It does look as if the idea of admitting some clubs based on their historic records, however poorly they’ve done in the season concerned, will go ahead anyway.Well, given what a bloody awful season United have had, this sounds like good news for us.  But it’s wrong.

I think what we could really do with is some more input from abroad.  Everyone in England seems to agree that this is wrong.  But what do people in Spain and Italy think?

And whose word is going to count, in the end?   Unfortunately, this story isn’t over yet.   We’ve won the battle, but have we won the war?

 

 

 

 

Shadow Girls by Carol Birch

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I’m afraid that I was rather disappointed by this book.  I was quite excited by the idea of a book set in a girls’ day school in Manchester.  From the location, I think the school’s based on the old Central High School.  It had closed down by my day, but I know people of my parents’ generation who went there, and obviously I know Manchester city centre and the other locations mentioned.  If anyone reading this *does* decide to try this book, then yes, Boggart Hole Clough is a real place, and that’s its real name!   And, yes, Lewis’s was a real shop … it was a lovely shop, and I can’t quite believe that it’s been twelve years since it closed down.

And I knew that there was a supernatural element, but I thought that that might work quite well.  A lot of teenagers are interested in the supernatural.  I know that some girls at my school did try using ouija boards, although that was possibly due more to the Morrissey song than anything else!  However, unfortunately, the style of writing in this book was rather poor, and the storyline was rather weak and didn’t really hang together.

The book’s had some good reviews, so maybe I’m missing something; but I just wasn’t very impressed by it.

It started off as a poor man’s Judy Blume book, with a lot of talk about X being friends with Y, X and Y not liking Z, parents and teachers thinking that X was a bad influence on Y, and so on.   The protagonist, Sally, was friendly with a girl called Pamela, who was seen as being a bit rough.  They didn’t get on with a girl called Sylvia, and Pamela played a nasty prank which caused Sylvia a lot of distress.  However, there was also some talk about ghosts in the toilets (why would ghosts be in school toilets, of all places?), and Sally started to think that Sylvia had a doppelganger, because she was sure that she’d seen her in two places at once.   Then, apparently under the influence of the fake Sylvia, Pamela took her own life by jumping off the school roof.  Sylvia had a nervous breakdown and left school.  It was clear that something was very wrong with both girls’ home lives, but we never really found out exactly what.

We then fast forwarded through Sally’s university years, to a time when the school had closed down and the building had been converted with flats, and Sally had reunited with Rob, her old boyfriend from her schooldays.  And, whaddaya know, he was living in one of the flats in the old school building.  Sally moved in with him, but kept thinking that she could feel a supernatural presence there.   Rob tried to help by tracking down Sylvia, and it ended up with Sally tripping down some stairs to her death, and Rob and Sylvia getting together.

Sorry, but I didn’t get it.  I think we were meant to feel that the portrayal of Sally’s terror and her uncertainty about what was real and what was her imagination were very powerful, but it just didn’t work for me.  Oh well, we can’t all like the same things!

Just William … and Richmal – BBC Sounds

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It’s the centenary of the first Just William book this year.  I can’t say that the Just William books were ever big favourites of mine in the same way that the Chalet School books, the Little House books or the Sadlers Wells books were, but I went through a phase of reading a whole load of them (aged about 12, I think), and I find Richmal Crompton very interesting because she originally came from Bury.

This was just a half hour programme, but it made some interesting points.  Although the first book was published in 1922, William first appeared in 1919 – did the idea of an eternal schoolboy appeal to a world trying to recover from a war which had taken the lives of so many young men, and the physical and or mental health of many more?   It also made the point that they were originally aimed at an adult audience, but are now seen as children’s books – I suppose because they’re about children.  And credited William with influencing all sorts of books and TV programmes.

It also pointed out that, whereas with most books about gangs of children, the reader’s effectively being invited to join the gang, in these books we’re meant to be watching them from the narrator’s viewpoint, and watching the other characters as well.   I hadn’t really thought of that before, but it’s true.  And, hooray, there wasn’t one moan during the entire half hour about the books not being “inclusive” (although I am not making any excuses for the infamous book in which the gang play at being Nazis, something which the programme didn’t mention).

But I think the most interesting point made was that a really good children’s book (with apologies to Richmal Crompton, who didn’t intend these to be children’s books) can seem even better when you read it as an adult.  Some just seem rather one-dimensional and simplistic, even though you thought they were wonderful when you read them as a primary school kid.  But others have you asking more and more questions, and appreciating things which you never thought of before.  People wonder why a supposedly intelligent adult reads children’s books.  Well, some of them are just that good.

 

The School in the Woods by Dorita Fairlie Bruce

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This is the second book in Dorita Fairlie Bruce’s “Toby” trilogy, coming in between The School on the Moor  and Toby at Tibbs Cross.  It’s a school-story-cum-spy-story published in 1940, one of several books in this genre published during the two world wars, but this one’s a bit different in that it’s set before the outbreak of the Second World War, in what I suppose is an alternative universe in which Dick Trevor (Toby Barrett’s future husband, although we don’t know that in this book) and his father develop a gas which could potentially be used to destroy entire armies, which they hope will act as a deterrent and prevent the outbreak of war with Nazi Germany, and any future wars.

The spy element comes in the form of traitors who are plotting to steal the formula, and this involves a mysterious girl at Toby’s new school.   Of course, all’s well that end’s well … but the reader, unlike the characters, knows very well that it isn’t, because this gas didn’t exist, and war is going to come.  And, in 1940, they don’t know what the outcome of that war will be.  In the next book, there isn’t actually any mention of this gas – war has come, Toby is working as a land girl, and Dick is involved in other war work.  So I’m not entirely sure where DFB was going with this book, unless maybe she wrote it before war broke out and it was wishful thinking.

There’s a lot of talk in this wartime book about the importance of the Empire and the idea of the Pax Britannica.   The “goodie” characters, and presumably DFB herself, all believe that, if this gas were in the hands of Britain/the British Empire alone, it would do nothing but good – it would bring about world peace by deterring “baddie” countries, which we presumably understand to mean Nazi Germany, from being aggressive.   Everyone firmly seems to believe that, as things stand (i.e. without the gas), war is inevitable – which seems a bit odd, given how many people genuinely bought the “peace for our time” idea.

People have all these ideas about what can bring about world peace.  One superpower.  Two rival blocs, based on ideology or, in the past, religion.  Nation states.  A federal Europe (I am adamantly opposed to this idea, but I do understand that some people genuinely think that it’s a good one).  A balance of power involving a number of different states.  And not one of them flaming well seem to work.  I suppose that DFB’s idea of some sort of very powerful fatal gas foreshadows the development of nuclear weapons, but even they don’t seem to be keeping the peace any more, because everyone seems to assume that the other side wouldn’t use them.   Maybe this fictional gas would have been better, because it wouldn’t have been as destructive or threatened civilians, so there might not have been the assumption that it wouldn’t be used.  But anyway.  It’s only a story.

In terms of the actual school element, not much happens.  Toby’s old school has been merged with another school, there are the usual issues in which the two groups of girls find it hard to combine, there’s a “them and us” feeling, and there’s a rather pointless subplot about a younger girl who keeps having hysterics. There’s also a local woman with whom Toby becomes friendly, and who eventually agrees to act as guardian to the aforementioned mysterious girl, who’s an innocent party in her elder siblings’ dastardly doings.   The main point of the book is the storyline about the gas.  And I really would love to know whether the book was actually written before or after war broke out.