The Colour by Rose Tremain

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I read this for a Facebook group reading challenge.  It sounded interesting, but unfortunately I didn’t really get it.  I think it was meant to be very symbolic and allegorical, but I could have done with a bit more actually happening.  Also, there were several minor characters whose stories weren’t tied in with the main plot very well, making it seem disjointed.

In 1864, a recently-married couple called Joseph and Harriet Blackstone emigrate from England to New Zealand.  Theirs is clearly a marriage of convenience rather than love.  Harriet has obviously only married him because her best alternative was becoming a governess.  He’s married her because he doesn’t want a love match, for reasons which are explained later on.   Joseph goes off to join the Gold Rush, leaving Harriet to look after his elderly mother.  He then starts paying a young man for “services rendered”.  Harriet goes to look for him, to tell him that her mother’s died, and gets involved with a Chinese gardener with a foot fetish.  As you do.  There are also some neighbours with a sick child, and a Maori woman who used to be the child’s nanny, but the stories aren’t tied together in a coherent way.

I think the idea was that looking for gold was an allegory for lookin’ for love in all the wrong places, lookin’ for love in too many places, but the book somehow felt unsatisfactory.   It’s had good reviews and was nominated for a prize, so maybe it’s just me; but, as I’ve said, I didn’t really get it.   The idea was to read a book set in New Zealand.  I’m sure that there are lots of great books set in New Zealand, but this isn’t one of them!

Back in Time for Birmingham – BBC 2

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I love the role of food in social integration.  As immigrant groups do integrate in society, the language tends to fade away, the clothes tend to fade away to some extent, and even religion tends to fade away, but the food comes down through the generations, and goes out there into wider society.   Ignoring the millennial rubbish about “cultural appropriation”, I love the fact that I can go into a local cafe and find dishes on the menu which have been brought here from all over the world.  Or, in the case of the Birmingham Balti, been invented in the UK but based on food brought here from elsewhere!

OK, enough about food.  It’s great to have another “Back in time” series.  Although how come Birmingham gets its own “back in time” series, and other cities don’t?!   Having said which, this wasn’t so much about the history of Birmingham as about the history of British South Asians.   That’s quite problematic because, obviously, there’ve been vast differences in the history of British South Asians – for example, the high proportion of British doctors who have South Asian heritage may not have very much in common with British Asians living in multi-generational, working-class households in Birmingham, Bradford, Blackburn, Bolton etc.

I thought that what BBC 2 did here was very positive  – a portrayal of an upwardly mobile family, the first generation living in poverty, working long shifts in factories and not really mixing with anyone outside their own community, the second generation setting up their own businesses and having more contact with other communities, the third generation going to university and entering professions, and the fourth generation feeling much more free to do whatever they wanted, and finding a successful balance between their British identity and their Asian identity.   That obviously hasn’t been every British Asian family’s experience, but it’s been that of many, including the real history of the very likeable Sharma family who took part in this series.   It’s also been the story of other immigrant groups in British history – again, not that of every family, but of many.

I’m pleased to say that, unlike the infamous “Back in Time for School” series, this wasn’t overly political.  Oh, there were some anti-British comments, but would one expect anything else from the BBC?   It was, for the most part, positive.  Quite a bit of general nostalgia in there, and general generation gap stuff, but it was generally the story of post-war South Asian immigration to the UK.  And, yes, it was very Birmingham, but you can find similar stories in many other places.

In the first episode, we heard about how most of the early immigrants were men intending to make some money and then return to their original homes, like, say, Italian immigrants to the USA in the late 19th centuries.   But many, even most, of them chose to settle in Birmingham, and brought their families over to join them.  We saw the men living in lodging houses, with shared kitchens, and even beds being shared between people on day shifts and night shifts.  And, in those days, there was pretty much full employment, and manufacturing jobs were readily available, with women often doing sewing at home.  It’s an experience common to earlier immigrant groups too.  And, as time went on, many young men started up their own businesses, often with market stalls – the Asian-run market stall is still a very common sight here in the North West, as well as in Birmingham.  But the culture of the Indian sub-continent wasn’t forgotten, and we saw the growth of the British Asian cinemas, and TV programmes, and marriages still tending to be arranged.  And having a Hindu blessing on a new home.  My next door neighbours are Sikhs, and they had a Sikh blessing on the house shortly after they moved in.   Nice idea.

In the second episode, we moved on to the 1970s, with immigration from Bangladesh, during and after the 1971 war, and from East Asia.  We learnt that one of the grandfathers had come from Uganda –  and BBC 2 did manage to acknowledge that South Asians had prospered under British rile in Asia, before reverting to BBC 2 type and trying to blame Britain for everything Idi Amin did.   We also heard the familiar story of how most “Indian” restaurants in the UK were actually opened by people originally from Bangladesh.

And we saw the family opening their own business – a corner shop.   People used to refer to corner shops as “Asian shops”, because they usually were owned and run by British Asians.  They still are, certainly round here.  When the Desai/Alahan family took over the corner shop in Coronation Street, which had previously run by Alf Roberts, some people complained that it was perpetuating a stereotype – but it was an accurate stereotype, and people have presumably accepted that, because no-one moaned when the Panesars took over the Minute Mart in EastEnders.   Before the days of 24 hour supermarkets, in particular, the “Asian shops” were just invaluable, because they were usually open long after other shops had shut.   We also head about how Bhangra music had originated in Birmingham, which I have to confess that I didn’t know.

The daughter, however, went out to work in a factory, and we heard about the Imperial Typewriter Strike, in which Asian women walked out after learning that they were being paid less than their white counterparts.  Their white female colleagues supported them: the unions did not.  Interestingly, she said that she hoped that this would dispel the stereotype of Asians being meek.  Now, I would have said that there was a stereotype of Asian women being quite bossy, so I was surprised by that.   Obviously, neither of these stereotypes are true of groups, only of individuals, but I was quite surprised by the “meek” comment.  We also heard about the rise of the National Front, following the oil price crisis of the mid-1970s, and again during the difficult economic times of the 1980s.   There’s always a risk that rising fuel prices and inflation will lead to social unrest, and I sincerely hope that we’re not going to see that again, either here or anywhere else affected by Putin pushing up the cost of living.

On a more positive note, cricket was mentioned!  My elder nephew’s in a cricket team, and a high proportion of the other lads are British Asian: cricket does seem to be so important in British Asian culture, and let’s hope that the recent unpleasantness at Yorkshire CCC won’t affect that.  And we heard the children talking about  finding a balance between British culture and their Asian heritage: finding a balance is always going to be an issue in an ethnic minority community, and hopefully that’s working well for them.

The 1980s and 1990s saw more integration, with cultural movements both ways – British food into South Asian households, and South Asian culture into British TV programmes and music, with specific reference to Goodness Gracious Me, EastEnders and Madhur Jaffrey.  We also heard about British-born children being sent to Asian language classes, the daytime club movement in Birmingham, and the importance of corner shops in making Bollywood videos, internet calls to the Indian sub-continent and online dating available to British Asian communities.   And it was the history of Birmingham too, with deindustrialisation and the rise of the service sector.

And we heard about second and third generation children going to university, and the pressure that they felt to choose courses associated with professions and bragging rights.  Oh yes.  People from many minority communities will have been nodding their heads there!   But the Sharma children, whom I think are in their early 20s, said that they now felt freer to do as they chose, and it was lovely to hear them both say at the end that, whilst they’ve struggled to balance being both British and Asian, making this series has helped them to do that.  There was a lot of talk about fusion.  And a lot of that was about food, which was where I started!   Excellent series: I really enjoyed it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Billie Jean King: Amol Rajan Interviews – BBC 2

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This was an absolutely fascinating interview about a wide range of hot topics – equal pay in tennis, equal rights for women generally and LGBTQ rights, probably the subjects most closely associated with Billie Jean King, but also a number of other subjects including abortion rights – this was filmed before yesterday’s unfortunate decision to overturn Roe vs Wade – and mental health.  It was very interesting to hear her say that tennis, far from being a goldfish bowl, felt like a sanctuary in which she could escape her personal problems.  And it was particularly interesting to hear her talk about her struggles with binge-eating disorder, something with which I’ve long struggled myself.

She could well have used this interview to try to plug her recently-published book, but she didn’t: she let Amol lead the interview and she answered what he asked.  She did say that she thinks she’d have won a lot more titles had she not been so active off court.  I’m not sure that a British person would have said that, even if they thought it 🙂 , but she’s probably right.  (And Marcus Rashford has been bang off-form since he got involved with the school dinners’ campaign – I hope he gets back on track on the pitch.)

The issue of equal pay in tennis and of the treatment of women’s matches vis-a-vis men’s matches came up very early on.  This was a big subject at the French Open, because of the dreadful scheduling of the night matches – several five set matches didn’t start until gone 8:45pm local time, but there was a reluctance to schedule women’s matches for the night session in case a match was something like 6-1 6-2 and people complained that they’d had no value for their night session ticket.  Billie Jean’s answer was to make men’s matches best of three at Grand Slams.  I have to disagree there: the best-of-five matches are thrilling.  Just not in the wee small hours of the morning.

The establishment of the WTA and the Battle of the Sexes are interesting topics, but have been discussed at length before.   However, I hadn’t known that Billie Jean testified to Congress regarding the need for federal legislation about equal rights for women in education, the Title IX Act passed 50 years ago, and that Harvard Medical School only allotted 5% of places to women prior to that.

Regarding whether or not trans women should be allowed to play in women’s sporting events, which is a very controversial subject at the moment, she said that she didn’t want to see anyone excluded from tennis or other sports, but that she also didn’t want to see anyone put at an unfair advantage or disadvantage.  Her opinion was that more answers are needed from the scientific community about whether or not trans women who’ve gone through male puberty have an unfair advantage over cisgender women, and that, if so, maybe there should be a separate category of competition for transgender athletes.

Another controversial subject is the banning of Russian and Belarusian athletes from Wimbledon.  She opposed it.  I can see both sides.  I don’t think it’ll achieve anything, TBH.  Did banning South African athletes all those years achieve anything?  But I can also see what a huge propaganda opportunity it’d be for Putin to have a photo of, say, the Duchess of Cambridge presenting the men’s singles’ trophy to Daniil Medvedev or Andrey Rublev.  I don’t know what the answer is.  I just wish that the LTA, ATP and WTA had been able to reach agreement on the subject.

For such a public person, it’s quite strange that she didn’t reveal that she and her long-term partner Ilana Kloss had married in 2018 until the book came out (no pun intended) in 2021.  Maybe that stems back to when she was publicly outed by her former lover Marilyn Barnett, which must have been extremely hurtful.  She also talked about losing all her endorsements as a result.  Thankfully, times have changed since then, and she’s been one of the people who’s helped to change them.

All in all, this was a fascinating hour’s TV – a great interviewer and a great interviewee.

 

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

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What a peculiar book. I’m not entirely sure what I made of it.  It centred on the deadly serious subject of a (fictitious) young woman from Special Operations Executive being held and tortured by the Nazis, and yet it was written in the style of Bridget Jones meets Adrian Mole meets Allo Allo 🤔.

Two young women, best friends, were on an RAF plane which crashed over Occupied France.  The pilot was Maggie Brodatt, a working-class Jewish girl from Stockport.  That seemed like quite an unlikely background, and the surname Brodatt doesn’t even exist; but I suppose it was possible.  Also on board was Julia Beaufort-Stuart, a member of Special Operations Executive, an upper-class, Swiss-boarding-school-educated girl from a castle which sounded like a cross between Glamis and Balmoral.

Maggie managed to find British contacts there, and was disguised as the visiting cousin of a local French family, but Julia fell into the hands of the Nazis, and was tortured, and witnessed other prisoners being guillotined.

It sounded like a very deep and serious book, but it was written in a very light and flippant way.   Most of it was told in the first person, the majority by Julia, some by Maggie.  Some of it sounded a bit Allo Allo-ish, but the style was generally more reminiscent of Bridget Jones, with the repeated use of “dead” for “very” adding in a strong sense of Adrian Mole.   Also, a lot of the place names mentioned had been changed but only slightly, which was just odd – Oakway for Ringway, Reddyke for Reddish, Ladywell for Ladybower and Ilsmere Port for Ellesmere Port.

It kept me interested all the way through, but I just can’t make my mind up what I thought of the use of such a light style of writing for something as horrific as what happened to Julia, and for the entire picture of the extremely important work being done by both young women.  It was certainly something different!   As I said, it kept me interested, but it was just … strange!

 

 

The Queen’s Lady by Joanna Hickson

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This is the sequel to The Lady of the Ravens, telling the story of Joan Guildford, nee Vaux, later Poyntz, who was a lady in waiting to Elizabeth of York and (probably) Catherine of Aragon, and Lady Governess to both of Henry VII’s surviving daughters.  It runs from 1502 until 1520; and it was a joy to read a book set in the later years of Henry VII’s reign and the early years of Henry VIII’s reign, a period which generally gets overlooked because of the dramas of the mid-1480s before it and the late 1520s after it.

There are a few annoying little historical inaccuracies.  Margaret Beaufort did not have the title of Queen Mother.  The future Charles V was Catherine’s nephew, not her cousin.  Catherine had an English grandmother on one side and an English great-grandmother on the other side, not two English grandmothers.  Just minor things, but they annoyed me.  It doesn’t take much to annoy me 🙂 .   But the actual events are described accurately – insofar as we know them.  There are some gaps in time during the book, meaning that Flodden Field isn’t mentioned, which was a bit odd; but I suppose it didn’t directly affect Joan.   But she was at court throughout much of the period, and also accompanied Princess Margaret to Scotland and Princess Mary to France, as well as being present at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, so there’s plenty of high politics going on.

The book’s told in the first person by Joan, and we hear all about her life, including the death of her first husband and her remarriage to a much younger man, as well as about the lives of the Tudors.  There are also a number of presumably fictitious minor characters, who add to the picture of life at the time, notably Joan’s maids and their husbands, and two Moorish girls who were in Catherine’s household.

Apart the minor inaccuracies, I thoroughly enjoyed this book.  I would imagine that there’ll be a third book in the series, because Joan was one of the witnesses at the infamous trial concerning Catherine’s marriage to Arthur.   I shall be looking out for it, all being well – and thank you to Amazon for making this one available on a 99p Kindle deal.

Who Do You Think You Are (Matt Lucas) – BBC 1

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  This was a fascinating episode.  How incredible for Matt Lucas to find out that his grandmother’s first cousin had been Anne Frank’s family’s lodger, and was actually mentioned in her diary.   Anne had remarked that this man was rather irritating and hung around even when the family had dropped heavy hints that they wanted some privacy.   That’s very Anne!   I once read an article which said that lessons about the Holocaust should focus on accounts of the horrors of the concentration camps, rather than a teenage girl’s witterings about how annoying adults were and whether or not she fancied Peter van Daan; but, as I said in an online discussion at the time, the point of reading Anne’s diary is to be reminded that she was just an ordinary girl, not some kind of “other”.  An ordinary girl who had the misfortune to be born into a group of people whom another, evil, group of people classified as “other”, but who was just like any other ordinary girl from any other sort of background.

Tragically, Matt learnt that his grandmother’s two aunts and most of her cousins had been murdered in the concentration camps.   She’d been able to escape to Britain from Berlin, where her family lived before most of them moved to Amsterdam in the sadly mistaken belief that the Netherlands would be a safe place, and it was poignant to see Ukrainian flags flying over many of the public buildings in Berlin during his visit there.   We know that Vladimir Putin’s family suffered terribly during the Siege of Leningrad, and yet he’s putting millions of Ukrainians through the same sort of hell.

This really was very moving.  There’ve been other episodes in which celebs have found out that members of their family died during the Holocaust, and they’ve all been moving; but for Matt to find out that he had a family connection to Anne Frank, whose story, as he said, is the one Holocaust story that everyone knows, was really something.

 

The Rebel Daughter by Miranda Malins

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This is a prequel/companion novel to The Puritan Princess , told in a first person narrative by Bridget Cromwell, the eldest daughter of Oliver Cromwell and wife of Henry Ireton (and, following Ireton’s death, of Charles Fleetwood).  It’s told in the present tense, which I do find annoying – it makes me feel as if I’m back in the Infants, reading a Peter & Jane or Janet & John book – but it’s a fascinating story of weighty events combined with the domestic lives of the Cromwell women.

Civil War novels are generally about Cavaliers versus Roundheads, but this one focuses on the in-fighting between the Roundheads – Presbyterians versus Independents (which really ceased to be an issue in England, if not in Scotland and Northern Ireland, after the Restoration, but which was crucial in the late 1640s), the Putney Debates, and the role of the Levellers.  However, there’s no mention of the Diggers, which is a shame.  I find it interesting that the leader of the Diggers was from Wigan!  I also find it interesting that here are pop groups named after the Diggers, the Levellers and the New Model Army, but that’s beside the point.

The book finishes, apart from a brief epilogue, in 1652, so we don’t get the famous “In the name of God, go” speech, but there are numerous references to the frustration of the press and the public with politicians on all sides.  Some things don’t change very much over the years.  It’s particularly interesting to see two very controversial subjects, the execution of Charles I and the atrocities committed by Cromwell’s troops in Ireland, led by Henry Ireton, from Bridget’s viewpoint.

Puritans don’t get a very good press in England.  What do we know about Puritans?  They banned Christmas (with specific reference to mince pies) and they stopped people from playing football on Sundays.  Boo, hiss.  They went round people’s houses looking for old men who wouldn’t say their prayers, and taking them by the left leg and throwing them down the stairs.  There’s that brilliant episode of Blackadder in which Lord and Lady Whiteadder come to visit, and criticise absolutely everything that Edmund does.

Puritans who went to America, however, are seen in a rather romantic light.  That’s actually quite odd, given the way they treated Quakers and Baptists, and the Salem Witch Trials; but it’s that idea of wanting to found a New World, a New Jerusalem.  That in itself is problematic, given that Puritanism in in Dutch form was a major contributor towards apartheid, the idea of a chosen people who could help themselves to someone else’s land, but the romantic idea lingers.  And, having just typed “A New Jerusalem”, I’m now going to be earwormed by Carly Simon’s “Let the River Run” all day.   I love the fact that she wrote that song as a hymn to New York.  Much as I love Hubert Parry’s musical setting of “Jerusalem”, I take great exception to William Blake suggesting that a town/city with “dark satanic mills” is the antithesis of a New Jerusalem.  Gah.  Sorry, that’s totally beside the point, LOL.

I very much doubt that the Pilgrim Fathers ever so much as mentioned a New Jerusalem, a City on a Hill and all the rest of it, but we tend to think that they did.  And there does seem to have been some sense amongst Puritans in England in the mid to late 1640s of a chance to build a new world – we had the Levellers and the Diggers, as already mentioned, and the Fifth Monarchists.  The book very much presents Bridget as an idealist, someone who genuinely believed in the idea of a godly Commonwealth, and who was devastated when her father eventually accepted a role not that far removed from that of king.

The character does come across very well, but there are some frustrating anachronisms.  “Liz” and “Olly” would not have been used as nicknames for Elizabeth and Oliver in the 17th century: “Bess” and “Noll” were the usual short forms of the names.  And people would not have been talking about women’s rights.  Even the title of the book’s odd, because Bridget doesn’t rebel.   Her interpretation of events is put across well, though – although people might take exception to it.  We see her justifying the execution of Charles I as supposedly being the only way to bring an end to the conflict (except that it didn’t).  And, whilst being horrified by what happened in Ireland, saying that it was in line with what happened to besieged towns during the Thirty Years’ War – which is true enough, but may not go down very well with Irish readers.

For the Civil War from a female viewpoint, my number one recommendation is Pamela Belle’s Wintercombe, but that’s about a woman living in a country house in Somerset, whereas this one’s about a woman at the centre of the big events at the time, so they’re not really comparable.   This one isn’t the best Civil War book I’ve ever come across, but it’s certainly well worth a read: the history’s accurate, and, in particular, it’s an interesting and unusual take on the period.  I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for any more books in this series.

Sherwood – BBC 1

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I thought that the first episode of this was excellent, even though having someone in Nottinghamshire shot dead with a bow and arrow by someone living in a forest was a bit cheesy.  Speaking of forests, I gather that the good people of Nottinghamshire are rather narked that a character referred to “Notts Forest”, which is the equivalent of a character from Manchester referring to United as “Man U” –  i.e. just plain wrong!   But, that aside, this was really very good.

It’s set in a Nottinghamshire mining community (everything’s a “community” these days, rather than a city, town, village or suburb), and the murder victim, Gary, is a former miner who’d never got past the wounds left by the Miners’ Strike of 1984.   And we’re talking about the divisions within the community.  Just as Civil War books tend to focus on the clash between Cavaliers and Roundheads, and ignore the divisions between different groups on the Roundhead side, the narrative of the Miners’ Strike is generally that of the authorities, led by Margaret Thatcher, versus the miners, led by Arthur Scargill.   But it wasn’t that simple.

I live quite near the site of the old Agecroft Colliery, where most miners carried on working during rhe 1984 strike and flying pickets from Yorkshire gathered outside to try to stop them.   In the Ashfield area, where this is set, some miners did continue working, others went on strike, and, again, flying pickets from Yorkshire came in.  We see that Gary still, in 2022, referred to those who carried on working as “scabs”, shouting abuse at them even as they tried to enjoy a quiet drink, and that there were divisions even within his own family because his brother-in-law was one of the “scabs”.

In early 1985, whilst the strike was still going on, there was a storyline in Coronation Street in which Hilda Ogden’s lodger was discovered to have broken a strike.  His life was made a misery even though he explained that he’d felt he had to work due to family circumstances.   The view at the time was that no-one liked a scab, blackleg, strikebreaker, whatever term you want to use; but the problem with the miners’ strike was that a national strike was called without there being a national ballot.   Also, as Joanne Froggatt’s character, Sarah, pointed out, people had the right to choose what they felt was right.  The whole thing was messy.  And the memories of what happened die hard.

A lot was going on in this programme.  There was the general issue of generation gaps, as Gary’s wife Julie kept saying “There’s somebody at the door” in the Rod Hull/Emu/Grotbags way, and her grandchildren had no idea what she was talking about.  There was the fall of the red wall, with Sarah standing for the council elections as a Conservative.  At the time of the last general election, we heard a lot about former mining constituencies such as Leigh, Sedgefield and Ashfield itself voting Conservative: it really showed how much things had moved on.  But, for Gary, nothing had moved on.

There was the return to the community of a local man now a senior police officer, and the distrust of the police nearly 40 years after Orgreave and everything else that went on in 1984.  It was all brilliantly written and brilliantly acted, and I’m looking forward to the five episodes still to come.

 

The Secret Life of Albert Entwistle by Matt Cain

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   This is another one for Pride month #pridenotprejudice; but I was going to read it anyway, because it’s about a postman in Farnworth.  Well, it’s set in a fictional Lancashire town called Toddington, but it’s very obviously Bolton (BTW, if anyone should happen to read this and be unable to remember the name of the posh department store which closed down, it was Whitakers.  Thank you, Google.), and Albert’s postal round is “the Flower(s)Estate”, which is the Harper Green area of the Farnworth area of Bolton.  It’s that bit you go through if you’re trying to get to the northbound M61 from Whitefield/Radcliffe without going on the M60.  “Toddington Hall’ is Turton Tower, I think – could be Smithills, but the Second World War bunker where teenage Albert used to meet his boyfriend is definitely up near Turton Tower, .

OK, so to get back to the point 😀 , Albert Entwistle is a closeted gay man who’s about to turn 65.  He appears to have no living relatives, and has no friends – which, poignantly, we learn is because he’s always been frightened to get close to people, in case they realised that he was gay and rejected him, or, before same sex relationships between men were legalised, it even resulted in his imprisonment.  As with a lot of things in life, a lot of this goes back to bullying at school.  It’s also, as is often the case with LGBT people, because of the attitude of a family member – in Albert’s case, his late father.  The only things really going on in his life are his cat, his job and Coronation Street.  Then his cat dies, and he’s told that his employers have a policy of compulsory retirement at 65.

Albert decides that it’s time to turn his life around.  He finally comes out as gay, makes friends with Nicole, a 19-year-old single mother who’s got boyfriend trouble, and decides to try to track down his high school sweetheart – a man named George, whom we later find out was arrested by Albert’s dad, a policeman, whilst Albert ran off and left him to his fate.

Some of it’s really very moving, especially Albert’s reflections on thinking that no-one could love him because he was gay, and the flashbacks to discussions he had with George about why their relationship should be seen as wrong.  However, some of it’s a bit OTT.  The day after Albert tells his colleagues that he’s gay, he arrives at work to find that four of them have dressed up as the Village People and the building’s been decorated with rainbow bunting.  However supportive you might want to be of a colleague who’s waited until the age of 64 to come out, would anyone actually do that?!

He then learns that George was working in the Gay Village – i.e. the Canal Street area of Manchester – at one time, and he and Nicole set out to try to find him.  It turns out that George has moved to London and is a drag queen – and, unlike Albert, has always been out and proud and a campaigner for gay rights.  Drag queens were really big in Manchester when I was a kid in the ’80s, thanks mainly to the wonderful and much-missed Foo Foo Lammar.   I don’t see why they had to say that George had moved to London, but maybe it was just to extend the story: finding him so close to “Toddington” would have been too easy.

We then learn that Albert’s dad knew about him and George, and blackmailed him into ending the relationship by threatening to prosecute him otherwise.   Of course, once Albert finds George and explains this, they get back together and presumably live happily ever after.  And Nicole’s relationship with her boyfriend also gets sorted out, and they presumably live happily ever after as well.

The author’s slightly overdone several passages involving George thinking that he’s doing this for all gay men who had to hide their true selves, all gay men who were ever imprisoned, anybody whose life’s been cut short, etc etc.  And the ending’s a bit cheesy and predictable.  But, all in all, it’s a moving story.  It’s a very Northern story, too – Albert, Nicole and George would all fit right into Coronation Street!

Not bad at all, and an important reminder of the issues faced by gay men – including the fact that, even after relationships between men were legalised, the age of consent was higher than that for heterosexual relationships and remained so until 2001 – and the impact of those on people’s mental health and daily lives.  Please always be kind to others ❤️🙏.

The Queen’s Fortune by Allison Pataki

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This is a novel about Desiree Clary, one-time fiancee of Napoleon, before he threw her over for Josephine, and later the first Bernadotte queen of Sweden.  The story’s told, in the first person, by Desiree, but it’s dominated by Napoleon and Josephine … which is a shame, really, because there are hundreds of novels about them but no others (AFAIK) about Desiree.  Maybe Napoleon had a big personality that he will inevitably dominate any novel in which he appears.

It’s quite a light book, but there’s plenty of historical information in it, and no glaring inaccuracies.  And it’s an interesting portrayal of Napoleon.  I’m not sure whether this was what the author intended, but it comes across as a story which is common in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, if not the late 18th and early 19th – lad from an ordinary background suddenly becomes a celeb, moves to the bright lights of the big city, starts hanging around with the in crowd and being featured all over the gossip columns of the papers, becomes somewhat alienated from most of his family and old mates, throws over his faithful sweetheart in favour of an experienced, glamorous, sophisticated socialite … and it all ends in tears.  And I suppose that that actually is what happened.  It’s just that it involved a war which dragged in most of Europe and some countries beyond, and the temporary or permanent placing of numerous relatives and friends of Napoleon on a large number of thrones.

General Bernadotte, by contrast, comes across as someone far more scrupulous, steady and loyal.  And true to the principles of the Revolution, before a) it turned into the nightmare of the Terror and b) it was overturned by Napoleon.  It’s rather ironic that it was Napoleon, the ordinary boy, who overturned most of the changes which had enabled him to come to power, and made himself an Emperor.

With, initially, Josephine as his Empress.  I’m not overly keen on the portrayal of her in this book.  She comes across as a high-class tart.  The author herself does seem to acknowledge that that’s unfair,  and keeps reminding us that Josephine was an outsider from Martinique and then suffered horribly during the Revolution, and about all the awful pressure on her to produce an heir; but she still shows her as a high-class tart.   And the book makes an interesting point about Napoleon restricting the rights of women.  However much you may dislike the man, he deserves credit for promoting the rights of religious minorities, and for having relatively liberal views towards homosexuality; but he definitely didn’t do much for the position of women.

To get back to Desiree, she and her sister Julie, born in Marseille to a wealthy family which had sought ennoblement, met Napoleon and his brother Joseph whilst attempting to get their brother released from prison.  Soon afterwards, Julie and Joseph married, and Desiree and Napoleon became engaged.   But then Napoleon met Josephine, and Desiree was history – although they did continue to play a part in each other’s lives, because of the family relationship.  Desiree eventually married General Bernadotte, who became Marshal of France, Governor of the Hanseatic cities and Governor of Hanover, before being elected heir to the throne of Sweden in 1810.   Gustav IV Adolf of Sweden had been overthrown in 1809, and his uncle proclaimed Charles XIII, but Charles was in ill health and had no heir.  In 1818, Bernadotte became King Charles XIV John of Sweden, and Desiree became Queen Desideria.  And their descendants sit on the throne of Sweden to this day.

However, Napoleon and Josephine manage to dominate the story even once the Bernadottes are in Sweden.  Or, rather, once General Bernadotte’s in Sweden, because Desiree continued to spend much of her time in France.  We do hear, interestingly, about how they were both torn psychologically between France and Sweden – but much of that’s about Napoleon.  And then their son marries Josephine’s granddaughter, and Desiree reflects on how her life is still dominated by Josephine.

It’s a bit light and fluffy sometimes, but generally it’s a very enjoyable book.  I just wish that the book about Desiree had actually been a bit more about Desiree!