The Resistance Girl by Mandy Robotham


  I heard a lot about the “Shetland Bus”, the Special Operations Group forming a link between the Shetland Islands and the Resistance movement in Nazi-occupied Norway, when visiting Bergen, where this book’s set, some years ago.   Books about Resistance and SOE operations very much tend to focus on France, so a book focusing on operations in Norway is very welcome … even if it *is* written in the present tense.  We’re reminded every Christmas of the importance of the wartime link between us and our Norwegian friends, but the work of the brave British and Norwegian individuals involved still doesn’t get as much recognition as it deserves.

That’s one of the major themes of this book.  The other, very difficult, theme is the Lebensborn programme, with which I think most people are familiar because of Frida Lyngstad from Abba.   The Norwegian women involved voluntarily or forcibly became partners of German men, and their “racially pure” babies, born in special maternity homes, were sent to Germany to be adopted by Nazi couples.  It’s a horrible part of history.  Due to the post-war reprisals against those seen as collaborators, many of the women concerned, if they’d been able to keep or recover their babies, moved to Sweden, as Frida’s mother did.

Our heroine, a member of the Norwegian Resistance, is Rumi, who’s just lost her fiance in a Shetland Bus run.  New love is on the cards in the shape of Jens, her neighbour’s half-British nephew, who’s with the SOE.   The horror of the Lebensborn programme is told at one degree removed, when Rumi’s best friend Anya falls victim to it.  The book does a good job of getting across what’s happening without it being too difficult to read, but the romance doesn’t detract from the seriousness of what’s going on – life in a country occupied by the Nazis, the missions being carried out by both the Norwegian Resistance and the British authorities, and the Lebensborn programme.   The Raid on Telemark, which is probably the best-known Allied/Norwegian act of anti-Nazi sabotage, doesn’t feature in the story, but it does get a mention.

There should be more novels like this, and about the SOE and Resistance work in other countries too.  There were no landmark events marking this particular element of the war effort, so there are no special dates on which to remember it – and it’s so important that it not be forgotten.   This book is well worth reading.


Passport to Freedom – Drama


There seem to be quite a few things around at the moment about people escaping the Nazis.  This is one of them: a new TV mini-series about Aracy de Carvalho, a courageous Brazilian woman who was the Chief of the Passport Section at her country’s consulate in Hamburg, and issued visas to desperate Jewish people even when the Brazilian government’s policy was not to do so.  In 1982, she was honoured with a Righteous Amongst the Nations award by Yad Vashem for her brave work.  The series also features a sub-plot about a Jewish cabaret singer with a Nazi lover, which I could have done without: it’s totally fictitious and seems rather tasteless.  But the main plot has been very well portrayed so far, with the second episode showing a powerful depiction of Kristallnacht.

There’s a strange juxtaposition between the glamour of the clubs, the diplomats’ lives and the lives of well-to-do assimilated Jews on the one hand, and the destruction of property, beatings in the street, abandonment of Polish-born Jews in freezing conditions on the border and arrests of people for no good reason on the other hand, and it all comes across very well.   There’s also going to be romance for Aracy, with diplomat and future author  João Guimarães Rosa.   This series is something a bit different, and I’m looking forward to the rest of it.


Sanditon (Season 2) – ITV



I’m not quite sure how to judge this.  On entertainment value?   On being something Jane Austen might realistically have written?  On historical authenticity (it’s set in 1820)?

As far as entertainment value goes, the sets and the costumes were all excellent, and I do want to know what happens to the characters.  But how about being Austen-esque?  Well, it hasn’t gone ridiculously OTT this time.  There were no bare bottoms, although one bloke was walking about with a bare chest.  The introduction of a company of soldiers, albeit regulars rather than the militia, has obvious echoes of Pride and Prejudice, Georgiana’s silly chaperones are similar in character to the likes of Mr Collins, Mr Woodhouse and Mr Elliot, and Charlotte’s sister Alison gazing up into a handsome man’s eyes after an accident isn’t dissimilar to Sense and Sensibility.

However … whilst the need for an heir is central to more than one of Austen’s novels, she’d never have gone into the medical details, as the writers here have done with Esther Babington.   But it’s hard to criticise the inclusion of an explanation, rather than just vague comments about not having had a child.   And what about the sugar boycott/free produce movement, which both Georgiana and Charlotte actively support?   Well, Austen certainly never mentioned it, but it was a big thing for a long time, and it was something which women were particularly involved in.   No mention of the Peterloo Massacre, the Cato Street Conspiracy or anything else connected to the difficulties of the times, but then Austen never mentioned anything political either.

What isn’t quite so authentic is the strident feminism around which much of the plot hangs.   Would Georgiana really have been so rude in turning down an unwanted suitor?   OK, Elizabeth Bennet told Mr Darcy exactly what she thought of him, but he asked for it!   Georgiana’s admirer didn’t seem to have done anything worse than be boring.  And would Charlotte really have declared that she never wanted to marry, and taken a job as a governess, lecturing her new employer about the need to educate girls?   Emma Woodhouse said that she never wanted to marry, but she had a place in society as a result of her family’s wealth.   And the Dashwood girls were well-educated.  But, still,  wouldn’t Charlotte have been desperately trying to find any husband at all, as Charlotte Lucas did?  Well … whilst Peterloo wasn’t mentioned, the bad harvests and their effect on the Heywood family’s finances  were, so I suppose it was realistic that Charlotte had decided that she *had* to find a job.  And, as she said, that meant a job as a governess.  And all her talk about being free and independent wasn’t all that dissimilar to comments made a generation later by Jane Eyre.

So, OK, maybe it was all possible.   This first episode certainly wasn’t completely overboard, as much of the last series was.  All in all, it wasn’t bad.   And I love the fact that they’ve brought in a character called Alison: my name doesn’t generally crop up in period dramas!    I’m still narked about the way the last series ended – and, I think because the actor was unavailable, Sidney Parker was killed off at the start of this one – but I’ll be sticking with it.



How To Be True by Daisy May Johnson


This, written by Daisy May Johnson, is a sequel/companion novel to How To Be Brave.  The main character is Edie Berger, the French girl who featured in the previous books as one of Calla North’s best friends.  It’s written in the same quirky way, with a lot of footnotes and a lot of comments from the narrator, but most of it’s set not at the school but during a school trip to France –  in which the girls become involved in trying to catch an art thief, and, in doing so, hear about Edie’s grandmother’s wartime history.

This involves a German family called Mercier.  That’s a very French-sounding name for a German family, but I did wonder if there was a tribute being paid to Odette Mercier of the Chalet School books, as the grandmother’s first name is Odette.  Maybe I’m overthinking things!    The Chalet School, Malory Towers and several other Girls’ Own books are referenced, though.  And how’s this for a 21st century twist on things? – rather than being abroad on colonial or missionary service, or, as Trebizon updated things for the late 20th century, having been posted to Saudi Arabia, Edie’s parents are absent because they’re “activists” and are off protesting.

The style of Daisy May Johnson’s books is very much her own, and her books, unlike traditional girls’ boarding school stories, don’t take themselves seriously in the slightest, but they carry the traditional Girls’ Own messages of friendship, teamwork, and good winning out over bad.  And it’s wonderful that people are still writing boarding school books for children.  In my day, in the 1980s, teachers didn’t really approve of our reading school stories, and it was held that boarding school books were too “elitist”.   Kids were supposed to want stories about comprehensives, like TV’s Grange Hill.   Alison Prince wrote a series called Mill Green, set at a school rather like Grange Hill: the books weren’t bad, but they never really caught on in the way that Malory Towers, St Clare’s, the Chalet School etc had done.   Now there seems to have been a swing back towards boarding school stories.  I think J K Rowling can take a lot of the credit for that, but it’s good to see other authors getting in on it too.

This is currently on a Kindle special offer, so, if you fancy reading it, it’s a good time!   Thank you to Daisy May, and long live boarding school stories!

The Real War of Thrones (Season 2) – Sky History


Absolutely loving this!   I sometimes say that there are too many Tudor-era documentaries on TV, made at the expense of looking into other eras; but this one’s different, because it doesn’t just look at one country.  The centrepoint is the French Wars of Religion, but it looks into how that fitted into what was going on elsewhere.  I remember a wonderful aide-memoire from A-level days – that Elizabeth I sought to fight the Spanish in the Netherlands to the last drop of French blood.  Confusing?  Oh, gloriously so!   And, after three episodes, we’re only up to 1569 , so we haven’t even got to the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre yet.   The next episode is entitled “Blood Wedding”, just in case anyone doesn’t know what’s coming!

The programme’s done in what seems to be in the “in” way now, with actors playing the parts of the historical figures and the presenter acting as narrator but not actually being seen.  Maybe it’s “dumbing down” a bit, but it does work better than the old-style programmes which had a presenter sitting behind a desk and just talking.  The American narrator is doing my head in a bit, with his talk about Toodors and Stooarts and the Dookes of Guise, but I suppose you can’t have everything.

So, what’s going on?   Well, Henry VIII wanted the infant Mary Queen of Scots to marry the future Edward VI, but, instead, she was shipped off to France and married to Francois, the heir to the French throne  – son of Henri II, who despite spending most of his time with his mistress Diane de Poitiers, had managed to father ten children on his wife, Catherine de Medici, she of alleged poisoned gloves fame.  Edward then died, and was succeeded by Mary, who married Philip II of Spain (Aragon and Castile).  Then Mary died, and was succeeded by Elizabeth.  Then Francis died.  Numerous suitors were suggested for both Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots.  Elizabeth kept ’em dangling.  Mary married Lord Darnley, and then he died in mysterious circumstances and she … well, we don’t know whether she went off with Bothwell or whether he forced her, but this programme insisted that they were lovers and didn’t even say that there were big doubts over what actually happened.  That actually quite annoyed me.   There are big doubts over what actually happened.

Meanwhile, there were ongoing political and sometimes military clashes in France between the Catholics, led by the Guises, the maternal uncles of Mary Queen of Scots, and the Protestants.   And, in the Netherlands, there’d been a revolt against Spanish rule.  England hadn’t got stuck in yet, but would do later – largely through getting the French to get stuck in, in the hope of winning Elizabeth’s hand in marriage.  And the French Wars of Religion were supposed to be being sorted by marrying the king (three brothers all became king and all died young, so it got very confusing, but the king at this point was Charles IX)’s sister Margot to the Protestant Henry of Navarre, but, of course, the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre took place a few days later.

We did all this for A-level.  OK, it was very gory, but it was also very exciting.  This is the sort of stuff which kids like to learn about, not motte and bailey castles or the daily lives of medieval monks, which we had to do in the first year.  This was exciting and fast-moving, full of romance and fighting, and guaranteed to keep the attention of viewers, whether kids or adults.   More series like this, please!!


The School That Escaped the Nazis by Deborah Cadbury


Parts of this book are very harrowing, because they contain first-hand accounts of children’s experiences in concentration camps, in ghettoes, and in hiding from the Nazis.   But it also brings across the wonderful humanity of people who tried to help either bring children to safety before war broke out or to rebuild their shattered lives after the Holocaust, chief amongst them Anna Essinger, the owner/headmistress of the school in question.

I’d been expecting a dramatic escape narrative along the lines of The Sound of Music or The Chalet School in Exile, but it was actually quite easy for the 66 pupils (mostly Jewish), teachers and other staff to get from Germany to Britain in 1933, pretending to be going on a school trip to the Netherlands.   Emigration from the Third Reich became virtually impossible later on, but it wasn’t at that point.  “Tante Anna” set up a school on the Summerhill model, with a lot of emphasis on outdoor pursuits and the arts, initially in Kent and then later being evacuated to Shropshire.   The school took on additional pupils, most of them children arriving on the Kindertransport in 1938/39 and then children who’d survived the Holocaust once the war was over.

Much of the book consists of former pupils’ accounts of their experiences during the Holocaust, and it’s difficult to read but also important to read.   And the rest largely consists of, as well as school life, accounts of Anna’s work to raise money to set the school up and keep it going.  That came mainly from Jewish and Quaker philanthropists – the author, as a Cadbury, took a lot of interest in the wonderful contribution made by the Quaker community in rescuing Jewish children.  It also details her involvement in welcoming Kindertransport children, being responsible for their reception at holiday camp buildings and helping to try to find them foster families.   Others gave a great deal of their time and effort too: those mentioned particularly include Elaine Blond, co-director of the Refugee Children’s Movement and Old Girl of my school, Norman Bentwich and the Marchioness of Reading.   People in the Netherlands, too, did so much to help.   Then there are the accounts of how the school tried to help child survivors back to some sort of normality, similarly to what happened with The Windermere Children.

Sadly, the school closed in 1948, as Anna’s health was failing and she didn’t feel able to hand the school over to anyone else, but it made a huge difference to hundreds of traumatised children, some of whom had lost their entire families.   The book’s a fascinating juxtaposition of the worst of humanity and the best of humanity.

The Railway Children Return


I’m pleased to say that this film is about evacuees from Salford.  It’s a bugbear of mine that stories about evacuees practically always feature children from London, as if no other part of the country were affected.  There’s been so much publicity about it that I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying that the children concerned are sent to Oakworth – although much of the Oakworth village set is actually Haworth – where they’re billeted with the former Bobbie Waterbury, her daughter (the headmistress of the local school, referred to as “the head teacher” as kids today apparently can’t be expected to cope with the word “headmistress”) and her grandson.

The shots of the village and the surrounding countryside are glorious, and there’s plenty of Blytonesque running around in fields, having conker fights and collecting eggs from chickens.  The plot wasn’t really very dramatic, though.   It followed the original film in that the children helped someone in need and stopped a train, but the suspense and emotion weren’t really there.  Maybe the scriptwriters focused a bit too much on appealing to a young audience demographic?

(Don’t read the rest if you don’t want any spoilers at all!)

I’d been expecting a spy story.  Instead, we got a wartime racism story.   It might have worked better in an adult film, but there wasn’t enough sense of menace here.  It was obviously aimed at a young audience – I could have lived without seeing kids using the outside of a train as a toilet, and the remarks about farting, but, OK, I’m not really in the target demographic – and maybe that was why the fear of the military police just didn’t come across very well, despite the talk of our man possibly facing hanging if he were caught.  The police just never seemed very intimidating.   Also, it was hard not to wonder why no-one seemed to notice kids just disappearing from school in the middle of the day, or why everyone’s rations seemed to stretch so far that they could hold food fights and feed biscuits to their dog.

Having said all that, the racism story was historically accurate.  We know that there were major issues over the segregation in the US Army, especially concerning black soldiers engaging with white British women: the film actually borrowed the true story of the Battle of Bamber Bridge, in which US military police attacked black soldiers drinking in a pub.   The idea in this film was that a young black soldier had deserted as a result.  He was discovered hiding out by the four children – the three evacuees, an older girl with a younger brother and sister, as in the original film, and their new pal, Bobbie’s grandson.   It was then rather unconvincingly resolved (I won’t say how), and he was allowed to gallivant around the countryside and then return home to his mum, thanks to all the children stopping the train (but without red underwear) and the intervention of Ric Griffin from Holby City.

It was all right, and it was worth seeing for the shots of the countryside.  And it was also lovely to see a film in which the Brits were the goodies.  The liberal elite will hate that … which is probably a recommendation in itself.  But don’t be expecting a classic, and don’t be looking for an unforgettable moment like the legendary “Daddy, my daddy” scene, or you’ll be disappointed.   It’s OK, but it’s not great.


The Beautiful Snow: The Ingalls Family, the Railroads, and the Hard Winter of 1880-81 by Cindy Wilson


  I read this because of the Laura Ingalls Wilder link: I re-read The Long Winter every year, just before Christmas.  It’s a look at the primary sources from the time – such meteorological records as exist, newspaper articles from the local press which played a crucial part in the settler communities, railway records, diaries of railway workers, etc – and a comparison between that and what Laura wrote.  I think the accepted wisdom is that, yes, it was a very hard winter, but that Laura slightly exaggerated the number and frequency of the blizzards and also the distance which Almanzo Wilder and Cap Garland had to travel on their brave journey to get food for the community of De Smet.

As a historian, I do like to know how historically accurate books are, even if it means accepting that not everything in my beloved Little House books is spot on.  However, much of this book was about fuel shortages, reasons for trains being cancelled and the technicalities of clearing the blockades (rather confusing for British readers, the word “blockade” is used for a blockage due to heavy snow), which are not exactly the most engaging of topics.  Even when these things happen today (which unfortunately is rather often, especially as regards railway cancellations), the papers tend focus on human interest stories about how John Smith nearly missed his brother’s wedding or Mary Jones was late for a hospital appointment.

The dry facts didn’t always make for riveting reading – whereas Laura’s accounts of how she and Carrie nearly got lost coming home from school in a blizzard, Pa’s hands were so cold that he couldn’t play the fiddle, and usually serene Ma launched into a tirade against the railway companies *do*.

Having said all that, this book certainly gave a broader picture of events than Laura did.  The railway companies didn’t just abandon the settlers.  They did their best to clear the lines and get trains through, but it was all but impossible in such difficult conditions.

As we saw with you-know-what in 2020, when there’s a situation beyond human control, different groups of people busily blame each other, and animosity can arise between different regions.  The Ingalls family were typical of Western settlers in blaming the superintendents of the railway companies, who were seen as living the high life whilst other people were struggling to put food on the table.  In reality, the railway companies had teams of staff and volunteers trying very hard to clear the lines, but it wasn’t easy to battle 50 foot drifts, or the floods they brought when they thawed; and snow blindness was also an issue.   And the railway companies were losing money hand over fist whilst all this was going on.

The  worst of the weather was in Minnesota, but, to the frustration of those in Dakota Territory, no efforts seem to have been made to bypass that area; but the tracks ran where they ran, and couldn’t just be moved.   Meanwhile, everyone accused everyone else of not doing enough to prepare for a bad winter.  And newspapers in the East claimed that the Dakota Territory wasn’t suitable for settlement, much to the fury of those who’d already settled there – but they don’t seem to have dissuaded people from going west, because migration resumed apace once the winter was over.

And there was a big underlying problem in that, even apart from the issues with the weather, settlement had expanded very quickly, and the infrastructure to cope with it hadn’t kept pace.   There wasn’t enough coal and chopped wood available to fuel the trains, not helped by a series of miners’ strikes.   Grain from the west had been loaded on to carriages, which were just sitting there, so there weren’t enough carriages available to transport postbags or paper needed for local newspapers.    Flour mills ceased production because the fuel couldn’t be carried to them and the flour couldn’t be carried away from them.   It was all just a case of too many problems overlapping.

And it’s fascinating how laissez-faire it was.   The political authorities had very little involvement until the April of 1881, when the territorial government and, via the military, the central government attempted to provide supplies to communities affected by flooding.  Prior to that, it seems to have all been up to the railway companies, dealers of suppliers, and settlers to cope as best they could.  It was quite a contrast to the huge efforts made to provide relief to Lancashire during the Cotton Famine of the 1860s, but then we didn’t have to cope with 50 foot snowdrifts.

The book only made brief mention of Almanzo and Cap’s trip to get wheat – which was disappointing, because, although a trip made by two men to feed one town may not have been that important in the general scheme of things, it was very important in the scheme of Laura’s writings.  It does make the point that there were large quantities of wheat to be had, due to the problems with transporting it east, but that no-one seems to have managed to set up a system of getting it from the wheat-producing areas to the towns.

In summary, no-one was prepared for such a harsh winter, but it wasn’t really anyone’s fault.  And, as the author concluded, the effects of living through such a difficult time would have had a lasting effect on Laura, her family and the rest of the townsfolk.    But they weren’t just abandoned, which seems to have been how they saw it.  Mother Nature just had everyone beat.  I hate to keep bringing up the subject of Covid, but sometimes nature is just too strong for us.   I can’t see myself re-reading this book, but I’m glad that I’ve read it the once.


The Forgotten Village by Lorna Cook


I’m not a fan of dual timeline novels; but I read this one for a Facebook group reading challenge, and it wasn’t bad.   It’s set in and around the real life ghost village of Tyneham, Dorset, which was requisitioned for use as a firing range in 1943.  It was supposed to be returned to the villagers after the war, but the Ministry of Defence have hung on to it, although some of the buildings are now open as museums.

The past timeline of the book, in 1943, revolved around the fictional, unhappily married, Standishes – Sir Albert, the local squire and MP, and his wife Veronica.   Infuriatingly, the book referred to her, incorrectly, as “Lady Veronica” rather than as “Lady Standish”: OK, it’s a common mistake, but if people are writing a book then they should do a bit of basic research.   The present timeline, in 2018, revolved around holidaymaker Melissa and her new boyfriend, TV historian Guy, who’d seen a photograph of the Standishes and became curious as what had happened to them.  Added into the mix was the fact that Guy’s grandma had once been Lady Standish’s maid.

I was hoping to read about the effect of the evacuation of the village on its inhabitants, but there was very little about that.  The focus was all on the two couples’ lives and relationships, and the 2018 couple’s search for information about the Standishes.  And the far-fetched twist in the tale could be seen coming well before the end.  So it wasn’t really what I’d hoped for.   However, it wasn’t a bad book, and I quite enjoyed it.  Dual timeline books are just not my thing, though, even if they *are* all the rage at the moment!

Lucy Worsley Investigates: Madness of King George – BBC 2


  This was a very interesting programme, about not only George III’s illness but the treatment of mental illness during the 1780s and how that changed.  However, I wish that they’d given someone a chance to put the case for the porphyria theory, instead of just dismissing it as wrong and focusing entirely on the alternative diagnosis of bipolar disorder.  Yes, the reason that the porphyria theory, put forward by Macalpine and Hunter in the 1960s, is so well-known is the 1991 Alan Bennett play and subsequent 1994 film, rather than the works of any medic or historian, but the 1998 book “Purple Secret” is very convincing, and I do think that Lucy might at least have considered it.

Having said which, the argument for bipolar disorder is probably more convincing, especially now that additional papers giving us more details of George’s condition have been released.  The general opinion does now seem to be that the porphyria theory is wrong … which is quite annoying, because I’ve read so much about porphyria that I diagnosed it immediately when a character in Casualty presented with its symptoms!

George’s symptoms certainly seem to match those of bipolar disorder, but I wasn’t entirely convinced by the arguments presented about the triggers.   The tragic loss of three children would certainly cause huge distress to anyone, and the death of his daughter was only a year before the episode which led to the Regency, but his two sons died in 1782 and 1783 respectively, the Gordon Riots were in 1780 and the American colonies were effectively lost by 1781, so I’m not sure how all those link into an episode in 1788, several years later.  The death of Peter III of Russia in 1762 surely didn’t affect him in 1788, and I think we can be pretty certain that the French Revolution didn’t affect him a year before the Storming of the Bastille.


However, what was said about the treatment of mental illness at the time was fascinating, if horrifying.  It was thought to have a physical cause, so poor George was subjected to bleeding, purging and blistering.  I’m not quite sure why Lucy felt it necessary to order some leeches off the internet in order to show them to us, but I Googled it out of interest and found several places offering leeches for sale.   OK, let’s not go there.

If we accept that George was already struggling due to the events of 1780-83, what may well have tipped him over the edge was a knife attack made on him in 1786, by a woman called Margaret Nicholson.  Margaret was certified insane and  committed to Bedlam (the Bethlem Royal Hospital) for life.  She died there 42 years later.   We learnt that the hospital divided people into “ravers” (unfortunate term), “melancholics” and “incurables”.  Margaret was classed as “incurable”, even though she probably wasn’t.  Some people were literally clapped in irons, although others were put into straitjackets, which were quite mild by comparison.   It was a pretty horrific place, and people would come there to view the patients as if they were animals in a zoo.

However, Lucy then explained that, quite possibly because of what had happened with a) George and b) Margaret, a report was commissioned into the goings-on at Bedlam, published in 1791.   It actually said that restraint was OK for the poor but not for the well-to-do!   But it did lead to reforms, and psychiatry began to move away from the idea that mental illness could be treated by purging/bleeding/blistering.   She then finished by saying that George’s illness made him more popular – rather than being horrified by the idea of a “mad” king, the public were sad that he’d been ill and grateful that he’d recovered.

There was a lot to take in in this programme, and it really was interesting.  And, having accepted the porphyria theory after reading the arguments put forward in favour of it, I suppose I do now accept that bipolar disorder is a far more likely diagnosis.  So there, they convinced me!