Kids’ TV: The Surprising Story – BBC 1


I nearly turned this off after five minutes.  Need the BBC turn *everything* into a culture war?  Fair enough, the Wombles were into recycling long before most other people were, but saying that Bagpuss introduced kids to the world of industrial disputes sounded preposterous even by the BBC’s standards.  In case anyone’s wondering, the mice once went on strike!

And I would not, TBH, compare the Teletubbies’ arrival in America with Beatlemania.  But I kept watching and, to be fair, it got better!   When you think about it, children’s TV over the years has been at the forefront of a lot of things.

There was a lot of talk about the role of women and ethnic minorities on children’s TV, but, fair enough, children’s TV did play an important role in that.  I honestly can’t remember whether or not I ever thought it was a big deal that a black lady (Floella Benjamin) was on Play School, or that female presenters on Going Live (I never really watched Blue Peter) took part in daredevil stunts.  I don’t think I did, and that’s probably a really positive thing.  It just seemed normal, and that’s important.  They also talked about the involvement of disabled presenters, in more recent times.

There was a fair bit of nostalgic indulgence, which was what I was really after.   We used to watch You and Me at primary school.  A group of annoying boys used to sing “Poo and wee, wee and poo” to the theme tune.  And my sister and I watched Why Don’t You … although I can’t say I even remembered there being a Belfast gang, never mind having my views on Northern Ireland influenced by it!  We often watched ITV’s Saturday morning programmes, though, not the BBC’s.  Number 73 was our favourite.  But, yes, it was quite a big deal that Margaret Thatcher went on the kids’ TV phone-in, and the problems write-in did tackle some very distressing issues and help people to cope with them.

And, yes, Grange Hill, Children’s Ward and other programmes tackled some of the biggest social issues of the day.  “Just Say No” is the one everyone remembers, but there were others too.  I do think that there was a bit too much pushing of culture wars in this programme, but it was genuinely interesting, and all the points it made were valid.   I’m out of touch with kids’ TV these days, but I really enjoyed the reminiscing about the programmes of the ’80s.‏


Iron Queen by Joanna Courtney



I really don’t know quite what I thought of this.  Even the book itself seemed a bit confused.  The blurb on the back referred to the Bronze Age, when it was actually set during the Iron Age, and the explanatory map had Leicestershire in Derbyshire, and Derbyshire in Cheshire.  Anyway, It’s the third in the “Shakespeare’s Queens” series and is about King Lear’s daughter, Cordelia.  All I actually knew about Cordelia was that “her voice was ever sweet (or soft), gentle and low, an excellent thing in woman”, thanks to Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s obsession with that quote; but, having had a bit of a read-round, the book doesn’t seem to have anything to do with either Shakespeare’s Cordelia or Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Cordelia.

That’s probably fair enough.   Whilst we know very little about British society in 500BC, it’s unlikely to have included medieval-style dukes.  But this was just … odd.  Joanna Courtney’s created a matriarchal society in which men are only really good for battle and breeding.  OK, it could have been the case, but the ruler, the grandmother of Goneril, Regan and Cordelia (shortened to Gee, Ree and Dee!) was obsessed with flying (which kept making me think of Britannia), and died whilst trying to fly.  As you do.  Whereupon Goneril took control, and pretended to kill Cordelia’s fiance.  That bit was at least dramatic.  Prior to that, everyone had seemed to spend most of their time either having affairs with druidesses (Goneril) or breeding dogs (Cordelia).

Cordelia then led a coup against Goneril, so it did get quite exciting at the end.  It was just rather peculiar.   The sections about the druidesses and their work were quite interesting, as were the sections about the actual ironsmithing (Cordelia’s fiance being a smith), and the way in which their world turned with the seasons, but I just found it all a bit strange.  But I don’t know what I expected.  Maybe it’s simply that prehistory isn’t really my thing.  It was entertaining and I read it quite quickly, but I think I’m better with books set in a more recognisable world.   And with rather less emphasis on dog-breeding.

Mother’s Boy by Howard Jacobson


  This, the author’s potted autobiography up until the time when his first book was published, was on a 99p Kindle offer, so I bought it because the Jacobsons were my grandparents’ neighbours when Howard was growing up, and I thought I’d enjoy reading about places I recognised.  And I did.  However, whilst it’s entertainingly written, I’m not sure how interesting the tale of someone’s fairly ordinary suburban upbringing, and then his relationship and career ups and downs, would be to general readers.

Some of it’s interesting from a general cultural viewpoint, life in postwar Britain.  He went to the local grammar school, the same school as my dad, and from there to Cambridge.  The grammar school system enabled so many people whose parents had left school at 14 to go on to further education.  But most of the first half of the book’s about his own family and the relationships within it.   He later spent some time in Australia, then Wolverhampton, then Cornwall, and then moved to London, and we hear about how he came to write his first book after many years of drifting.  We also hear about how he married three times – third time lucky!

If you know North Manchester, you’ll be doing a lot of smiling and nodding during the first half of the book.   And you’ll enjoy it if you’re a fan of Jacobson’s books and want to know more about him.  If neither … well, the self-deprecating humour and the Adrian Mole-esque moroseness do make for quite good reading, but I’m just not sure how much it’ll appeal to the general reader.   

The Condor Crags Adventure by Elinor M Brent-Dyer


  For someone associated with Girls’ Own school stories, Elinor M Brent-Dyer wrote Boys’ Own adventure stories remarkably well.  This is very much of its time (1954), or indeed earlier – a well-to-do Englishman, Sir Godfrey Chudleigh, is kidnapped by a Bolivian tribe demanding the return of some jewels given by one of their ancestors to one of Godfrey’s ancestors.  Godfrey’s brother, two chums and a Brazilian associate (who happens to be an expert on planes) set off to rescue him.

Fortunately, Godfrey is not being kept locked up, but is free to wander around; and is kept supplied with food and ginger beer by a badly-treated mestizo man with whom he becomes friends.  I’m not sure why ginger beer seems to be so readily available in the Bolivian Andes, but never mind.

Some of the language in relation to disability and ethnicity doesn’t really work today, but the book’s nearly 70 years old, and none of the terms used would have been considered offensive in the 1950s.  And the dialogue is all very Boys’ Own slangy, with the young men addressing each other as “old cock”!  The Chudleighs are all very brave and manly, what-ho, and they aren’t going to be done down by the Andean kidnappers, even though they’ve threatened to chop Godfrey up piece by piece.

That’s the blokes, natch.  There’s no question of the girls having any involvement … which is a bit annoying, when you think that Bessie Marchant, Dorothea L Moore and to some extent Enid Blyton were quite happy to let girls be involved in derring-do, and indeed so was Elinor herself in some of the Chalet School books.  However, a woman doses two men, which would never happen in Chalet School land.  You go, girl!!

One of the Chudleigh sisters, Arminel, is Gillian Culver from the Chalet School books, and I’ve never been quite clear as to why the same character has two different names and two different personalities!  But she barely features in this.

Our Brazilian friend, who for some reason speaks Spanish rather than Portuguese, fortunately guesses exactly where Godfrey is, and the rescuers fly a plane overhead and signal to him that he will soon be free.  Hurrah!  Meanwhile, Godfrey finds some gold and shoots some pumas.

He and Gonzalo, the mestizo man, then escape through some caves, in the middle of volcanic eruptions, storms, earthquakes and avalanches.  None of which bother our hero one whit.   And the rescuers, flying overhead, spot them.  Yay!!   They are duly rescued.

It’s not exactly realistic, but books in this genre rarely are, and it’s really rather good as Boys’ Own adventure books go.  I am off to try to find copies of the three books in this series which I’ve yet to read!


Toil Under The Sun by Vicki Hopkins


I *love* the fact that someone’s set a book in Manchester and called it “Toil Under The Sun”!   This, set in 1866-68, is by an American author who does have ancestral links to South Lancashire but whom I’m not sure really knows the area herself.  Not that it’s *not* sunny here, of course!  It’s not a particularly good book, but I’ve read much worse, and it only cost 87p.

The American spelling drove me mad, but that isn’t the author’s fault.  The referring to Bury New Road as “New Bury Road” also drove me mad, although she must have got that from somewhere.  No-one local would refer to “Broughton” rather than “Higher Broughton”, “Lower Broughton” or “Broughton Park”.  Having said which, we’ve always had Broughton Swimming Baths, Library, etc, so I suppose they probably did, back in the day.  Anglican vicars are not generally referred to as “Father”; and some of the dialogue was just way too American for a book set in England.  I know, I know – I’m nitpicking.  And it wasn’t a bad story – not brilliant, but readable.  Mainly about the building trade, which gets rather neglected in books about Victorian Manchester and other northern cities and towns.

Anyway.  The plot.  Two brothers work as bricklayers in central Manchester, and have very different views on life.  One of them holds the very Victorian liberal idea that the way forward is to better himself through education, and aim to set up his own business.  The other prefers to be part of the brickworkers’ union, associated at the time with intimidation and even violence.

There was a lot of controversy in the brick industry at the time, with unions opposing mechanisation of the brick industry and the bringing in of bricks from outside the area, and a certain amount of violence being used to get their way, especially in Manchester and Sheffield.  The author’s obviously done a lot of research into what’s not a particularly well-known aspect of local industrial history.  We hear a lot, not just with respect to Manchester but with respect to all the great towns and cities of the North and Midlands, about the industries which created the wealth which in turn led to all the grand building projects, but we hear very little about the actual building work and the people involved in it.  So this was something a bit different, and interesting.

The brothers fall out when Hugh, the militant trade unionist, is involved in a shooting.  William, the other brother, gets a job in Higher Broughton and moves there.  And gets married, in Prestwich.  Hugh’s eventually jailed for his activities, whilst William prospers.  The brothers make up, and the story’s left open for a sequel.   It was very short and, as I said, it wasn’t brilliant, but it was certainly readable.


The Hidden Light of Northern Fires by Daren Wang


Eleven Southern states seceded from the Union in 1860-61, but there’s a little-known story about the hamlet of Town Line, New York state, close to Niagara Falls, also voting to secede.  No-one outside really recognised the vote, but Town Line didn’t vote to rejoin the Union until 1946!   It’s not clear exactly what went on, but many of the locals were German-Americans who’d left Bavaria and other German states during the 1848 Revolutions, and the author’s view, which is as likely as any, is that they’d fled partly to avoid conscription and didn’t want to be conscripted to fight for a Union with which they didn’t really identify.  Conscription didn’t actually exist in 1861, but, still, it’s as likely an explanation as any.

Town Line lies very close to the Canadian border, and, in this book, some of the inhabitants are part of the Underground Railroad, whilst others are bounty hunters who try to capture slaves trying to reach freedom in Canada, and return them to owners offering rewards for their capture.  We also hear their fears of competition for jobs if slaves are freed and head north.  A young male slave has fled Virginia and made it to Town Line, but been attacked by a vicious dog belonging to the bounty hunters and lost a leg as a result.   Our heroine Mary is trying to help him to get over the border.

It’s an interesting setting for a Civil War novel.   They tend to focus on either plantation owners in the Deep South or pro-war characters in the North, and ignore the spectrum of views which existed on both sides of the Union-Confederate border.  The blurb for the book refers to the “Mason-Dixon Line”, but even that’s not accurate because not all the Southern states seceded.   Washington DC was a Southern city, for a kick-off.  And West Virginia, from where the slave in question had escaped, seceded from Virginia and was admitted to the Union as a separate state.  It was complicated.

This is the author’s first novel, and that shows.  The subject matter’s interesting, but the characters are a little one-dimensional, all either goodies or baddies with not much in between.  And the escapee’s former owners live in West Virginia, but the book doesn’t really explain how West Virginia seceded from Virginia, etc – although it does make the point that slaves in Union slave states weren’t covered by the Emancipation Proclamation.

Some of the language and attitudes may offend, but none of it’s inappropriate in context.  It would be ridiculous to write a book in which characters in the 1860s spoke about racial issues in the language of the 2020s, and I wish people would accept that.  This isn’t a great book and never really gripped me, but it was very positive to see a book which showed a range of views being held by different characters.  Due to the “culture wars” present plaguing the US and beyond, a narrative’s been created by which the American Civil War was all about the North opposing slavery and the South supporting slavery, which just wasn’t the case.   There were complex issues involved, and views across a broad spectrum were held, in both Union states and Confederate states.   Thanks to Daren Wang for showing that.


Fen’s First Term by Dorothea Moore


Fen, short for Fenella, is a 14-year-old lion tamer who gets lions to perform tricks to the tune of Rule Britannia.  As you do.  Her widowed father, also a lion tamer, is in poor health due to being gassed during the Great War.  Wanting Fen to have a better life, he sends her to live at her aristocratic maternal relatives’ castle.  Her grandfather is a lord.  Obviously.  She’s then sent to boarding school where, on her first day, she jumps from a window ledge on to a horse’s back, rides off without permission, and saves a child from drowning.  Dorothea L Moore’s books are certainly never dull.

Far from being horrified by her Rough Ways and Wildness – wearing daytime stockings in the evening and other such heinous crimes -, the other girls are very impressed by her heroics.   Well, other than her cousin Angela, with whom she doesn’t get on.   But Fen can’t settle in, and runs away to rejoin the circus.

Unfortunately, one of the lions is in a bad mood due to toothache, but the evil circus master insists that the performance go ahead.  The lion attacks Fen and her father.  However, Fen bravely saves them both.  Her grandfather and auntie, who are in hot pursuit of her, arrange for her dad to go to hospital, and the rift in the family – Lord Roswell, whilst a kindly man, not having been very pleased when one of his daughters eloped with a lion tamer – is healed.

Lord Roswell points out that any contract between the circus and Fen is invalid, as Fen is under age.  Fen agrees to return to school, and all seems well … until the evil circus master, claiming to have called to ask about her father’s health, drugs her and kidnaps her, planning to take her to America and restart the circus there.  Oh no, I hear you cry!

By the time Fen comes round, she’s on a ship which is sailing out of Liverpool.  But fear not – she jumps overboard, on to a tug which is returning to shore.  Her grandfather and auntie are, yes, there in hot pursuit of her.  The American police are put on to the nasty circus owner, whilst the other former members of the circus are given a home at Roswell Castle.  Fen and Angela make friends, and win the two top prizes at the school gymnastics competition.  Hurrah!

As I said, Dorothea L Moore’s books are never dull.  Any more than they’re very realistic.  They’re very entertaining, but they’re completely mad!


Dust Up at the Crater School by Chaz Brenchley


This is the second book in the series which began with Three Twins at the Crater School.  The two sets of twins and their friends are now part of the group called The Crew, like that (rather forgettable!) gang in the later Chalet School books.  And we learn that the school’s founder left to marry the head of the Sanatorium.  Of course she did.  Several other mistresses (mistresses, not teachers) have also left to marry doctors.  Of course they did.  In fact, there’s a sister/mother school in Tyrol.  The founder hasn’t got a sister, as far as we know, but the “butting in” role is fulfilled by former Head Girl Rowany de Vere, back at the school after she failed to get into Oxford.

We learn that the colony on Mars has been there for 150 years, and that those on the “First Ship” are venerated rather like those who were on the Mayflower.  There’s a lot of talk about Pioneers, and at one point there was a Long Winter – although there’s no mention of anyone called Ingalls or Wilder 😉 .Not many women carry on working after marriage because, we also learn, Martian society is still rather patriarchal, with careers for married women not being a thing.  And sport for women isn’t really a thing either.  At the same time, Martian women are supposed to be strong, because the colony would never have survived otherwise.  Definitely a bit of Laura Ingalls Wilder there.

It looked as if that was going to be the main theme in this book – the role of women, and the GO trope of the tomboy.   A lot of attention has been paid to this in recent years, since the Malory Towers musical which suggested that Bill Robinson was non-binary or transgender.  Bill turned up with a horse, and possibly inspired the chapter in which the Crater School’s Ella-Stephanie, known at home as Stevie, turns up with a camel.  And there’s Tom Gay at the Chalet School, whose father raised her to be a “gentleman”.  Stevie’s father, a widower in a male-dominated pioneering community, has also raised his daughter more as a boy than as a girl.   But there’s no suggestion that Bill, Tom or Stevie identify as anything other than girls, whereas George Kirrin of the Famous Five is always delighted to be mistaken for a boy.  It’s a big “in” topic … but nothing really happens in this book.  Ellen-Stephanie is determined to be girly and ladylike, but pals up with Pete, who insists on being known as that rather than by her proper name, and is into traditionally boyish things, but that’s about it. Nothing really happens.  Mind you, it never does with Bill or George either.

There’s also a half-Russian girl, Catherine/Ekaterina.  Rowany finds out that Ekaterina/Catherine’s dad wants her to spread Russian propaganda at the school.  But she doesn’t.  Then she runs away.  But all this is in the space of a couple of chapters: we don’t really see her trying to get close to people for her own purposes, as the Chalet School’s Gertrud Beck did.

There’s a storyline about ghost stories and sleepwalking, which is very Chalet-esque. And there’s a big dust storm.  And a Nativity Play, with the issue of an Earth calendar not really working on Mars – and that ends it all on a happy note, with everyone feeling jolly and Christmassy.

I did enjoy the book, but it feel rather bitty.  There are a lot of different elements to it, none of which really extend through the entire course of the book, and it keeps jumping about between them.  It might have been better to have kept the focus on fewer characters, and saved some of the storylines for another book.  But still, it was entertaining enough, and I hope that we see more books in this series.  I think we will.


Michael Palin: Into Iraq – Channel 5


Babylon, Ur, the Tigris and the Euphrates.  They’re names out of childhood religious studies lessons, and Michael Palin got to see them all!  As well as Kurdish New Year celebrations, Islamic holy sites, oilfields, marshes, salt flats, and so much more.  This was brilliant.

I was expecting ancient ruins, war damage, historic souks and the Rivers of Babylon from the start.  Instead, the first episode was all about Kurdistan.  Well, that’s the least that the Kurds deserve after the way the West let them down after the war of 1990.  The programme actually started in Turkey, with the very delicate subject of Kurdish rights there and an emphasis of how limited they are, before moving into Iraqi Kurdistan where everything was far more positive.   We were shown signs of how wealthy a minority there are now, and, although it *is* a minority, even less well-off people seemed very positive about life for Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan.   We also got to enjoy the incredible Kurdish New Year celebrations.

The second episode included a lot of different aspects of this very complex country.  We saw Michael visit some of Iraq’s oilfields, and hear about how oil was discovered in the country during the period of British rule in the 1920s, then have to wait at military checkpoints as operations were being carried out against ISIS.   He visited the 9th century Great Mosque of Samarra, before going on to Saddam Hussein’s home town of Tikrit, and hearing about a horrific massacre carried out by ISIS.  Then on to fascinating Baghdad.   He also noted that very few women were out in public, and that women weren’t even allowed to sit in certain areas of restaurants, or any areas at all unless accompanied by a husband or fiance, and spoke to a young woman about the problems that that presents.

The final episode saw him visit Babylon.   How amazing to be able to visit one of the most famous ancient cities in the world.  Unfortunately, little of what he saw was actually ancient: Saddam Hussein reconstructed it in the 1980s!   Oh well.  Then on to the Shia holy city of Karbala, which was incredible.  He also visited a school, where a classful of quite young children spoke perfect English.  Then on to Nasariyah, from where he visited the Great Zigurrat of Ur.  Yes, Ur, the Sumerian city from which Abraham is supposed to have set off.  Bizarrely, there was no-one else there, whereas Karbala had been heaving.  And then by boat to see the marshes, now thankfully recovered from the damage done by Saddam Hussein, but sadly threatened by rising temperatures.  And then on to the coast, where he saw the salt pans and also the ambitious construction of a vast new port.   It really was very interesting and at times awe-inspiring.  It was just such a shame that the ruins of ancient Babylon had disappeared under walls put up in the 1980s!

Michael Palin’s a very engaging presenter, and there are so many different facets to Iraq.  Very, very interesting series.


Three Twins at the Crater School by Chaz Brenchley


OK, folks, welcome to the Chalet School on Mars.   I usually avoid sci-fi like the plague, but I gave this a try because it was a school story; and I have to admit that I rather enjoyed it.   The school-on-Mars thing is apparently part of a genre called “steampunk”.

In this universe, Mars, or the Red Raj, is part of the British Empire, and some of the pioneers settling there, and other Britons there temporarily, want a boarding school for their daughters.  Our school, the Crater School of the title, is on the shores of a lake, there’s a sanatorium nearby, girls have to curtsy to the headmistress, and no-one dares mess with the Head Girl or the matron (well, nun, but effectively a matron).  People are “wise in their generation”, “suit their actions to the word”, make a “long arm” to reach things, are fined for using slang and have mishaps with the stationery cupboard.  There’s even a rack-and-pinion railway. This will all sound rather familiar to Chalet School fans, and it’s meant to.

But there are monsters in the lake.  And they eat people.  This is not Briesau, Guernsey,  Armishire, St Briavel’s or the Gornetz Platz.  However, when it comes to escaping from the said monsters, we’re back in familiar territory – difficult climbs and conveniently-placed huts.  And, actually, the monsters are hardly mentioned: no-one seems very bothered about them.  For the most part, it’s pranks, escapades and spy stuff, and general school story issues about settling in at a new school and making friends.

Going back to climbs and huts, there are shepherds, of course.  But, whilst most of the characters are British, the shepherds are Basques, who settled on Mars after fleeing persecution.  Being a historian, I’ve driven myself mad trying to work out when the book’s set.  I should probably accept that it doesn’t necessarily work like that in a sci-fi universe, but I can’t!  It’s not clear to which period of Spanish history the talk of persecution refers.   What we do know is that the colony on Mars dates back to at least the 1840s, because we’re told that Mars sent food to Ireland during the Potato Famine.  There are references to a recent war, but it’s a war that only exists in this universe, between Britain and Russia (which held Venus, which apparently couldn’t be settled, but wanted Mars) – the Great Game War which never happened in reality.  Russia is still ruled by a tsar, and Britain by the “ancient undead Queen” – Victoria. And Russia occupies the moon/moons, presumably once held by Britain, and the father of two new girls is a Lord Haw Haw type figure, broadcasting Russian propaganda over the radio.

There are no mobile phones or computers, inkwells are still in use, and the janitor remembers using candles for light. And one of the Crater School girls has Dolores Ibarruri as middle names.  So …  maybe this is the 1950s, like the Swiss-era Chalet School books?  Or, well, maybe you aren’t meant to worry about time in a sci-fi novel, as I’ve already said.  Probably the latter.  Heigh-ho!

Apparently, this is a sub-genre of sci-fi, called steampunk.  I think I’ve seen adverts for steampunk festivals, but I thought they were something to do with heritage railways.  However, it appears not.  It’s to do with sci-fi involving Victorian technology.  Or something like that.  And what it isn’t is spoof-writing: it’s all meant to be taken seriously.

The three twins are one pair of twins and another girl whose twin is at a different school.  That’s quite an interesting idea: twins loom large in the Chalet School books and in Girls’ Own books in general, but I can’t think of a book in which same sex twins are sent to different schools.  All three have Russian heritage, but it later transpires that their grandparents fled the pogroms.  That, depending on which wave of pogroms it was and how old they were at the time, would fit with this being set in the 1950s, but makes it very odd that the first set of twins have Russian names – Tatiana and Natasha – and say “We’re Russians”.

The two girls with the Haw Haw-esque dad haven’t seen him for years, as their mother took them to Mars to hide from him, but he sends Russian agents to kidnap them.  They’re easily spotted due to their red hair – another nod to the Chalet School – but other girls step in and outwit the kidnappers.  Hurrah!  And the separated twins are reunited: the one originally sent elsewhere is allowed to become a Crater School girl.  Hurrah!

I don’t know anything about steampunk fandom, so I’ve got no idea whether or not a crossover with school stories in general and or the Chalet School in particular is likely to work for the people in it.   However, there’s already a second Crater School book out, so that seems positive.   The whole concept is very strange, but it did actually work quite well for me.