The Durrells (final episode) – ITV 1

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The final episode was about the craziest combination of genres that I’ve ever seen; but somehow it worked, and I’m really going to miss seeing sun, sea and sand on the telly on a Sunday night. We had farce, spoof, poignancy, romance, friendship, tragedy, war and politics … and, of course, sunshine. We aren’t going to see Corfu invaded by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, and bombed by the Allies. We aren’t going to see the Nazis massacre Italian POWs and deport Jewish Corfuvians to concentration camps. We aren’t going to see Larry fleeing in a small boat in the middle of the German bombardment, or Margo nearly dying whilst giving birth in a POW camp in Italian-occupied Ethiopia. We left the Durrells and their friends sitting round a picnic table in the sun-kissed sea.  And yet it wasn’t any old picnic – it was marking the end of the idyll, farewell to paradise. And Louisa and Spiros were doomed never to be together – *sob*!

A lot of this episode was old-fashioned slapstick comedy.  Much of it revolved around Larry deciding to put on a stage version of the Odyssey, starring family and friends. But there was a poignancy even to that, with so many of the locals, from a group of monks to Leslie’s ex-girlfriend and the baby she’d had with another man, turning up to say goodbye to the Durrells.  More silliness came when a comedy policeman was pressed into taking part … and yet his role in the episode was serious too, because he’d originally come to the house to confiscate their radio and typewriter, saying that they could be used for propaganda purposes. There was a sense of ‘Allo ‘Allo there. It used to be quite a thing to make fun of the Second World War: I grew up with ‘Allo ‘Allo, and, before that, there was It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. We don’t do it any more, maybe because we talk so much more about the Nazi atrocities than we used to. The policeman’s visit was comedic – and yet it wasn’t, because, as Larry said when he decided to stay on, as a spy, their freedom of expression was being taken away.

Gerry was sad about parting from his animals. And Margo told everyone, including the woman who sold eggs at the market, what she was planning to get up to with her new boyfriend. In the end, she changed her mind. Then her previous boyfriend turned up, in a spoof scene which saw him suddenly sail into view and dive overboard to swim to shore. In another spoof scene, Louisa ran along the beach into Spiros’s arms. But, straight after the silliness of that, we got a genuinely emotional scene in which they talked about how they could never be together. It’s an unusual storyline these days. The expectation now is that people will give up everything to be together – but this was a reminder that this was another time, when ideas of duty and honour and expectations came first. Spiros couldn’t leave his family, nor his country as it faced war.  They kissed on the beach.  And parted.  Saying that it was better to have loved and lost than not to have loved at all.

It’s rather nice how the big talking point of this series has been a romance between two people in their forties, not two glamorous young things.  There’ve been various romances involving the Durrell children and different partners, but it was Louisa and Spiros we really cared about.  Keeley Hawes as Louisa has been brilliant.

I could have lived without the “We Britons have always been reluctant Europeans” line that some scriptwriter decided to throw into Louisa’s farewell speech to the Durrells’ neighbours. Need the Brexit debate get everywhere?! But the rest of the speech was quite emotional. The end of an idyll. That’s rare, for something set in the 1930s. There’s long been this idea that the years leading up to the First World War were a golden age, but the 1930s, the Depression, are generally seen as anything but …. but we don’t normally get the aforementioned sun, sea and sand to accompany the stories of financial hardship. The Durrells had had their heads in the sand, ignoring the Italian invasion of nearby Albania and the storm clouds gathering over the rest of Europe. Then Louisa had received a telegram saying that Basil, the cousin who’d had an unconvincing affair with Spiros’s wife in a bizarre attempt to push Spiros further into Louisa’s arms, had been killed in Albania because he was British. And she’d realised that it was time to go.

It’d all wandered a long way from Gerald Durrell’s memoirs. And a lot of it was a bit too slapstick. But it was good. It was cheerful. It brightened up our screens. It wasn’t preceded by a warning that it contained scenes which some viewers might find distressing, or followed by a list of helplines for viewers to call if they’d been affected by issues raised. But it had to end, because, as has happened so often throughout history, the lives of people peacefully minding their own business, with their families and friends, were torn apart by war.  Unlike The Chalet School in Exile or The Sound of Music, the threat of war didn’t get too close – apart from poor old Basil, whom everyone actually seemed to forget about after five minutes.  We didn’t even see any Fascists or any Nazis.  But we knew what was coming.  And left it before it got there.

Goodbye, The Durrells!  You will be missed.  Victoria and Pose have also both finished this week.  I’ll miss them too.  They’ve both been much better than The Durrells, really.  But I’m really going to miss that hour of sweetness and silliness in the sun between 8 and 9 on a Sunday evening!

 

 

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The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent

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Martha Carrier was one of the nineteen people hanged during the Salem Witch Trials.  She was also (born Martha Ingalls Allen) the first cousin seven times removed of Laura Ingalls Wilder, which is apparently mentioned in Prairie Fires … which I might finally buy now that it’s down to £7.99 on Amazon.   And she was a direct ancestor of Kathleen Kent, the author of this book, who’s focused her writing on the effect of the trials on the families of the accused.  The Salem Witch Trials have been called the rock upon which theocracy in America was shattered (some people could possibly do with reminding about this).  But they also shattered the lives of the twenty people (one, an elderly man, was crushed to death for refusing to plead) who were killed, the many others who were also accused, and their families and friends.

The book’s told from the viewpoint of Martha’s daughter Sarah – who was also imprisoned, and forced to testify against her own mother – looking back as an adult on her childhood experiences. Sarah was actually only 7 at the time of the trials, but, for the purposes of the story, has been shown as being a few years older than that. Kathleen Kent hasn’t tried to eulogise her ancestors in any way: none of them actually come across as being particularly pleasant, and the book shows that Sarah only really came to appreciate her parents at the time of the trials, when she saw her mother’s great courage and her father’s love and loyalty; but I don’t think anyone could have been all sweetness and light in the harsh conditions of late 17th century Massachusetts (the family lived in Andover, near Salem). And the reader might not like the characters, but they’ll come to admire them – especially Martha, who refused to try to save herself by pleading guilty to witchcraft, but urged her children to say whatever would save their own lives.

It’s very hard to try to make sense of what happened. Witch hunts often happened when someone had fallen ill, or livestock had died, and crops had failed, and people were looking for someone to blame, and or an excuse to take revenge on someone they had a grudge against. But, in the Salem area, the accusations started after some young girls in the area started having fits. What caused that? Was it mass hysteria? It’s difficult to try to understand, but it does happen. The film “The Falling” is based on an episode of mass hysteria in Blackburn in 1965, and that’s just one example of many. It’s also been suggested that some sort of hallucinogenic fungus might have got into the food supply. No-one really knows.

And the book doesn’t really focus on that – it focuses more on the way in which bad feeling could spread in a small community, and the interaction between that and the mood of the religious or political authorities – pretty much the same thing, in Salem in 1692. The Carriers had never been popular, having been blamed for a smallpox epidemic which affected the area. They’d also fallen out with family members over an inheritance dispute, a neighbour in an argument over a trespassing cow, and a former servant whom they’d dismissed for misconduct. Being unpopular anyway, they were vulnerable to accusation at a time when hysteria was spreading through the area and allegations were flying about right, left and centre.

And how it all spiralled!  Over 200 people were accused.  Sarah and many other children were amongst those imprisoned.  The book chillingly and brilliantly describes what the conditions in the prisons must have been like – and shows how, even under those conditions, women like Martha tried desperately to preserve their dignity by keeping as clean as they could.  It also shows the struggles of the rest of the Carrier family – and there’s a strange sub-plot in which it turns out that Martha’s husband, Thomas Carrier, was the man who executed Charles I.  I don’t know whether that’s a legend in Kathleen Kent’s family or whether it’s something she came up with for the sake of the book.  Thomas and his children eventually got an apology and compensation for the execution of Martha.  Much good that would have done them.

The book does focus entirely on the times. Whereas The Crucible famously drew parallels between the Salem Witch Hunts and McCarthyism, Kathleen Kent has written a true historical novel, about historical events, with no attempt to make veiled comments about modern-day attitudes. I like that. History teaches us many lessons which are relevant to the present day – the dangers of religious extremism, especially given the issues with Christian fundamentalism in the US, are particularly relevant to our own times – but it’s incredibly annoying when people only use history to make a point about modern-day events. I don’t particularly like the word “weaponise” because it’s an artificial word, but there is a tendency for people to “weaponise” history, and Kathleen Kent’s avoided that. Oh, and she never mentions Laura Ingalls Wilder, despite the publicity it would have brought her, which is also admirable.  It’s not an enjoyable book as such, and it’s not something that you’ll want to read over and over again, but it’s a good one, and I’m glad that I’ve read it.

 

The King and I – Manchester Opera House

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Don’t you absolutely love the way Anna Leonowens is presented in this very Victorian story combining morality, romance, humour and (a not very accurate view of!) Thai history?  Abolitionist, advocate of women’s rights, genteel but hard-working devoted single mother, confidante of one king and the inspiration behind the reforms made by another, friend to royal wives and beloved by royal children, promoter of East-West harmony, courageous, uber- principled, and beautiful and glamorous to boot?  She even sorts out arguments over the Bible!   I’d give a lot to have Mary Poppins’ ability to tidy up the house just by clicking my fingers, and I adore Maria von Trapp, but I’d love to be Anna Leonowens. If I was being a Victorian.  OK, there’s no way I’d ever get into the dress that Deborah Kerr wears in the “Shall We Dance” scene, and I’d probably do an Eliza Doolittle and forget to pretend to be posh at the most inappropriate moment, but even so. Shame that a lot of the story’s “romanticised” (not to mention didacticised) and has given people an inaccurate impression of not only Anna (which isn’t really a problem, I suppose) but of King Mongkut and mid-19th century Siam in general; but I love it as a story and as an incredible musical – and this is a great production of it.

There are so many wonderful, wonderful songs in it – not only Shall We Dance, but Something Wonderful, Hello Young Lovers and We Kiss In A Shadow which are all so emotional, Getting To Know You which is very sweet, and I Whistle A Happy Tune which I’ve always liked too. The broken English of Is A Puzzlement doesn’t work now as well as it did in the 1950s, but the actual lyrics, the confusion of a leader who desperately wants to do what’s best for their country but, in changing times, just isn’t sure what that is, works in any time.  The message of the song rings so true, and the king is such a fascinating character – even if the story doesn’t depict him very accurately.

Coincidentally, the Thai royal family’s in the news this week, with King Maha Vajiralongkorn, King Mongkut’s great-great-grandson, due to be crowned on Saturday and having just married his bodyguard (well, the deputy leader of his personal security detail), whom he apparently met whilst she was working as a flight attendant on a plane he was on, and made her queen. That’s a brilliant story, and it’s all true!  Anna’s is … well, the word I’ve used is a “romanticised”!

OK, she was employed as a schoolteacher (note the use of the word “schoolteacher”, never “governess” with its overtones of being an upper level servant rather than a “free and independent employee”) to the Siamese royal children. And King Mongkut was certainly interested in science, and in Western ideas and closer ties with the West. And, yes, he did have a lot of wives and concubines, and a lot of children (82). But he’s certainly not thought to have been cruel, and the Tuptim story’s caused a lot of upset in Thailand over the years. King Mongkut actually banned forced marriage, and freed a lot of the royal concubines.  Furthermore, he definitely wouldn’t have been dancing a polka with the schoolteacher – which is a shame, because I really love that scene. Nor was Anna at his deathbed: she wasn’t even in the country when he died, but on holiday in England!  Chulalongkorn, the crown prince in the film, abolished slavery (and prostration), but it’s a bit rich to claim that that was because of the influence of Anna Leonowens.

As for Anna herself, she lied about her maiden name and place of birth – quite possibly to cover up her mixed race heritage (see here if you wish to read my wafflings on that subject!) – and her late husband Tom Owens (who later merged his middle name and surname to create the posher-sounding “Leonowens”) was a clerk, not an army officer. It’s a very interesting tale of fake news, really. And her real story’s even more interesting – she travelled widely, tried to set up her own schools, was the great-aunt of Boris Karloff (seriously!), and genuinely was a feminist, and an opponent of slavery.

A lot of musicals have very serious messages.  Very few of them are just purely about entertainment. The King and I is one which combines morality, romance, humour and history.  OK, it’s not very accurate history, but most people seeing the film or the stage show will never have had the opportunity to learn much about Thailand, its history and its culture – I’ve got a degree in history, as well as a GCSE and an A-level, and Thai history never came up once in my struggles – and owt’s better than nowt.  We’re learning something about Siam/Thailand.  And, yes, it’s from a Western viewpoint, but we are talking about something set in the 1860s.  The stage show, unlike the film, includes the “Western People Funny” song, in which the Siamese ladies sing about how ridiculous it is that they’re being made to wear Western clothes, and about the Western “sentimental Oriental” idea, which does redress the balance.  And I think the story is respectful of Siamese culture – it’s certainly very respectful of Buddhism, and we’re clearly meant to hope that the king is able to stop Siam from becoming a British or French protectorate.

It also includes “Shall I Tell You What I Think Of You?” which has that great line about being a “free and independent employee”.  That’s not an East-West thing, and nor are all Anna’s comments about respect for women.  Jane Eyre makes a similar comment, in a very different context, about being a free and independent person.  It’s a very important theme in The King and I. 

Of course, the issues of freedom go way beyond that, to the question of slavery, and the Tuptim story.  Uncle Tom’s Cabin was one of the most important books of the 19th century in terms of raising awareness about slavery.  Read it, and the sickly religious language will probably make you want to throw up – it really is unbearable! -, but it was incredibly important at the time, and it’s interesting how it gets linked into The King and I … if rather misleading, because there were a lot of differences between slavery in the American South and slavery in Thailand. But slavery is still slavery.  Thankfully, this production of the stage show did not include Anna’s comments about how “Mr Lincoln is fighting a great war to free the slaves”, which always annoy me, though!  Lincoln fought the Civil War to bring the Southern states back into the Union, OK!   And, no, King Mongkut didn’t really offer to send him any elephants to help him win the war – although he did offer to send elephants to the US for use as beasts of burden.

I’ve got off the point now.  It’s quite irritating that the question of slavery has to be viewed through an American prism, but I suppose the idea was that it was one the audience’d understand.  And it’s the Tuptim affair that breaks the king.  He actually died of malaria, but, in this – and it was the first musical ever to kill someone off actually on stage, incidentally – he dies of heart trouble, not only physically but mentally, having realised that his time is up because Anna Leonowens made him realise that he couldn’t beat Tuptim.

But he dies knowing that Chulalongkorn is going to bring about reform. This production gave Chulalongkorn a bigger role than he gets in the film – it had a lovely scene in which he and Louis Leonowens sang part of “Is A Puzzlement”, about how grown-ups argue about things that they don’t really understand themselves. And he’s not a baddie. He’s a good guy. He tried his best. It’s not one of those horrible absolute Victorian religious stories in which everyone’s either right or wrong – one of the king’s last lines is about how what matters in life is to have tried your best.

It is a Victorian moral story, though. The king dies because Anna stopped him from beating Tuptim. And there’s this theme of honour all the way through it. Honour, whilst it’s a big thing in Girls’ Own and Boys’ Own stories, doesn’t always work that well in stories for adults. In Gone With The Wind, honour is a big theme but it’s all rather ironic, because the honourable Ashley Wilkes is really a complete loser. In The King and I, the keeping of your word is crucial. Siam cannot hope to take her place on the world stage if her king cannot accept that he has to keep his word about the schoolteacher’s living accommodation: she was promised a house, rather than an apartments within the palace, and she keeps on about this house until the king gives in.

It sounds so mad, put like that, but it’s the principle – the idea of truth and trust. In 2019, no-one trusts a word that comes out of any political leader’s mouth. In 1862, was it any different? Did any adults genuinely believe the idea of the wonders of British justice and spreading it across the world? 1862 was probably too early for that idea even to have been round, actually. And Abraham Lincoln certainly wasn’t the saint he’s now made out to be. (I’m just using Britain and America as examples because the story’s about a British woman and goes on about Lincoln.) Yet, somehow, the idea works here.

A lot of that’s because of the music.  Music can make most things work.  We’ve got all these great songs, and the unspoken attraction between two great characters.  The costumes are wonderful, too!  The dancing’s wonderful.  And it’s very romantic … but just the chemistry between Anna and the king, but the romance between Tuptim and her lover, Anna’s love for her late husband, Sir Edward’s unrequited love for Anna, Lady Tiang’s love for the king.  And the love between Anna and her son, the king and his children, the royal wives and their children, Anna and the royal children.  Not many things manage to combine morality and emotion well.  This does.  It really gets you.  Wonderful story, wonderful music, wonderful production.  Cute kids!

And I still want that dress …

 

 

 

 

Jamestown season 3 – Sky 1

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Inviting someone round for tea and then chopping their head off at the table’s a bit anti-social, really, although displaying severed heads on spikes was a tradition for centuries: London and York were particularly into it. This is one of those so-bad-it’s-good series – it’s certainly never going to win any awards for historical accuracy, but it’s entertaining; and I love the fact that most of the settlers have northern accents 🙂 . It’s also the perfect antidote to the “culture wars”. No demi-religious myths about founding fathers, no cringeworthy romanticised stuff about Pocahontas, no snowflakey suggestions that all male white settlers are bad.  Instead, we get diversity, with strong white, black and Native American characters, strong male and female characters, and, in this series, a disabled character (with a Lancashire accent) but without anyone (other than the troubled gay Puritan bloke who sadly lost his head whilst he was having his tea) being preachy. There should be Polish builders, though! The real Jamestown colonists brought in Polish artisans … who then launched the first ever labour strike in the New World. And without anyone getting their head chopped off.

The programme’s moved away from the original storyline of the three young women making new lives for themselves – and Alice has now departed … so that Sophie Rundle can marry Suranne Jones in this new historical drama series set in Halifax. I wish the BBC’d get a move on with showing that: it’s started in the US, but not here, which is rather strange. She (Alice, not Sophie) decided to leave because her husband Silas has run off to join the Pamunkey. Verity hasn’t had much to do yet in this series, but Jocelyn, the other member of the original trio, continues to play all the blokes off against each other and get her own way – go Jocelyn!  Although she’s being very nasty to poor little Mercy the maid, who, as if being bossed about by Jocelyn wasn’t bad enough, got clouted with a scythe-thing by the nasty Puritan Virginia Company secretary (before he lost his head) for snogging Silas’s brother. That’s the little brother, who used to be Sean in Emmerdale. Not the big brother, who’s Max Beesley.

OK, the whole thing’s a bit daft, but it does cover the serious issues of the positions of slaves, and of female settlers, in Jamestown society, and this series is going to tell us more about the clashes between the settlers and the Pamunkey. And, as I’ve said, it’s good to have a series which covers the arrival of settlers in what was to become the United States without making it look like either some sort of religious destiny thing, some sort of romanticised thing, or some sort of white supremacist thing. We’ve just got a variety of characters – some white, some black, some Native American, some nicer than others but that’s because of their individual personalities and not because of their ethnicity – trying to make lives for themselves.

It’s hardly the most historically accurate series ever, but it deserves credit for that. And it is very watchable! Oh, and the scenery’s lovely – it’s actually filmed in Budapest, not Virginia, and, having just been to Budapest and been on a nice boat trip up and down the Danube, I’m having great fun spotting bits of Margaret Island and the shores!  This is the last series, so enjoy it whilst it lasts.  I’ll kind of miss it once it’s gone, but not many programmes seem to last beyond a few series any more …

 

No Ballet Shoes in Syria by Catherine Bruton

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This is a very well-written children’s book, telling the story of a family of Syrian asylum seekers in Manchester in the style of a traditional ballet book, with the Mary Martin/Miss Arrowhead role of the fairy godmother ballet teacher poignantly being filled by an elderly lady who came here as a Jewish refugee from the Nazis.  It really does get across the messages of the situation in Syria and the issues faced by asylum seekers – and also the teacher’s experiences as one of the Kindertransport children eighty years earlier, making the point that there are refugees in every generation – in a way that the intended audience, probably children aged around 9 to 12, will be able to understand. Older readers will get a lot from it too.

11-year-old Aya, her mum and her baby brother have come to Manchester from Aleppo: what’s happened to her dad isn’t explained until later on.  At the start of the story, they’ve already been here for several months, but there are flashbacks to what happened in Syria.  I’m not normally keen on books which jump around like that, but I can see that starting in Aleppo and describing the war there might have been too much in a children’s book.  Like many people fleeing Syria, they’d led a happy and comfortable life there, the dad being a doctor – who’d spent some years working in the UK and spoke fluent English, which he’d taught Aya.

They came to the UK via Turkey and Greece, so, because they should have claimed asylum in Greece, the first EU member state they came to, their claim for refugee status in the UK is complicated. I don’t want to get political – and the issues around the asylum situation are far more multifaceted than the author seems to want readers to believe, even allowing for the fact that she’s writing for children – but I don’t think anyone could argue that the asylum claim process isn’t inefficient and doesn’t take too long; and we see that the family are in limbo for months whilst they wait for a decision.  They receive help from volunteers at food banks and advice centres, but also meet with some hostility from their landlord when they cannot pay their rent.  The author’s keen to make the point that her characters have their pride: when a kind girl gives Aya some old leotards and ballet clothes that she’s grown out of, Aya feels uncomfortable about being seen as a charity case.

The book doesn’t try to explain all the complexities of the war in Syria and who’s on which side and why – does anyone, never mind a child of around 11, actually understand that? – but it explains that attacks on peaceful protests spiralled into civil war, and it doesn’t shy away from describing bombings and telling us that Aya lost friends in the bombings, and that other people she knew were detained and haven’t been seen since.  Children in the intended readership age group are old enough to know about this, and fiction is a very good way of getting the message through.

We learn that Aya was injured by shrapnel and has a permanent scar as a result, and also that her mum is struggling physically and mentally after leaving Syria too soon after the difficult birth of her son.  The combination of that and the fact that she (the mum) doesn’t speak English puts a huge amount of responsibility on Aya’s shoulders.  What can bring joy and hope back into her life?

And that’s where we get this fascinating mix of genres – the title of the book is an obvious act of homage to Noel Streatfeild, and this is a very 21st century story combined with a traditional Girls’ Own story.  In the community centre where they go for advice, ballet classes are being held in another room – and we learn that Aya had ballet lessons back in Aleppo and was very keen.  There’s a moving scene later on in which some of the girls in the class are surprised to learn that there were ballet classes in Syria, a country they only associate with war, and Aya is sad that they don’t initially realise that life there was once perfectly normal.

In true GO style, Aya goes to watch the lessons, is invited to join in, and is so brilliant that Miss Helena, the teacher, offers her the chance to attend classes without paying – but, evidently understanding that she doesn’t want to be seen as a charity case, invites her to pay her way by helping out in the classes for younger children.  We later find out that Miss Helena, who was originally from Prague, came here on the Kindertransport, alone, and became a world famous ballerina.

Having Miss Helena in that role of what I’ve called the “fairy godmother ballet teacher”, a classic ballet book trope, is inspired.  She later tells Aya all about her own experiences – and this again is something that’s so important for children in the intended readership age group to know – and the point is made so well that war and persecution and refugee crises happen in every generation, over and over again.

Aya makes friends with a girl called Dotty, the daughter of another world famous ballerina – who wants her daughter to follow in her footsteps. There’s a sub-plot about how Dotty doesn’t really want to be a ballerina.  That’s very Lorna Hill – think Mariella Foster and Vicki Scott.  And the girls in the class arrange a concert to raise funds for the refugees – that’s very Girls’ Own too.

In some ways it is a classic children’s ballet book, and yet at the same time it’s a million miles away from Ballet Shoes or A Dream of Sadler’s Wells.  It’s all woven together very cleverly.  Aya and Dotty get locked in at the ballet studio after staying late to practise, standard enough storyline … but then Aya has a panic attack, and we learn about how she and her family travelled from Syria to Turkey in a container on a lorry, and nearly suffocated.  And about the conditions in the refugee camp.  It doesn’t spell out the dangers there, especially for women and girls, but there are mentions of it being unsafe to go out at night, of screaming, and of Aya feeling uncomfortable at the way some of the men look at her.

It is a children’s book, despite some of the hard-hitting subjects it covers, and adult readers will need to suspend disbelief over some aspects of it.  If Miss Helena started attending ballet classes before the Second World War, she must be the oldest ballet teacher in the world!  And would Dotty’s posh family, who live in a mansion – in an area near woodland, so does that suggest Alderley Edge? – be sending their daughter to ballet classes in a community centre in an underprivileged area miles away?  But try to ignore all that – it’s necessary for the story!

Dotty’s family have got their own swimming pool.  Dotty invites Aya to swim in it with her … and that brings about another flashback, this time to the flimsy boats making the crossing from Turkey to Greece, and that’s when we find out that the boat Aya’s family were in overturned, as so many did, and her dad drowned.  There are all these juxtapositions – from a ballet studio to a refugee camp, from a swimming pool in a mansion to people drowning whilst being taken across the Aegean in boats that aren’t fit for purpose, by unscrupulous traffickers who care nothing for human lives.

And Dotty, and another girl in their ballet class, are auditioning for the Royal Northern Ballet School.  Sadly, this doesn’t actually exist 🙂 .  But think Sadler’s Wells/Royal Ballet School, but based near Manchester.  If Aya can get a scholarship there, she’ll be entitled to stay in the UK because she’ll get a study visa.  She’s missed the preliminary auditions, but Miss Helena manages to swing it so that she can be seen anyway.

Just as an aside, it doesn’t specify which part of town any of the action’s taking place in, but there are some definite clues on the journey to the ballet school.  They seem to be heading across town on the Mancunian Way, and then out on to Chester Road, past the two Old Traffords 🙂 .  So they must be based on the north side of town, to need to cross town to get to the south side … which suggests the Cheetham Hill/Crumpsall area.  Then they keep going, so that’ll be straight down the A56 in its various incarnations south of the city centre, and it sounds as if the ballet school building is based on either Dunham Massey or Tatton Park.  I just had to try to work that out!

As Aya rehearses for the audition, she remembers dancing in the refugee camp, and thinks about how dancing is universal.  I’ve also seen videos of little kids in refugee camps playing football, just like little kids do in Manchester and Madrid and Munich.  Football, dancing, singing …  they don’t care who you are or where you are.

Of course, the audition is on the same day as the final asylum hearing.  Aya’s overcome with anxiety, and also with feelings of guilt at the thought that, if she succeeds, she’ll be granted a student visa but her mum and brother may still be deported.  And – this is very Girls’ Own, in a very un-Girls’-Own scenario – she faints in the middle of it all.  She doesn’t feel that she can go on, until Miss Helena explains that she lost her parents and sister in the Holocaust and turned round all the survivor guilt into believing that she had to make the most of the chance that she’d been given and that dancing was her way of making something beautiful out of the saving of her own life and the loss of theirs.  The pairing of the two characters who’ve both been through so much, in the traditional ballet book roles of the poor but brilliant student and the fix-it teacher, is a very clever touch, and very well executed.

I won’t give away the ending.  But I will mention the afterword, in which the author talks about “lightbulb books” for children, and how that’s the sort of book she’s tried to write.  She’s certainly ambitious: she talks about aspiring to write something that’s like When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and The Silver Sword and also like Ballet Shoes, The Swish of the Curtain and the Sadler’s Wells books.  Time will tell how this book’s received, but I do hope that a lot of people will read it, and get a lot out of it.  It uses the term “the kindness of strangers” over and over again.  That’s something that we should all aspire to.

The Youngest Sister: A Tale of Manitoba by Bessie Marchant (Facebook group reading challenge)

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Bessie Marchant’s books are great, because her girls get to have all sorts of hair-raising adventures and never need to be rescued by boys!  I was expecting this, published in 1913, to be primarily an adventure book, as most of her books are – the blurb did say “a series of adventures” – but, although it started off with our heroine saving a man from drowning, it turned out to be quite an eclectic mix of genres, with shades of Little House on the Prairie, What Katy Did and Little Women … and then a load of adventures to finish up with!   There were some ridiculously far-fetched coincidences, but it was quite enjoyable, and I liked the idea of having a main character who was neither a self-confident leader, too good to be true nor in need of reform: she was nice without being annoyingly perfect, and her main fault (insofar as it was a fault) was a lack of self-confidence, which I think a lot of readers would identify with.

Heroines of adventure books usually are courageous and outgoing, but Bertha Doyne was … I was going to say a bit of a wuss, but that’d be unfair because she actually was very brave when she needed to be, just, as I’ve said above, lacking in confidence.  Like Janie Temple in the La Rochelle books, she was the youngest of three sisters who’d been orphaned and left without much money.  However, unlike Elizabeth and Anne Temple, the two older sisters, Anne and Hilda, had both got jobs.  Bertha hung around the house, in Nova Scotia, doing the cooking and cleaning and feeling inferior (although she really wasn’t as annoying as that makes her sound), until one day she saved a man from drowning and decided that she clearly wasn’t that useless after all.  But, before she could do anything about it, Anne got married and moved to Australia, Hilda went on a tour of Europe as a governess/companion, and Bertha was packed off to Manitoba to stay with a married cousin, Grace, who’d been very good to the three girls when their mother had died but now lived in the middle of nowhere and had umpteen kids.

She hadn’t been there long before Grace fell off a horse and was paralysed, which meant that Bertha had to do all the housework, look after the kids and look after Grace.  Then most of their wheat, and their neighbours’ wheat, was destroyed by fire.  Bertha’s heroic efforts (hooray!) to stop the spread of the fire meant that things weren’t as bad as they could have been, but Grace’s husband had to go off on an “expedition” because it paid well and they were desperate for money.  And then it turned out that he’d been conned so he wasn’t going to get paid at all.

So much for an adventure novel!  And Bessie Marchant’s books are usually fairly cheerful, but I was beginning to get the horrible feeling that this was going to turn into some sort of preachy religious novel, with Bertha feeling duty-bound to stay there and sacrifice herself for everyone else’s well-being, even though her eldest sister had sent the money for her to go to Australia, and Grace never complaining about what had happened to her.  But it actually never got like that.  It was always quite clear that Bertha was thoroughly pissed off about it all, rather than accepting it with sweet contentment, and that the disaster with the wheat wasn’t some sort of test of their spirit but a result of the farmers’ stupidity in relying solely on one crop.  And Grace, whilst she didn’t complain, certainly didn’t deliver lectures on the School of Pain and the School of Love – just kept on hoping that she’d eventually recover.  In the end she did.  As people in books often do.

Various other things were going on too.  In between the various disasters, Bertha had been trying to get some writing published – like Jo March in Little Women, although it didn’t occur to her to try writing “trash” (I do wonder what was in some of the stuff Jo wrote!) just to try to bring some money in.  And, when she’d rescued the man from drowning, he’d put his coat on her to keep her warm … and she’d found a load of diamonds in the pocket!  As you do.  But he’d never come back for them, which was very odd.  And then he’d disappeared.  Also, it had transpired that Tom (Grace’s husband) had a nasty but rich old uncle, who’d just been robbed.  Fancy that!  Bertha had been stressing about the diamonds and returning them to the mysterious coat owner ever since she’d found them.

Then, whaddaya know, the coat owner turned up, thousands of miles from where she’d last seen him!   Not only once, but twice – first, he just happened to be passing whilst the wheat was burning, and came to her assistance, and then she saved him (again) from a runaway sled in a blizzard.  As you do.  Only she didn’t realise who he was until it was too late – and then she decided that she’d have to ride thirty miles or so to the nearest town, and hope to catch up with him there.

But, on reaching the town, she found out that the mystery man, Edgar, was no longer there: he’d taken a job as a navvy and was miles away by then.  But she was so stressed about the diamonds that she decided she’d have to go to the railway camp … but, en route, the end carriage in which she and her chaperone were travelling became uncoupled from the rest of the train, and, with nobody else seeming to notice, was left perched precariously on a rickety bridge in a gale.  Ah, this was more like Bessie Marchant!   The chaperone was swept out of the door by the gale, but Bertha rescued her.  Hooray!  And eventually they did get to the railway camp.  It turned out that Edgar was not in a fact a navvy by trade, but was a nice middle-class bloke (which was a jolly good job, because Bertha really fancied him and obviously we wouldn’t have wanted her taking up with someone with no prospects) who’d been forced to work as a navvy after being wrongly accused of embezzlement.  It was all happening now!   But, when she tried to hand over the diamonds, he said that he knew nothing about them and had no idea how they’d got into his pocket.

Right.  He then offered to escort her home, because her chaperone was too traumatised by the carriage on rickety bridge affair to travel back immediately.  I’m not sure that this was very proper, but never mind.  On reaching the hotel where they had to wait for the train, he found, waiting for him, a letter bringing the news that his name had been cleared.  Wa-hey!!  But, oh no – they also heard that everyone on Tom’s expedition had been found frozen to death.  More woe!   On reaching home, they found that the nasty rich uncle was there, full of contrition and offering to support Grace (who was still recovering) and the kids.  Oh well, that was one thing sorted – that’d leave Bertha free to ride off into the sunset with Edgar.  Er, no, sadly not.  Edgar wanted to marry Bertha, obviously, but felt that he couldn’t ask her because a) he still hadn’t got any money and b) he didn’t want to ruin her writing career (he clearly hadn’t read any GO books in which married women continue to write books).  And Grace couldn’t possibly accept charity from the rich old uncle, because he was nasty, so Bertha would have to stay with her.  Oh dear.  Oh dear indeed.

Then, as if things weren’t bad enough, the nasty old uncle recognised Edgar as the man who’d robbed him – yes, of the diamonds.  Of course, there was a perfectly simple explanation.  They’d both been attending meetings at the same hotel, and had left their coats in the cloakroom.  Obviously you’d really leave a coat with a bag of extremely valuable diamonds in the pocket in an unattended cloakroom in a public place.  Edgar had picked up the wrong coat without realising it.  And not noticed that there was anything in any of the pockets.  Bertha handed over the diamonds … but the uncle collapsed with the shock of it all.  Edgar rode post haste to get the doctor … and, en route, found a man lying collapsed in the road.  It was Tom!  He’d miraculously survived!  Hooray!

The uncle then obligingly died, leaving the diamonds to Tom and Grace.  Bertha’s book was published, Edgar got a good job, and Bertha and Edgar got married and presumably lived happily ever after.  OK, OK, it was ridiculously far-fetched, but it really was quite a good read – I was genuinely quite excited as I waited to find out how Edgar had come to have the diamonds!   It combined a number of different genres quite well, and Bertha made a good heroine.  It’s available for free on Amazon, and I think it’s also on Project Gutenberg, and, for free, it’s certainly worth a go.

The Familiars by Stacey Halls

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It makes a refreshing change to read a book which treats the Pendle Witch Trials as what they were, the state-sponsored persecution of vulnerable people, resulting in the judicial killings of eight women and two men, rather than as some sort of Gothic romance or Disneyfied fairytale. I understand the desire to bring tourists into the Pendle area, but I could scream every time I hear the X43 bus route, linking Manchester to Colne and passing within a few hundred yards of my house, called “The Witch Way”, and see silly pictures of pointy hats and broomsticks on the sides of the vehicles. This book, whilst it features real people, is fictitious, but set against the background of the Lancashire Witch Trials of 1612, and ties the story of Alice Gray (or Grey), the only one of the accused to be acquitted, to that of Fleetwood Shuttleworth, the then mistress of Gawthorpe Hall near Burnley.

See what I mean!!

 

It’s the author’s first published novel, and that does show: it’s lacking a bit in style and polish, and some of the language is anachronistic … but very few people produce Gone With The Wind at the first attempt, and it’s a pretty creditable first effort. The author’s not a historian, but she’s clearly done a lot of research into this particular subject. Whilst most of the characters are real people – including the Shuttleworths, the people accused of witchcraft, Roger Nowell who was the magistrate presiding over the trials, and Thomas Potts who was the clerk of the court – the story is fictional, but Stacey Halls hasn’t really messed with the known facts, and has explained clearly in the afterword that this is a work of fiction. If only all authors would do that!

It’s very much a book about women, told in the first person with Fleetwood Shuttleworth as the narrator. In fact, none of the men come out of it well at all. Fleetwood’s husband Richard Shuttleworth is keeping a mistress (the character is Judith Thorpe, another real person, who did later become his second wife). Alice Gray’s father doesn’t care about her plight. Roger Nowell is more interested in furthering his own prospects than in seeing justice done, and will manipulate anyone and anything he can in order to get a result. It emerges late on that Fleetwood, as a child, was abused by a man her family planned for her to marry. And Fleetwood has a very low opinion of the king.

The question of motives in the Pendle Witch Trials is fascinating, especially as we can only guess at how people’s minds were working. Why did some of the “witches” confess? Were they genuinely convinced of their own powers, or were they tortured to a point where they’d have confessed to anything? Why did some of those involved denounce their neighbours and even members of their own families – were they settling old scores, or thinking that doing so might save their own skins, or, in superstitious times, did they genuinely believe what they were saying? To what extent was misogyny a factor? In witch trials everywhere, the majority of those accused were women. Even now, the word “witch” is often used as a term of abuse against women in positions of power, whereas “wizard” is used as a compliment.

Were Roger Nowell and others hoping to win favour by convicting people of witchcraft, knowing how strongly King James felt about the subject? How much was this about the authorities trying to impose control in what was then a fairly remote area? How much of it was motivated by anti-Catholic feeling? Catholicism remained strong in the Pendle area, as in many other parts of the North, long after the Reformation. And, as is so often the case in any form of state-sponsored persecution – the Spanish Inquisition’s probably the best historical example, and the anti-gay laws in Brunei prove that this is still an issue – religion, in this case Protestantism, was both a motivating factor and an excuse. And, once an idea’s taken hold, hysteria soon sets in, and the situation takes on a life of its own.

We don’t see much of the actual “witches” here, but Roger Nowell features prominently, and is very much shown as being out for himself, whilst other people are caught up in the panic and ready to believe that witchcraft is at work. We all struggle to accept that things can just happen: we want a reason, an explanation. In times when there was little scientific knowledge to provide that, if a family member suddenly died or suffered a life-changing illness, or a horse dropped dead, or a cow stopped producing milk, or a crop failed, it was all too easy and convenient to put the blame on a “witch”. It may have been to settle a personal score or it may have been genuinely believing, whilst distressed and grieving, that someone had done harm. And the reign of James I, and, later, the Civil War period, provided very fertile soil for that.

James I (of England, 1603-1625) and VI (of Scotland, 1567-1625), was in many ways an excellent king at a very difficult time, had a real bee in his bonnet about “witches”, apparently partly due to getting it into his head that witchcraft caused the storm which nearly sank the ship carrying him and his new wife Anne of Denmark from her home country to Scotland. There were witch trials in many places in the period from around 1450 to 1750, but James was particularly obsessive about the subject. In 1597, he published a book called “Daemonologie”, about witchcraft, and apparently he even personally supervised the torture of women accused of being witches. “Daemonologie” is mentioned several times in this book. It was hugely influential.

The Pendle Witch Trials of 1612, part of the Lancashire Witch Trials which also involved alleged witches from other parts of the county, became very well-known because so many people were involved, and because of the publication of the proceedings by Thomas Potts. “The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster” – copies available on Amazon for around a fiver, four centuries later! Then, in 1848/9, William Harrison Ainsworth wrote a “romance” based on the trials – not at all historically accurate, but very popular. And, just over a century later, Robert Neill wrote another one. Today, you can buy “witch” costumes and little models of “witches” from shops in the Pendle area, the Pendle tourist info office by the Boundary Mill car park near Colne will provide you with all manner of leaflets about “witch trails” in the local area, and, as I’ve already said, the X43 bus route linking the Pendle area with Manchester is called “The Witch Way”. I get the desire to bring in tourists to boost the local economy, but I find it to be in rather poor taste. Nine people were judicially murdered (and an tenth in a separate trial, and one died whilst awaiting trial). We’re not talking about Mildred Hubble and Miss Cackle.

So what did happen? The known facts are explained in this book, as part of the story. A young woman called Alizon Device, on her way to Trawden Forest (note to self, must get to Wycoller Country Park some time this spring), got into an argument with a pedlar called John Law, and cursed him. He suffered a stroke shortly afterwards, and his son accused Alizon Device of witchcraft. This opened a can of worms, much of which seems to have been due to a feud between two local families, the Demdike/Device family and the Chattox/Whittle family. Various allegations were made of harming and even murdering people by witchcraft, and then there was a meeting at Malkin Tower, the home of Alizon Device’s grandmother, on Good Friday 1612, which (may well have been a secret Catholic service, but) was alleged to have been a witches’ coven.

Twelve people were arrested. Family members, notably Alizon’s nine-year-old sister Jennet Device, gave evidence against each other, and some of the “witches” confessed. It really isn’t clear why they would have done that, although they may well have been genuinely convinced of their own powers. In a poor area, at a time when it was difficult to keep body and soul together, especially for women – and with the safety net of the convents long gone – being a “wise woman”, or even claiming to have magical powers, was a way of earning a living. Or maybe they were tortured to the point where they gave in and gave the inquisitors what they wanted.

The book suggests that Jennet Device may have hoped to be adopted by the Nowells. Her story’s particularly interesting: a nine-year-old child wouldn’t normally have been allowed to give evidence at a trial, but James I was so obsessed with witches that he allowed the normal rules of court to be suspended in cases of witchcraft trials. It would have been easy to depict her as a frightened little kid being manipulated by powerful authority figures, but that’s not how she comes across here, and she makes a fascinating character. It’s also suggested that the Devices made allegations against the Chattoxes to try to divert attention from their own family, which certainly seems realistic. However, whilst it’s generally accepted that Alizon Device, in particular, did genuinely believe herself guilty, it’s suggested here that those who confessed did so only because of torture. At the end of the day, we just don’t know: we can only surmise. But the account given does suggest that Alizon confessed in court when confronted by John Law – which doesn’t happen in this book, which shows Law as being so badly affected by his stroke that he was unable to speak clearly. Having said that, what’s in the account given by Thomas Potts may not be 100% accurate. It’s not thought to be wildly inaccurate, but it should be noted that both he and Roger Nowell did indeed do quite nicely careerwise out of it all.

The book doesn’t really go into the witch trials and what was going on with the Devices and Chattoxes in detail, though – the focus in terms of the accusations is on Alice Gray, the only one of the accused to be acquitted. Her name’s normally spelt Grey, but it’s spelt Gray in this book … but spellings of names do vary. More annoying, though, is the spelling of Westmorland as Westmoreland: the extra e does appear in some Georgian and Victorian documents, but it’s certainly not used now and it’s unlikely to have been used in the 17th century. I didn’t really need to see “now Cumbria” added to it, either, but that’s probably just me.

A few other things grate, as well. “Mr” and “Miss” were not used in the 17th century, a gentlewoman like Fleetwood Shuttleworth would not have used her first name when introducing herself to complete strangers of a lower class, “Mum” and “Dad” certainly sound far too contemporary, and there’s the odd bit of language in the narrative that sounds distinctly 21st century American – even though the author’s local. And some of the plot’s very far-fetched: the idea of the heavily pregnant teenage wife of a local squire roaming around remote parts of the countryside on her own, going into alehouses and threatening to shoot people has to be taken with an extremely large pinch of salt. But it is the author’s first published book, and it’s far better than a lot of books I’ve read by long-established authors.

There’s a definite touch of the Victorian Gothics about it, especially with the appearance of animals which we’re presumably meant to think could be “familiars”. A house is set on fire, and that made me wonder if the author had, consciously or unconsciously, been influenced by Charlotte Bronte, who’s known to have stayed at Gawthorpe Hall and to have based Ferndean Manor on nearby Wycoller Hall. Just a thought.

We don’t know why Alice Gray, accused alongside Katherine “Mouldheels” Hewitt of murdering a child, was acquitted. In this book, she’s shown as being a midwife, employed by Fleetwood Shuttleworth, the 17-year-old mistress of Gawthorpe Hall near Burnley. It now belongs to the National Trust, and is quite a nice place to visit. It’s got a painting of a meeting of the Cotton Famine Relief Committee, which I always get excited about! In 1612, the house did indeed belong to Richard Shuttleworth, later High Sheriff of Lancashire and then a Parliamentarian colonel and MP. His first wife was Fleetwood Barton, and we know that they had two sons, one born not long after the trials.
There’s no evidence to suggest any connection between the Shuttleworths and any of the Pendle “witches”, or even that Alice Gray was a midwife, but it’s a plausible idea. “Wise women” were often amongst those suggested of witchcraft, and having being spoken for by someone with influence in the area would explain Alice’s acquittal.

The story is that Fleetwood has suffered three miscarriages and has found a letter which she takes to mean that neither she nor her unborn child will survive her fourth pregnancy. She meets Alice by chance, whilst feeling unwell, and, when Alice gives her some infusions which make her feel better, becomes convinced that only Alice can bring her and her child through the pregnancy alive. When Alice is arrested, Fleetwood is determined to save her. The explanation given for the story behind Alice’s arrest is again, whilst entirely fictional, quite plausible – that she found John Law after his stroke and tried to help him, and that the child she was alleged to have murdered had died of what would now be recognised as an epileptic fit, but that the child’s widowed father, with whom she was romantically involved, had blamed her. It all gets completely melodramatic, with Fleetwood threatening to shoot the bereaved father and persuading him to give her a signed testament saying that Alice was innocent, collapsing on the way home, going into labour, and persuading her husband to read the testament out in court so that Alice would be freed and could come to save her life in childbirth!

As I said, it needs to be taken with a big pinch of salt. But I enjoyed it, I was very impressed by the fact that the author explained what was fact and what was fiction – I do wish all authors would do that – and, most of all, I was so pleased to see someone treating a romanticised episode in our county’s history, and our country’s history, as what it really was. The story of the Pendle witches isn’t about pointy hats and broomsticks, or black cats and cauldrons. It’s about persecution.

In some countries, this still goes on – there are still cases of women being put to death for alleged witchcraft. In many other countries, vulnerable groups of people are persecuted for a wide range of other reasons. It certainly isn’t romantic and it certainly isn’t funny. But the Pendle area is beautiful, and well worth visiting. And this book’s worth reading – not bad at all.