Lists – ten historical places in time I’d like to visit


This was a blog challenge idea, and it sounded so easy … but it wasn’t. I was originally going to try to tie it into particular books, but I didn’t get very far with that.  Would I really want to be caught up in the Siege of Atlanta, with or without Rhett Butler to help me escape?  Or in Russia in 1812, with everything being burned to stop the Grande Armee in its tracks?   Or negotiating the politics of the Tudor courts?   One of the balls in Jane Austen books would be a lot more peaceful, but I would very definitely be classed as “not handsome enough to tempt me“. Back to the drawing board.   Try just general places, without specific books.  And the first one has to be Victorian Manchester.  I’m so predictable, aren’t I?

1 – Victorian Manchester. Yes, I know all about the condition of the working-classes: I have read Engels’ book several times.  But this was a time of confidence, and belief, and hope.  This was a time when people believed they could change the world.  Peterloo (OK, that’s Georgian, not Victorian) – it was a tragedy, but it began with the genuine belief that people could win their rights.  The Chartists carried that on, and so did the Suffragettes.  The Anti Corn Law League, the whole campaign for free trade – we even named the Free Trade Hall after it!   The glorious buildings – to have the confidence to do that, even after the Cotton Famine.  The ideas of self-improvement and self-help, and the growth of the trade union movement.  That’s what the world’s missing now – the confidence that we can change things for the better, and getting out there and fighting for it.

And 9 more, in no particular order.

2 – Elizabethan England, again for that feeling of hope and confidence, moving on from the internal turmoil of the Wars of the Roses and the Reformation. Well, until it all went pear-shaped in Charles I’s time, but no-one would have seen that coming back in the Gloriana days.  The flourishing of culture, as well.  I can’t be doing with Shakespeare, but he does symbolise the English Renaissance.  Yes, I know that the Elizabethan Age gets rather mythologised, but you can’t have myths unless you’ve got something to start with.

3 – Venice in the 18th century. I was going to say the Renaissance, but I’m not an arty person, for one thing, and Renaissance Italy involved too much fighting and political chaos and religious intolerance.  Venice in the 18th century, all that grandeur and glamour and elegance, would be a much better bet.  I’ve even got Carnevale masks: I wore them when I went to the Venice Carnival for my, ahem, “significant” birthday in 2015.

4 – Vienna in the late 19th century.  Music and waltzing, literature and philosophy.  I quite fancy the idea of sitting in a Viennese coffee house, exchanging ideas with great minds … who would probably think I was talking a load of utter rubbish and be totally unimpressed with my support for Slavic nationalists. But still.

5 – The Caliphate of Cordoba. OK, this is another one that’s probably been mythologised into a lot more of a Golden Age than it actually was, but there is certainly something in the idea of La Convivencia, the flourishing of Christian and Jewish and Islamic culture together.  We’ve come so far from that, and sometimes it seems as if we’re getting further away from it rather than getting closer towards it again.

6 – I’ve got to have Russia in here somewhere!   I want to be a romantic Slavophile.  I want to walk around wearing a red sarafan (I have actually worn one once) and go on about mysticism and melancholy and the “going to the people” and peasant communes.  Er, except that most of that is romantic rubbish.  I could be a noble in St Petersburg, but that really doesn’t work at all with being a romantic Slavophile.  Oh dear.  I’m going to have to be a revolutionary instead, aren’t I?

7 – The Lake District in the time of the Romantic poets. Hooray – I can get away with Romanticism in this one!   Maybe I could stay with Wordsworth in Grasmere?

8 – I’ve got to have America in here somewhere, as well, but it’s a bit difficult to say that I actually want to be there during “my” period of American history, the 1840s to the 1870s. The Twelve Oaks barbecue does sound like good fun, until war gets declared in the middle of it, but, quite apart from the fact that, as with a Jane Austen ball, I’d be the person no-one wanted to sit with or dance with, it’s a slaveholding society and I just couldn’t be there.  No – it’s going to have to be the American Dream, the immigrants sailing into New York and hoping that they’re going to find that the streets are paved with gold.  OK, it’d probably mean ending up doing backbreaking work in horrible conditions, but, again, it’s that feeling of hope, that belief, that you can make the world a better place and be part of it.

9 – India with Gandhi. I normally refuse to class anything later than the First World War as “history”, but I watched the Gandhi film again recently, and I’ve been reading up on Indian history, and … that incredible idea that you can bring about change by non-violent civil resistance, and the hope – even if it did turn out to be futile – of religious tolerance and co-operation.  There are a lot of groups of people now who have little hope – the Rohingyas spring to mind – but what an inspiration that time was.

10 – Do you know what, I actually do want to go to a Jane Austen era ball? I’d get over no-one wanting to dance with me!   At least the clothes of the time were fairly loose, so I wouldn’t look as fat in them as I would in clothes from some other time periods.  I like that idea of the county society in Jane Austen books, that you did get invited to parties and balls as a matter of course, and weren’t sat at home wondering how you’d get to meet new people.  I am absolutely useless at social occasions and would probably have hated it all in practice, but I do like the idea in theory.  I mean, Mary Bennet does seem to enjoy the balls, doesn’t she, even though everyone thinks she’s weird?  I like the idea of visiting spa towns and “taking the waters” as well.

I just wish I could match all these times and places up to books! But most of the best historical fiction’s set against a background of war and turmoil.  Is that because it appeals to authors, it appeals to readers, or it appeals to me?  And, if anyone’s reading this, please tell me when and where you’d like to go, and if any of our ideas match.  If they do, maybe we can build a time machine and go there together 🙂 .


History in the making – a summer to remember (one way or another!)


The spell is broken.  England are out of the World Cup, and, for a while yesterday morning, it poured with rain – the first rain we’d had in weeks.  I’m incredibly proud of everything that our young, inexperienced group of players and our inspirational manager have achieved, and we desperately need rain to put out the fires on Winter Hill and Saddleworth Moor, but I just want to turn the clock back to Wednesday afternoon, when everything seemed possible!

The football was still the headlines of the news yesterday morning, the morning after the night before, and we were still hearing about the twelve young lads and their coach being rescued from the caves in Thailand (although it’s so sad that one man died during the rescue effort, and possibly a bit tacky that there’s already talk of making a film about it all) … but then came Donald Trump, our incompetent embarrassment of a government, and yet another year of Twelfth Day of July unrest in Northern Ireland.

For a few weeks, we were Somewhere Over The Rainbow.  Skies are blue, and the dreams that you dare to dream … .  (Incidentally, Simon Schama, the historian and TV presenter, once made a thought-provoking point about how that song could only have been written by the child of immigrants who’d fled persecution for the American Dream.)   Yesterday morning, the skies were grey, and it was sinking in that the World Cup was not coming home after all.  But, hey, what a time we’ve had!   Before the World Cup started, we didn’t dare hope for any more than getting out of the group.  Not to mention all the catastrophising about how the tournament was going to be spoilt by racism, homophobia and Russia’s troubled relations with the rest of the world.  And look what we got instead!   Talk about the feelgood factor.  It felt as if the whole country was singing Three Lions.

And we’ve still got Wimbledon!   Well, OK, this isn’t a national thing, but it will make me ecstatically happy if the French Open champion can win his third Wimbledon title on Sunday.  OK, I’m not holding my breath.  Nole looked worryingly good yesterday.  Balkan double?  Croatia win the World Cup and Serbia win Wimbledon?  How weird would that be?  And there are so many stories of the horrors of the wars of the 1990s tied up in all that.  Sport can give so much.

We hoped.  And we dreamed.  Everyone, including Princes William and Harry, was saying “It’s coming home”.  That song!   1996 was weird.  It started off being all so exciting.  I’d just been to Prague for a belated 21st birthday weekend away, and the Czech Republic were based in Manchester for Euro ’96, so the flight home was full of football fans.  There was such a buzz in the air.  Then the IRA blew up our city centre.  So we didn’t quite get the ongoing 1996 feelgood factor.  But we got the song.  Everyone gets the song!  Everyone’s been singing it.  Friends who normally have little interest in football have been posting on Facebook about how excited they are.  The day of the semi-final was even dubbed Waistcoat Wednesday, with people posting pictures of themselves wearing waistcoats in honour of Gareth Southgate!   At 7 o’clock on Wednesday evening, the streets were deserted.  Everyone was watching the match.  We were all in it together.

That hasn’t happened too much lately.  And the leadership qualities displayed by Gareth Southgate, and the sense of team spirit he’s instilled in the team, the togetherness, the unity – well, there’s been precious little of that around either.  I do appreciate that Theresa May’s in a difficult position, but, come on, two years to agree an internal position on Brexit, and then it all falls apart within three days?  How on earth are we meant to negotiate with the EU when Cabinet members can’t even agree amongst themselves?  Summoned to Chequers, told to put their mobile phones away, like a bunch of naughty schoolkids in detention – and then the whole thing falling apart anyway.  That’s not Three Lions; that’s Madness’s You’re An Embarrassment.

And the Opposition are no better.  Jeremy Corbyn’s inability to deal with anti-Semitism within the Labour Party is extremely concerning, as well as embarrassing.  And does anyone have the remotest clue what Labour’s policy on the best way of getting us out of the EU is?  No, me neither.  And all this talk about “Brexiters” and “Remoaners”.  The decision’s been made, OK?  You may as well label people as Hanoverians and Jacobites, or Roundheads and Cavaliers.  Move on.  But it’s very difficult when both main parties are making such a mess of everything.  There is not one senior politician at Westminster who inspires a scrap of confidence.  Leadership?  Togetherness?  Unity?  Hah!  Gareth Southgate for PM!   I’m telling you, he could only do better!   He and the players brought us together.

Sport does this.  London 2012.  Andy Murray winning Wimbledon.  Oh, it can go horribly wrong well, we all know that; but it can do this.  There’s something a bit different about it this time, though.  It’s not just the success – whilst it lasted.  It’s the team spirit.  This is not the so-called “Golden Generation” of Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard & co, or the 1998 squad which included the likes of David Beckham and Alan Shearer.  Most of these players weren’t even household names before the tournament began.  But they’ve connected, to use a modern-day buzzword – with each other, and with the fans.  They got it.  We got it.

And the skies were blue.  And the sun shone.

I think it actually started with the Royal Wedding.  We’ve watched Prince Harry grow up.  We saw that little boy walking along behind his mother’s coffin.  We’ve seen him get himself into trouble.  And then we’ve seen him as a hero, whether it’s been serving in Afghanistan or helping to organise the Invictus Games.  Very few people have got a bad word to say about him.  And we’ve seen his romances with Chelsy Davy and Cressida Bonas end in tears, and longed for him to find his happy ever after.  And now, hopefully, he has.  We’d have been delighted for him whomever that was with – but the fact that his fairytale princess is a mixed-race American divorcee actress somehow did that bit extra to bring people together.  It reminded us that it doesn’t matter who you are.  It doesn’t matter who you love.  It doesn’t matter about race, religion, sexuality, socio-economic status … any of it.  All that matters is that people are happy.  It was the stuff of fairytales, but very modern ones.  It brought everyone together.  We needed that.

The sky was a perfect cornflower blue.  Not a cloud in it.  The sun shone down.

And then, as the sky continued to be blue, and the sun continued to shine, Gareth Southgate and his band of brothers gave us hopes and dreams, and showed us what leadership and togetherness are about – something that our politicians don’t seem to have the first clue regarding.

This is history.  Twenty years from now, we’ll be looking back on the early summer of 2018, and we’ll be remembering how it was hot and sunny for days and days on end, and how we got to the semi-finals of the World Cup.  We don’t know what lies ahead – but do we ever?  In 1990, we were riding the crest of a wave of hope, with the Berlin Wall down, Nelson Mandela released from prison and Germany set for reunification.  Well, that soon went pear-shaped, didn’t it?  Croatia, where they were celebrating as we cried, could tell us all about that.  In 2018, everything’s a mass of uncertainty.  But maybe it’ll all turn out for the best?  Well, you never know.

52 years of hurt can go a long way towards stopping you from dreaming.  I mean 52 years since 1966, OK – I have not personally experienced 52 years of hurt!  The first World Cup I remember was 1982!   But we’re dreaming again.  There’s a positivity in the air.  There’s hope, and there’s pride.  And there are waistcoats!

There were things I thought I might never see.  Growing up in the 1980s, you seriously began to wonder whether United would ever win the league again.  We waited 26 years.  City fans waited longer.  We waited 77 years for a British man to win the men’s singles title at Wimbledon again.  Going back to 1990, or, rather, to 1989, I’m not sure that we thought we’d see the Berlin Wall come down in our lifetimes, or that Nelson Mandela would ever be released from prison.  We certainly never thought we’d see Prince Harry marry a lovely mixed-race American divorcee actress.

Things change.

And, yes, “We’ve seen it all before” and we know all about semi-final heartbreak.  But people are already looking ahead to Euro 2020.  And the country’s come together.  We’ve been reminded that we can do this.  We can do leadership.  We can do unity.  We can do hopes and dreams.  Thank you for that, Gareth and the boys.  We needed it from someone, and we’ve got it from you.  And we’ll never forget this summer.  We’ve been living through history in the making.



World Cup loyalties


Obviously England are going to win the World Cup 🙂 , but just imagine, oh horror of horrors, that that doesn’t happen.  Imagine that we get knocked out early on.  Whom are you going to support then?  If anyone’s actually reading this, please feel free to answer that!  A country featuring players from your own club?  I would think a lot of Liverpool fans will be keeping a close eye on Egypt.  Somewhere you’ve got personal connections to? – maybe you had a nice holiday there, or a family member or close friend comes from there?   Maybe – it is meant to be about the football, after all! – it’s all about whose style of play you like.  Or is it political/historical – I assume not too many of us will be supporting Saudi Arabia or Iran.  Or maybe you just want to win the office sweepstake.

OK, I know this has nothing to do with history, but the History Channel said it’d be showing a load of programmes on the history of football during the World Cup, and it hasn’t done! And the BBC somehow managed to get through the whole of Egypt v Uruguay, in Ekaterinburg, without mentioning the assassination of the Romanovs.  Seriously.  I assume we will get a few references to the Siege of Stalingrad when England take on Tunisia in Volgograd on Monday, but I bet we don’t get the Cossack revolts L .  So I haven’t got anything historical to review, as far as the World Cup goes … so, instead, I wrote a rather silly list of notes on whom to support and whom not to support.  And then I was just going to delete it because it was a load of waffle, but, having written it, I thought I might as well post it.  Waffles are associated with Belgium.  I hope that’s not a bad omen for Thursday’s match.

(Marked with a * if I’ve actually been there.)

Countries with a strong connection:

Spain* – after a long and wondrous clay court season, and with Wimbledon up ahead, my brain is practically running in Spanish.  And Spain have the biggest United contingent of any team other than England, with David de Gea, Ander Herrera and Juan Mata all involved.

Russia* – spot the Russian history specialist!  Been there twice, hope so much to go again.

Portugal* – a country I’m very fond of.  Pasteis de nata, pasteis de nata!  And he may be an idiot, but I’ll always have a soft spot for Cristiano Ronaldo.

Sweden* – I have a long-standing soft spot for Sweden, going back nearly 30 years, and they’ve got Victor Lindelof in their squad.

Serbia – I’ve always had an interest in Serbian history.  And they’ve got Nemanja Matic.


Countries with some connection:

Brazil* – everyone’s got a soft spot for Brazil, haven’t they?  And a nice man lent me a toy World Cup to hold up outside the Maracana.

Belgium* – they’ve got Romelu Lukaku and Marouane Fellaini.  And they do make very nice chocolate.

France* – it always feels vaguely wrong to cheer for France ;-), but they have got Paul Pogba.

Argentina* – it may be 32 years since the Hand of God incident but I still have issues with Argentina!   But Buenos Aires has to be the most football-mad city I’ve ever been to, and that made quite an impression on me.  I thought there might still be hostility towards British visitors, even 34 years after the Falklands War, but I was made to feel welcome everywhere, and faces lit up whenever I mentioned the word “Manchester”.  And they’ve got Sergio Romero.

Morocco* – well, I had a very nice holiday there.  Even if someone did ask me if I was German.  I know my French accent isn’t exactly Parisian, but I’ve never been accused of being German anywhere else!!  But, hey, at least they understood me!

Egypt* – another place with happy holiday memories.  And they make tea properly.  Surprisingly few countries do.

Switzerland* – no real football ties, but it has lakes and mountains and chocolate.

Peru* – they’ve got Machu Picchu.  And they seemed to understand my Spanish.

Denmark* – well, they did have Peter Schmeichel.  And they make nice open top sandwiches.

Australia – come on, all Anglophones and Commonwealth countries together!

Nigeria – ditto!


Countries with no connection but which I hope do well:

Iceland – OK, they made fools of us at Euro 2016, but it was all kind of romantic, and I got really into their chanting.

Senegal – I can’t think of a way to say this that doesn’t sound patronising, but they are the poorest country to qualify, and I watched an interesting programme (presented by Eric Cantona) about how much football means to people there.


No strong feelings:

Germany* – I just don’t particularly cheer for Germany.  Don’t mention the war and all that.  Old habits die hard!


Costa Rica.



Mexico* (very briefly).

Croatia* – I have been there, and it was very nice, but it’s not somewhere I’ve ever felt a close affinity for.

South Korea.


Uruguay – it’s usually nice to see South American teams do well, but I cannot bear Luis Suarez!


Countries I won’t be cheering for:

Saudi Arabia.  I know the football team isn’t to blame for what’s going on in Yemen, Or the country’s attitude towards women.  Or its human rights record in general. But even so.

Iran – even if they are managed by Carlos Queiroz.  Again, I know the football team isn’t to blame for political issues.  But even so.

Poland* – I have studied a lot of Polish history, and I have been to Poland twice, and any country which produces cherry vodka deserves a certain amount of respect.  But this current government – ugh.

I use too many exclamation marks, don’t I? Apparently Prince Philip does, as well.

But obviously England are going to win. So all this is irrelevant.  Yes, indeed …

Rewriting history? The Polish Holocaust speech bill


Rewriting history seems to be, worryingly, a term that we’re hearing more and more these days. It generally runs alongside trying to stifle free speech and debate.  And now it’s causing an international row, following the passing by the Polish parliament of a law making it a criminal offence to state publicly that “the Polish nation or state was responsible or co-responsible for Third Reich crimes”.

Hopefully, no-one is for one minute trying to say that “the Polish nation or state was responsible or co-responsible for Third Reich crimes”. And it’s quite understandable that people in Poland object to the blatantly incorrect but all too frequent use of the term “Polish death camps” when referring to Nazi concentration camps on Polish soil.  But the passing of this law has led to considerable concern amongst historians and others that it will stifle debate about and even research into the events of the Nazi period.  Where is the line to be drawn between saying or writing about the complicity by individuals in Poland with “Third Reich crimes” – in 2001, on the 60th anniversary of the Jedwabne pogrom in which over 340 Polish Jews were murdered by their Polish neighbours, the then president of Poland stated clearly that the murderers were Poles – and falling foul of the new legislation?

This isn’t the first time that there’s been controversy over the present Polish government’s attitude towards the events of the Second World War. There was a long, drawn-out wrangle over the Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk, which finally opened last spring after considerable arguing between the government and historians over the extent to which the museum should focus on Poland’s experience – by which the government meant Poland’s suffering and Polish resistance to the Nazis – as opposed to telling the entire history of how the war affected the whole of Europe and beyond.  Wanting to focus on your own country’s experiences is reasonable to some extent, but this latest controversy goes much further than that

It’s not just Poland where there are issues concerning the presentation of the events of the Second World War. Unless it’s been changed since I was there, the video which is shown to visitors at the Second World War Museum in Riga focuses almost entirely on the Soviet invasion and occupation of Latvia, with next to nothing being said about the atrocities committed there by the Nazis.  And collaboration and support for the Nazis is a very sensitive subject everywhere.  We’ve all heard the stories about how hardly anyone in Austria’s seen The Sound of Music.  There’s a lot of evidence for complicity in Nazi atrocities by local people in Poland, Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania and elsewhere, but it isn’t really spoken about.  But it isn’t actually banned.

Statues are being pulled down in America. Certain British universities and even Virgin Trains have tried to restrict the sale of certain newspapers. Where do you draw the line between trying to avoid offensive speech and interfering with free speech? It’s a difficult one.

It’s hard to see any other countries following Poland’s lead. For one thing, the present Polish government is not exactly renowned for its free thinking. Concerns have already been raised over its interference in both the media and the judiciary. For another thing, no other country has the same place that Poland, through no fault of its own, has in the history of the Holocaust. But this is a worrying development. It’ll be interesting to see where things go from here.