The Mapmaker by Frank G Slaughter

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This month’s Facebook group reading challenge was to read a book set in Portugal, which was a bit problematic, as there isn’t a lot of English language historical fiction set in Portugal and I’ve read pretty much all of it!  However, I did find this.  It turned out that only part of it was set in Portugal, and, in this disastrous tennis season, I kept getting distracted into reading up on medieval Mallorcan mapmakers, but never mind.

This book’s an interesting mixture of the work of real life cartographers under the auspices of the Portuguese prince now known as Henry the Navigator, some quite detailed information about navigational techniques of the time; things probably believed to be true when the novel was written (in the 1950s) but now doubted, notably the existence of a school of navigation at Sagres; stories and theories about the Americas being discovered by the Venetians long before Columbus; legends which the characters believe but the reader isn’t meant to (all the Prester John stuff); and Boys’ Own adventure stuff.   That sounds rather strange, but I did really enjoy it!

Our hero is the Venetian cartographer and navigator Andrea Bianco, who was a real person and is best known for his 1436 atlas showing “the island of Antillia”, which some people believe to be mythical but others believe to be the coast of Florida – although, in this book, the native inhabitants refer to it as “Acuba”, so possibly the reader’s meant to think that it’s Cuba.  There are various theories about Venetian sailors having reached the Americas in the early 15th century, and we just don’t know whether or not they’re true.

In this book, Andrea’s working for Henry the Navigator, alongside various Mallorcan Jews or conversos who were amongst the leading cartographers of the time, and he holds the secret of measuring latitude.  He’d been captured by Turks and held as a slave, during which time he not only learnt how to measure latitude but travelled to China and Japan.  However, at the start of the book, he escapes during a storm and is fortuitously rescued by a wealthy Portuguese man and his beautiful daughter, Leonor.  It transpires that his dastardly half-brother was plotting against him and was the reason he was captured.  The said dastardly half-brother then makes it impossible for him to stay in Venice, so off he goes to Portugal, where he soon gets in with Henry, and joins a voyage to the coast of Africa.  We get some distressing scenes of slaves being bought from African slave traders and brought to Portugal, with the Church preaching that this is all to the good and it’ll save their souls: however, Andrea stands out against this, and any slaves assigned to him are immediately set free.  He also makes it clear that the Turks and Arabs are far more advanced in their knowledge of navigation than any Europeans are, and that the ancient Phoenicians were too.

Off they go on another voyage, to the Canary Islands, but things go wrong and they end up in the Sargasso Sea.   We do know that Portuguese ships at this time did reach the Sargasso Sea, but, here, our ship ends up in “Antillia”.   There are various adventures, in which our hero saves the life of the beautiful Leonor, who for some inexplicable reason has come along on the voyage, and eventually, thanks largely, of course, to Andrea, they make it back to Portugal.  At this point, the dastardly half-brother reappears and tries to kill him, but Andrea manages to escape – of course.  The dastardly one gets his come-uppance, and Andrea walks off into the sunset with the beautiful Leonor.

So it’s a bit daft in parts, but the information about navigational techniques is genuinely interesting.  The idea that the Portuguese reached the Americas before Columbus but Henry hushed it up to avoid distracting attention from his plans in Africa, which is how things are explained here, is highly unlikely; but could the Venetians have got there first?  Well, you never know!  And this is a Boys’ Own book for adults, rather than books by, say, G A Henty, which are clearly aimed at children, so it was something different!

 

Cecily by Annie Garthwaite

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   As the title suggests, this is a novel about Cecily Neville, Duchess of York.  There’ve been a number of novels in recent years about or featuring Cecily (contrary to what the blurb says about her being overlooked!), but this is a particularly readable one.  We follow Cecily from the early years of her marriage to Richard of York up to their son Edward becoming king – through their time in France, their time in Ireland (where some interesting points were made about Richard, as Henry VII would do later, playing on his Celtic connections to win support), and the tangled politics of the English court as we head into the Wars of the Roses – and the text is full of historical facts and detail without ever seeming too academic for a novel.

We also very much see her as a woman, coping with multiple pregnancies, miscarriage, the loss of children in infancy, and worries about her surviving children.  We see her ambition for Edward and her concern about finding husbands for her daughters, and, of course, her relationship with her husband and with her siblings and other family members.

And what I particularly liked was that the author clearly assumes that the reader knows all about what’s to come.  Jacquetta Woodville plays a big part in this book, with the impression being that she and Cecily were long-term frenemies, and that Cecily and possibly even Edward would have known Elizabeth Woodville as a child.  I’m not sure that that’s entirely accurate (!), although all the main historical events shown are accurately portrayed; but it was interesting to see Jacquetta woven into the story, and also several references to Eleanor Talbot, the woman to whom Richard would later claim that Edward was secretly engaged when he married Elizabeth.

We’re also told that Richard would have quite liked a big christening for Edward, but that Cecily, very nervous after their first son had tragically died shortly after birth a day earlier, was worried about tempting fate and just wanted it done quickly and quietly.  No reference is made to the absurd story that Edward’s real father was an archer called Blaybourn and that that was why the christening was so quiet, but the author clearly wants to make it obvious that she thinks that that story’s nonsense, and assumes that the reader will understand what she’s doing.

Oddly, though, given all that, there’s only one brief reference to the birth of Margaret Beaufort, none at all to her marriage to Edmund Tudor and the birth of their son, and, although we’re told about the birth of Isabel Neville, no mention was made of Anne.  There’s quite a bit of scandalmongering, though, about Edmund Beaufort senior being the real father of Edmund Tudor (which I don’t believe for a moment) and Edmund Beaufort junior being the real father of Henry VI’s son Edward (which, let’s face it, is quite likely).

Marquerite of Anjou is vilified.  I really do feel sorry for that woman!   I think, in forty years or so of reading historical fiction, I’ve read one novel which was positive about her.  What was she supposed to do, married to someone who, for medical reasons, wasn’t fit to be king?  But, OK, the book is written from Cecily’s viewpoint, and plenty of other people are vilified too!

The fifteenth century is a controversial period in English history, and people will have their own views on the events and personalities of the time, but this is a really, really good historical novel, and particularly impressive given that it’s the author’s first book.  My one big quibble is that it’s written in the present tense, which is OK for reviews 🙂 but a bit infantilising for books.  Other than that, highly recommended.

The Secrets of Ashmore Castle by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

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  I wasn’t convinced about this at first, because, whilst, the Kirov trilogy, the Morland books and the War At Home books all very much revolved around national and international events, this one was almost entirely about the personal lives of both upstairs and downstairs characters.  I did get into it, though, and will definitely be looking out for the rest of the series.  There were a few references to Edward VII’s coronation and to the Boer War, and – was this a nod to Highclere Castle, with its Downton Abbey connections 🙂 ? – Howard Carter made an appearance, but it was mainly about people’s love lives and finances, which wasn’t entirely what I’d been hoping for.  There were a few middle class characters who got involved with free libraries (which seemed oddly mid-Victorian for 1902, but still) and look as if they may get involved with the suffragettes in future books, though, so fingers crossed for some more meaty historical stuff in future books.  And it was still very enjoyable, and I’m sure it’ll be popular.

There were a lot of characters, the story kept flitting between them, and it was very much a scene setter, start of a series book.  There’s obviously a lot more to come!  The rather Enid Blyton-esque title suggested that there’d be hidden passages behind portraits with strange eyes, leading to secret mines or treasure troves.   There weren’t!   But there were a few hints at mysteries to be resolved in later books.

The basic plot (without too many spoilers – this all happened at the beginning!)  was that the Earl of Stainton had broken his neck in a hunting accident, as you do; and his son and heir therefore had to be summoned home, to Buckinghamshire, from his archaeological expedition in Egypt.  At the same time, the younger son left the Army and also came home.  And there were three daughters, one married, two not yet “out”.  Incidentally, would a Victorian earl and countess really have named two of their daughters Linda and Rachel?  The youngest was Alice, which was a fairly typical aristocratic name at the time, but Lady Linda and Lady Rachel?!   Anyway, it turned out that the estate had been badly run for years, and that the late earl had spent what money there was on his fancy woman and membership of expensive London clubs, so the best bet for the new earl was to find a rich wife.  Off he went to the London Season, where he met a wonderful girl with no money, and her sweet, shy best friend, whom he didn’t fancy but who was rolling in it.  Typical, eh?

Oh, and his grandma was still alive.  And living on Bruton Street.  Obviously this was 24 years before a certain significant birth took place in that neck of the woods, but it was mentioned that the Strathmores were her neighbours 😉 .

It seemed at first that the upper class characters were all going to be either callous or naive and the servants were all going to be either stupid and obsequious or sly and devious, but the characterisation did very much improve as the book went on, and I do want to know what happens to them all.  Don’t be expecting Gone With The Wind, but this is a nice read on a dark autumn night.

 

 

Ridley Road – BBC 1

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It’s not often that the TV adaptation of a book is better than the book itself, but writer Sarah Solemani, and executive producer Nicola Shindler from Whitefield, have done an excellent job with this.  Oh, and I’ll just point out that a lot of it was filmed in Manchester, in Bolton and in Ashton-under-Lyne.

It’s quite a bold move by the BBC to show this in the iconic Sunday 9pm slot, usually associated with cosy Georgian or Victorian-era costume drama, but the fact that some of the actors, notably Tracy-Ann Oberman, have spoken of their concerns at the risk of receiving abuse on social media *because* of it – especially given their experiences of such abuse in the recent past – just shows how much it’s needed.

The story’s been completely changed.  In the book – review here – the central character Vivien has recently been orphaned, moves from Manchester to London to look up someone she’d briefly gone out with whilst he was staying with her family, and finds out that he’s involved in the 62 Group, working against the National Socialist Movement*, and also that her late father was involved in its wartime predecessor, the 43 Group.  It’s mostly the men who are involved in the action, with the women watching from the sidelines and mopping up the blood.  However, in this TV version, Vivien is part of an overbearing family trying to push her into a marriage with a family friend, and then runs off to London in pursuit of the man she really loves, finds out that he’s involved in the 62 Group, and becomes actively involved herself.

I wasn’t all that keen on the overbearing family, who were rather stereotypical and seemed to have walked straight out of the pages of a Maisie Mosco book, but I think the idea was to give her a safe, cosy background and for her then to find out that danger lurks in the outside world, and you can understand the reasoning behind that, especially as this clearly is very personal to many of those involved.

Nicola Shindler’s spoken about how she herself resigned from the Labour Party because of the culture of anti-Semitism that had been allowed to flourish under Corbyn’s leadership, and Tracy-Ann Oberman, who plays Nancy, has spoken about the horrific online abuse she received from Corbyn supporters.  Earlier this year, there were some deeply unpleasant incidents in which mobs drove through predominantly Jewish areas of London and Manchester, shouting threats.  And, as the story shows, and which oddly seems to be have been forgotten in recent times, people who attack one minority group will often attack another minority group too: we saw a mixed race character receiving abuse from members of the National Socialist Movement.

A bit more background information would have been useful.  We kept being told that Vivien and Jack had had some great romance, but we didn’t see any of it.  And that her parents had split them up, but it wasn’t clear how or why.  We were made aware that there’d been a big falling-out between Vivien’s parents and her uncle and auntie, who were very involved in the 62 Group, but we didn’t really find out why.  And some of the depictions of Jewish religious rituals may well have been confusing to people who weren’t familiar with them.  But it’s only a four-part series, and you can only fit so much in.

*The 62 Group.  In July 1962, the National Socialist Movement held a mass rally in Trafalgar Square under the slogan “Free Britain from Jewish Control”. A riot broke out at the rally, and, shortly afterwards, the 62 Group was set up.  The timeline got a bit muddled in the programme, but that was because the writers obviously felt it important to show the rally – to show swastikas being waved in Trafalgar Square, and people saying all sorts, because there were no laws against hate speech then.  There are a lot of issues now because it’s so difficult to stop hate speech on social media, and the programme did show how important and essential legislation is.

It also showed how easy it is for rabble rousers to whip up hatred.  Vivien’s landlady, who seemed like a harmless little old lady, was going along to meetings, where local Fascist leaders were going on about how corner shops were being forced to close down because Jewish-owned Tesco were opening supermarkets.  People twist tropes and stereotypes to suit themselves and the issues of the time, and it soon escalates.

One stereotype which the authors have spoken about trying to challenge is that of the minority groups who are victims.  This is Black History Month.  I have seen dozens of lists of “recommended reading”.  Nearly every book on those lists has been centred on accusing white people of racism, rather than saying anything positive about the achievements of black people.  This series is very much about fighting back, about challenging those who attack minorities.  The police and the authorities were seen as doing little to help, and that has some parallels with today, if not here than certainly in the US.

All in all, it’s a challenging story, and, as I said, it’s a bold move by the BBC to show it, especially in that iconic timeslot.  Nobody wants this sort of thing to be making headlines.  No minority group wants to see prejudice against them being all over the news, and becoming a political issue.  Nobody wants to have to form a 62 Group.  But the writers and actors have spoken out about how necessary this series is, and bravo to the BBC (and I don’t often say that!) for recognising that.

 

Conquest: Daughter of the Last King by Tracey Warr

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  Why isn’t the fascinating Welsh Princess Nest, daughter of the last King of Deheubarth, (probably) a lover of Henry I and ancestress of the Irish Fitzgerald dynasty, better known?   There seems to have been some interest in her in Victorian times, when she was known as “the Welsh Helen” due to her abduction by a rival lord (which doesn’t actually come into this book, although it’s the first of a trilogy so presumably it’s covered in one of the later books), but she’s rarely mentioned now.

It’s a great shame.  She had a fascinating life, at a fascinating time in history.  In this book, we see Nest captured as a young girl as her father’s kingdom’s taken over by the Normans, caught up in the political entanglements as William Rufus, Robert Curthose and the future Henry I vie for the English throne, become the mistress of Henry I and bear one of his illegitimate children (which probably happened, although it’s not 100% certain), and then be married off to Gerald FitzWalter of Windsor, a Norman knight who was made constable of Pembroke Castle.

It’s an overlooked period of history generally.  Everyone knows about the Battle of Hastings, but the decades which followed tend to be neglected.   Having said which, we “did” do the Normans in the first year of secondary school, but most of it was about motte and bailey castles and the daily lives of medieval monks, which, let’s say, are not the most fascinating aspects of medieval history for a class of 11-year-old girls.  Family feuds and court gossip would have been far more interesting!

This is a really enjoyable book, and, unlike certain other authors, Tracey Warr explains where she’s changed the facts slightly for the sake of the story, or where she’s filled in things which aren’t known for definite.

We see Nest, after her father’s killed and she becomes a hostage, enter the household of one of the influential Montgomery family.   That doesn’t seem to be a matter of record, and most sources suggest that Nest was taken immediately to the court of William Rufus; but certainly Nest’s time at the court of Henry I, which the book does show, is a matter of fact.  The book suggests that Henry only married Nest to Gerald to give her the position of a married woman before making her his mistress, which probably isn’t quite what happened, but it does seem likely that she was Henry’s mistress, and certainly she did marry Gerald.  And it’s all portrayed in a very readable way – Nest, Gerald, Henry and Queen Matilda are very well-characterised.

I’m definitely going to try to get hold of the second and third books, and I gather that, as with Mary Queen of Scots and Bothwell, and, indeed, as with Helen and Paris, there’s a lot of debate about whether Nest was abducted or whether she ran off with Owen ap Cadogan of her own accord … sadly, it sounds to me as if she was forced, but there seems to have been a lot of debate about it at one time.  And now there isn’t: Nest has been largely forgotten.

Anyway, this is a very good book about an intriguing woman who really does deserve to be better known than she is … and it’s fairly cheap on Kindle.  Recommended!

The Blind Eye: A Sephardic Journey by Marcia Fine (Facebook group reading challenge)

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  This month’s Facebook reading challenge was to read a book about refugees.  There are many excellent novels about refugees.  Sadly, this is not one of them.  The fact that it got the most important date in Sephardi history wrong on the very first page was not a great start, and set the tone for the rest of the book.  Furthermore, the error was with the Hebrew date, but the characters were annoyed about being forced to use the Gregorian calendar – and, given that this was in a chapter set in 1492 and the Gregorian calendar didn’t exist until 1582, I was rather annoyed too.  But that was pretty mild compared to what happened later on, when the author seemed to get the early 16th, late 16th and mid 17th centuries all ingloriously tangled up together.

I was left with the impression that the author had heard various different stories about Sephardi history and just bunged them all in together.  It was as if, say, someone had written a book about civil wars in England and claimed that Oliver Cromwell had murdered the Princes in the Tower and then recognised Henry FitzEmpress as the heir.   What a mess!   And then people who aren’t familiar with the subject matter will read this and take it as being historically accurate, which really does irritate me.

It’s a dual timeline book.  These are very popular now.  I have no idea why.  The modern timeline involved someone who lost her job because she had a bad leg after being bitten by a horrible dog (I do sympathise over anything involving horrible dogs), went off on a three month research trip with a researcher she’d only just met, and married him.  As you do.  I wasn’t really interested in that, more in the storyline about the refugees.  However, it turned out that the refugees were actually the invention of the said researcher, who was writing a novel, which confused the issue even more.

Our two refugees, teenage aunt and illegitimate baby niece, were living in Granada, which seemed unlikely as it had only just been reconquered, and were forced to leave due to the 1492 Edict of Expulsion, which was unconvincing as they were actually conversos.  And why hadn’t the niece’s mother married the father?   There seemed no reason.  However, off they went to Portugal, with their parents/grandparents.  This bit was actually quite well-written, and reasonably historically accurate, with some rather good descriptions of the forced conversions which followed when the Portuguese authorities changed their policies, and the seizure and deportation to Sao Tome of children of Jewish families.

But then it just got silly.  The parents/grandparents having died (one murder, one suicide), our two girls took ship for Brazil, where they found work on a plantation.  No, no, no!   Yes, there was significant Sephardi migration to plantations in Brazil, but not until the 1630s, when part of Brazil came under Dutch rule.  Not at the beginning of the 16th century!   Yes, a very tiny number of Sephardi refugees left for Brazil at that time, but hardly any.  If you were escaping from the Portuguese authorities, you’d hardly go to a Portuguese settlement, would you?  And there wouldn’t even have been any plantations that early.

Then the auntie eloped with a slave.  Well, that’s very likely to have happened, isn’t it?!  And, again, it was too early for slavery on plantations …. especially as it was too early for plantations, full stop.  And the niece was shipped over to Amsterdam as a mail order bride.  Where she lived happily ever after in one of Europe’s most tolerant cities – and found her long-lost mother, who’d become a nun in Castile but was transferred to Amsterdam.

Oh dear.  People moved from (what’s now) the Netherlands to Brazil, not the other way round.  And not until over 100 years later.  And Amsterdam becoming a centre where religious minorities could live in peace didn’t happen until much later on in the 16th century, after the United Provinces had declared independence from the Habsburgs.

The whole thing was just a mess.   It was like when little kids think that anyone over 30 must have lived through the Second World War, because they’ve got a concept of “the olden days” but not that “the olden days” weren’t just one amorphous mass.

Amazon informs the purchaser that “the author has carefully researched the historical events”.  I beg to differ!

The North Water – BBC 2

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Several blokes who all swear a lot have set sail for the Arctic, on a whaling mission.  Except that it’s not, because the one in charge is going to scupper the ship so that its owner can claim the insurance money.  Presumably he does plan to save himself.  One of the crew’s going to turn out to be a rapist and one’s going to turn out to be a murderer – not sure whether or not this is the same person.  Our hero, an Irish doctor with an East Midlands accent (most of the others are meant to come from Hull, although some of them sound more like they come from Leeds), is covering up some sort of secret, which seems to be that he was kicked out of the Army for deserting during the Indian Mutiny.  The media reviews don’t seem to have picked up on this.  I don’t know why, because it’s been made pretty obvious!   He spends a lot of time in his cabin, reading books by Homer.  But he nearly didn’t make it through the first episode, after the others left him behind and he fell through the ice.  But it’s OK – he managed to get out of the water by himself.

It’s all very dark – both literally and figuratively speaking.  I’m sure we all understand that the mid-Victorians did not have their homes, pubs and ships lit by 100 watt electric light bulbs, but does everything need to be so dark?  There were complaints about this with both Jamaica Inn and Taboo, but the BBC don’t seem to be getting the message.

I get the feeling that it’s going to be a bit like a grown-up version of Lord of the Flies.  The longer these blokes are all stuck with each other, in the middle of nowhere, the worse their behaviour is going to get.  But it’s quite watchable.  I’ll stick with it!

Mr Jones

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  This film tells the tragic story of Gareth Jones, the brave young Welsh journalist who tried to tell the world about the Holodymyr, the man-made famine which killed millions of people in Ukraine in 1932-33, part of a wider famine also affecting Kazakhstan and other parts of the Soviet Union, and is now considered genocide in Ukraine.  Not only were the Soviets were determined to cover it up, but so were left-wing intellectuals in the West, unwilling to admit that damage that Stalinism had done.  That, and false reporting by the New York Times‘ “man in Moscow” Walter Duranty, meant that the efforts of Jones, Malcolm Muggeridge and others to bring the famine to world attention sadly did little good.   Jones was murdered by bandits, almost certainly in the pay of the Soviet secret police, not long after his reports were published.

It’s not the easiest of films to watch, especially as quite a lot of it’s in Russian with English subtitles, but it tells an important and still little-known story of very tragic events.

It was only in the era of glasnost that people were really able to talk for the first time about what happened.  Gorbachev himself spoke of losing two aunts and an uncle in the mixed Russian-Ukrainian village in Southern Russia where he grew up.   It’s not clear how many people died – estimates vary from 3 million to 12 million – and there’s little clarity and fierce argument over exactly what went on.  Stalin’s collectivisation programme, together with generally poor administration, meant that crop yields fell in the first place, and a lot of grain was lost in the processing and transportation processes.  Then such grain as there was was requisitioned, and most of it was allocated to industrial workers in towns, leaving those in the countryside to starve.

Some people think that, whilst due to appalling mismanagement, it wasn’t deliberate.  Others believe that the Stalinist administration deliberately starved people in rural areas, probably to stifle Ukrainian nationalism.

Malcolm Muggeridge – am I the only person who associates him with Adrian Mole? – raised the issue in the British press, after spending time in the Soviet Union.  Other Western reporters also raised the issue.  However, they didn’t feature in this film, which was all about Gareth Jones, the first Western writer to speak out using his own name.

We saw Jones working in the Soviet Union, and some fairly harrowing scenes as he uncovered what was going on.  Then we saw his attempts to bring it to Western attention – and how, although his reports were widely publicised, it didn’t really suit anyone in authority to accept what was happening.   George Bernard Shaw and others would later travel to the Soviet Union, at Stalin’s behest, to claim that they saw no signs of famine: in this film, it was George Orwell who was reluctant to accept the damage done by communism, but that did sum up the views of many left-wing intellectuals.

Business people were eager to normalise relations with the Soviet Union, in the middle of the Depression, in the hopes of boosting the economy.  And we saw Lloyd George, for whom Jones had once worked, saying that he accepted what Jones was saying but that he didn’t know what Jones wanted him to do about it – what *could* he do about it?  On top of that, the Metro-Vickers trial was going on – the Soviets were holding six British engineering workers.  The film suggested that they’d threatened to execute them if Jones published his report … although I’m not sure that that’s very accurate.

The main figure, though, was Walter Duranty, the Liverpool-born journalist working for the New York Times, who insisted that Stalinism, although brutal, was necessary because the Soviet Union couldn’t be governed any other way, claimed that there was no famine and that Jones and the others were talking rubbish, and played a big part in Roosevelt’s decision to recognise the Soviet regime.  In the film, Duranty’s presented as a big baddie, forcing people to lie.  But what were his motives?  It’s certainly known that he did know about the famine.  Did he genuinely believe that Stalinism was a good thing?  Was he keen to promote good relations between the USSR and the West, to avoid war or promote trade?  Was he maybe, as some people have suggested, being blackmailed because he was gay?

There’s so much we don’t know.  But we do know that the famine happened, that it was the fault of the Stalinist regime, that millions of people died, and that Gareth Jones and other brave Western journalists tried to expose it.  People are very critical of the media these days: we shouldn’t forget what an important job journalists do.   And the Holodymyr, usually referred to as the Holodomor in the Russian rather than Ukrainian translation, is still little-known in the West.  Sad story all round.

 

How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn

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Yes, I know that this book’s over 80 years old, and, yes, I know that it was made into a film during the war, and has been adapted for TV; but it was new to me!

We’ve got a small Welsh mining community, in the late Victorian/early Edwardian era; and the story is told, in English but with Welsh idioms/speech patterns, from the viewpoint of a boy called Huw as he grows up.  On the plus side, Huw’s part of a loving family and a close community.  On the minus side, the mines are terribly dangerous and fatal accidents are common, wages are low, the community is divided over union membership and strike action, and the tyranny of the chapel is like something out of the Netherlands or Geneva at their most Calvinistic.  Any young woman unlucky enough to get into trouble is hauled up before the entire congregation and berated for her wickedness –  whilst her boyfriend, natch, gets off scot free.  However, no-one seems to have an issue with the two gay boxers who run one of the local pubs, so at least that’s something.

There are various romances involving Huw’s many siblings, including a love triangle between one of his sisters, the Methodist preacher (who’s actually very nice when he isn’t berating girls in trouble) and one of the mine owners.  And we hear all about Huw’s schooldays – he’s all set to get a white collar job and escape poverty, but then he gets expelled just before his exams.

It’s a lovely book in many ways, but Huw is really rather annoying.  The reason he gets expelled from school is one of the many fights he gets into.  OK, lads get into playground scraps, but Huw beats up the teacher, so badly that the police get involved.  The teacher did ask for it, but still!   And then Huw’s girlfriend disappears.  To be fair, he does ask her brother where she’s gone, but he can’t get an answer.  He doesn’t twig to what’s going on until his sister-in-law tells him that she’s been sent away … hopefully to a place with no chapels.  After that, she’s never mentioned again, and he doesn’t seem to give the baby a second thought.  It’s a bit silly anyway, TBH.  Surely the girl and her family would have tried to make him marry her?

However, despite the fact that Huw isn’t a very appealing protagonist, it’s really a very interesting book.  No dates are actually given, but, from references to the Diamond Jubilee and the Boer War, we can tell that it starts off in the late 1890s.  Strangely, even though everyone is a devoted royalist and they all get incredibly excited when the choir led by one of Huw’s brothers goes to sing in front of Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle, Victoria’s death’s never actually mentioned – we just suddenly start hearing about “the King” rather than “the Queen”!   As is often pointed out, the late Victorian/Edwardian period’s seen as a Golden Age which was destroyed by the Great War; but, for people in working class communities, and especially for women, it really wasn’t that great.  But then there were these very close communities, and that’s something that we’ve pretty much lost now.

This book’s been criticised for being maudlin and sentimental (especially as the author claimed that it was about his own experiences, until it transpired that he’d actually grown up in London!)  and that’s certainly what the title suggests – oh, everything was so wonderful back in the day, the sort of thing we’ve been hearing right back to when William Blake moaned about dark satanic mills.  But I didn’t read it like that – the book did not pull any punches about the conditions in the mines, the struggles by some families to put food on the table, the treatment of “fallen women”, the teacher who got angry with any pupils who spoke Welsh rather than English at school, and so on.  But nor was it a misery memoir like Angela’s Ashes.  Nothing’s all good or all bad, and that’s what this book shows.  Not bad at all!

Now … do I buy the three sequels, and add to my already ridiculously high book mountain?   Still thinking about that!

Britannia, Season 3 – Sky Atlantic

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   I’m pretty sure that there’s nothing in my history books about the Roman occupiers of Britain being cannibals, but, according to “Britannia”, they were just that.  Well, one of them was, anyway.  The poor bloke who ended up being served up at a banquet wasn’t even chopped into pieces and put in a stew.  He was wheeled to the table in a long silver dish, intact,  covered in a) all the trimmings and b) his helmet.

It all started off quite peacefully.  New series, new theme tune – Children of the Revolution.  Who knew that Ancient Romans and Celts were into Marc Bolan?   The Roman general with the Scouse accent had now got a nice pad in St Albans, but was in the doghouse all round because he’d lost track of the mysterious girl with magic powers, and wasn’t having much joy getting any information out of the guy who previously claimed to be 10,000 years old.  To add to his woes, his wife turned up.  This was when the rot set in.  First of all, she told him off for putting on weight.  Then she asked him where his sword was.  It was at the polishers, claimed he.  Ah.  Well, what was the sword that’d been found sticking out of a stump, then, asked she, brandishing it about.  He tried to claim that it wasn’t his, but failed dismally because it’d got his name on it  Engraved on it, that is, not marked with a Cash’s name tape.  She also crawled about sniffing the floor for any signs that other women had been in the place.  As you do.

Having found that he did, indeed, have a mistress around the place, she said that it was better than doing unspeakable things with his socks.  Too much information.  And then she had his mate served up for tea.

Meanwhile, Phelan, the dispossessed prince, was training as a druid, and was told to change his name to Quant.  Maybe druids were into Mary Quant make-up as well as glam rock.  Or maybe they just didn’t want their new guy being associated with Pat Phelan.  He was dispatched into the woods to find some moss, but sat around chatting to a centipede and then came back empty-handed.  And then the girl with the magic powers stabbed the guy who’d claimed to be 10,000 years old because he’d forgotten her name.  Or something.

I don’t know what the scriptwriters on this are on, but I suspect that it’s something rather stronger than mead.  Or vino.  And I think they may have had a little too much of it.  But at least it was entertaining.  It was so totally bonkers that you just had to laugh.  I mean, what on earth?!