My Grandparents’ War (series 2) – Channel 4

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The loss of the Queen marks a break with the wartime generation, and a reminder that there aren’t now many of that generation left with us.  It’s important that their stories not be forgotten, and this series shows celebrities looking into the roles played by their grandparents during the War.  First up was Kit Harington, whose two sets of grandparents each met and married whilst serving in the war effort in their different ways.

His maternal grandfather was in the Army, and, following a training accident, was admitted to the Exeter hospital where his future wife was serving as a VAD.  Later, he fought at Monte Cassino.  We saw Kit meeting a 99-year-old lady who’d been in the same team as his grandmother, and also visiting a Commonwealth war cemetery at Monte Cassino, and reading some of the poetry which his grandfather had written partly to try to cope with PTSD.

On his father’s side, both grandparents had been posted to the Caribbean.  His grandmother was with the censorship office in Barbados, and his grandfather had been with naval intelligence, detailed to keep an eye on the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.  He’d have known both Ian Fleming and Kim Philby.

That was rather exciting, but the roles of all four grandparents were fascinating, and the programme was really very well done.  This is an excellent series, and highly recommended.  And readers of A Chalet Girl from Kenya may be interested to know that the third episode, featuring Emeli Sande, covers the Mau Mau Rebellion.

Strangers at the Farm School by Josephine Elder

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This is one of the sequels to Exile for Annis,  set at the Farm School which is one of several unconventional fictional schools inspired by Summerhill School.  The school has expanded, and amongst the new pupils are Hans and Johanna, two children brought from Germany to Britain on what we now call the Kindertransport.  Both they and the other new pupils initially struggle to fit into life at the Farm School, and, whilst of course everyone settles in in the end, what happens is quite interesting and thought-provoking.

The timing with the Kindertransport’s actually a bit out, because they arrive at the start of the 1938/39 academic year, three months before the transports began.  That can be forgiven, though.  The book was published in 1940 and, with most children’s authors either writing spy stories or ignoring the war and the build-up to war, this book, with its focus on refugees, would have been something different.

We see contrasting attitudes from the children.  Johanna is happy and grateful to be in Britain, but Hans is initially suspicious of the British due to hearing Great War stories whilst growing up; and, the children being from a wealthy family, he resents the fact that they no longer live in a big house with servants and luxuries.  That’s very interesting.  It’s not unrealistic that a child might have felt like that, but I think that an author today would be afraid to present a refugee in a negative way for fear of a backlash, even though it’s explained that Hans is reacting like this because he’s afraid and unsettled and struggling to come to terms with what has happened to him and his family..

Meanwhile, Annis has been elected as the first female president of the school.  The book is very supportive of women’s rights: Annis learns to drive, and insists that girls should be allowed to play whatever sports they like.  We also see that several female former pupils have gone on to university, and that Annis herself is hoping to go to Cambridge, to study sciences.  We also get arguments in favour of food and drink using only natural ingredients, with mutterings about not wanting beer produced in test tubes: that again seems like a very modern view in a book from over 80 years ago.  Comments about “peasants” and “gippos” are more dated.  I’m not trying to judge the book by today’s standards, just interested in the views on these issues, especially given what an “in” topic women’s sport, in particular, is at the moment.

Other than Annis, no-one actually seems to do very much schoolwork!   They’re either doing farmwork, learning to ride, watching hop-pickers or playing sport.   Very little time seems to be spent in lessons, something which the new pupils find strange and objectionable. To be fair, people with exams coming up are excused from some of the farmwork, but they still seem to do an awful lot of it.  But then there’s trouble when some of the new kids don’t want to get stuck in.

Of course, everyone eventually decides that the school is wonderful, but I’m not sure how realistic it is that people would have sailed through external exams after so little preparation.  And there’s a happy ending for Hans and Johanna.   But it’s not a simplistic book: there’s a lot in it to make the reader think.   The idea in a lot of Girls’ Own books is that everyone should learn to fit in and subjugate their own interests to the common good, but, using beehives as a metaphor, Annis suggests that that would be like living in a totalitarian state, and makes it clear that a balance has to be found between personal interests and group interests. But that’s easier said than done: they run into trouble with packing the apples because there are no rules about it and not enough kids volunteer.   But then is it OK to miss group work to pursue, say, a talent for art?

It’s a very interesting book, which goes a lot deeper than some school stories do.  Of course, all turns out well in the end, but it takes a while to get there.

Rebekka and the Unwashed Child of Eve by Angela Stevens

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This was an excellent book, despite the off-putting title.  I don’t often read anything with a fantasy element, but this contained so much detailed information about rural Iceland in the 1870s – houses, systems of labour, the roles of men and women, food, drink, religion, medicine, clothes, embroidery -, all put across extremely well, that I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Belief in huldafolk, or fairy folk, remained strong in Iceland until recent times, and to some extent still does.  It’s become fused with Christianity via a belief that Adam and Eve had children who didn’t appear in the Bible as Eve was ashamed to show them to God because she hadn’t had time to wash them, and that it’s from their line that the huldafolk come.  In this book, a childless couple foster a child who’d fallen into the water and been frozen in it, and it transpires that the lost child and a fairy child had become fused together.  Their farm and their community prosper from when she arrives, and she and a local youth fall in love, but their neighbours become suspicious of her and she eventually leaves.

It sounds weird, but it really does come across well.  The folklore itself is interesting, and the picture of the society of the time and place, an unusual setting for an English-language book, is incredibly well-drawn.   This isn’t my usual thing, but it was very, very good.

All Creatures Great and Small (series 2) – Channel 5

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How lovely to have this wonderfully comforting programme back, just the thing for autumnal evenings and especially at such a difficult time for the nation.  It was particularly nice that the new series started with James and Helen’s wedding.  Needless to say, there were all sorts of mishaps before the happy couple finally made it to the altar, but they got there in the end.  Some valuable points were also made about farming being a reserved occupation, and the importance of vets in keeping the food supply safe, both in terms of keeping it going and in terms of keeping TB out of the bovine, milk-producing population.

Was it filmed during Covid restrictions, though?  There were only 8 guests at the service!

Anyway, it was a perfect mix of light-hearted comedy, romance and some more serious elements, and the views of the countryside were lovely.  Having this back is a real tonic.  Thank you, Channel 5.  “Reboots” don’t always work, but this one definitely does.

Britain’s Secret War Babies – Channel 4

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  This programme was about two people seeking to find their fathers, African-American GIs stationed in Britain during the war.  It was sad to hear that many black GIs with white British girlfriends had been unable to marry them because the US Army had refused permission, even when there was a baby on the way.   That left the women concerned with a choice between bringing up a child alone, with the stigma of illegitimacy and the additional issue of raising a mixed-race child in areas which were otherwise 100% white, or giving the child up.

In the two cases covered by this programme, one woman had been kept apart from the child’s father by her own mother, who didn’t want her daughter and grandchild moving to America, and the other woman had married a British boyfriend who’d ill-treated both her and her son when he realised that the child couldn’t be his.

Both the stories had happy endings in the programme, in that the biological fathers were identified, and half-siblings who were happy to meet the two “war babies” found; but, as the programme said, many people haven’t been able to trace their fathers, and many children grew up in care because their mothers couldn’t keep them and mixed-race children were difficult to place for adoption.  The presenter seemed determined to stress the negative aspects of everything, but even taking a more balanced view, it’s quite a sad part of wartime history.   Some couples would have been unable to marry anyway, because one or both partners were already married, because of family objections or because they just didn’t want to, but hundreds of children could have had very different lives if there hadn’t been that US Army objection to mixed marriages – marriages which would have been perfectly legal in Britain.

The presenter clearly had an agenda and kept trying to turn things on to it, but the human stories won through, and at least each of the “war babies” involved found their American relations and were welcomed by them.  Happy endings.

 

 

 

Flight of a Chalet School Girl by Katherine Bruce

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The only time I’ve ever enjoyed an exam was when one of my General Studies A-level papers asked for the historical background to the war in Yugoslavia.  I love Balkan history.   I even love the history of fictional Balkan countries, so I’m delighted that, as a change from school stories, Katherine Bruce has written a book about Crown Princess Elisaveta of Belsornia’s flight from her homeland, as Nazi German troops prepare to invade, to safety in Britain.

We’re given the outline of the story of Elisaveta’s journey by Elinor M Brent-Dyer (EBD), and it has to be said that it’s one of several rather silly and unlikely episodes in the wartime Chalet School books.  For a kick off, Belsornia moves from the NW Balkans to the SE Balkans.  Then, on arrival in Britain, the princess takes a job as a charlady until she can afford to kit out herself and her children with clothes from a second-hand shops, and then takes a taxi to Armishire!   I mean, what on earth?!   Why didn’t she just report to the authorities?   Or send a telegram?  And who would employ a well-spoken woman, and one who probably had a foreign accent, as a charlady anyway?  Plenty of Continental royals sought refuge in Britain during the war, but none of them worked as charladies!

However, Katherine’s made a brilliant story out of the brief account of the long and extremely eventful journey, and has clearly done a lot of research into the situation in Europe and North Africa at the time.  She’s even made sense of the charlady affair, and generally made everything as realistic as a book about an unlikely journey made by a Ruritanian princess could be.  We even, touchingly, see Elisaveta going to London to sign the Allied Declaration condemning the treatment of Jews by the Nazis.

At the beginning, we see the visit of Elisaveta, her fiance and his aunt to the Tiernsee, and then we see the royal wedding, both of which are referred to by EBD after the events, not actually shown.   GGBP “fillers” are consistent with each other, but Bettany Press books evidently aren’t included, because neither Madge Russell nor Jack Maynard attend Elisaveta’s wedding in this book, although they did in Two Chalet Girls in India.  However, we do get some senior Yugoslavian and Bulgarian royals there, bringing Belsornia and Mirania into the real Balkan world.  It may be a Ruritanian country, but there’s nothing Ruritanian about the Second World War.  We jump forward to 1941 by means of letters exchanged between Elisaveta and Jo, and then the “adventure” part begins.   It all comes across very well and very realistically, as we hear that German troops are massing on the Miranian border and will in all likelihood soon reach Belsornia, and Elisaveta, her children and her maid are leaving, initially planning to go to Turkey and take ship from there, until things went wrong.

The name “Constantinople” is used even though the city had officially been called Istanbul since 1930; but, to be fair, EBD did that too.   And I could have done without the repeated use of “England” for “Britain” and “Russia” for “the Soviet Union”, but both were and are very common.  EBD sometimes even used “England” when referring to places in South Wales!  Also, the afterword mentions that a family with whom they travel are Armenian, which isn’t clear in the text as they had Turkish names.  Sorry, I’m a right nitpicker.  There are only minor nits to be picked, though!  The one big EBD-ism/KB-ism was saying that Jem Russell had been knighted.  He wasn’t knighted: he was created a baronet.  But what would a Chalet School book be without an error?   It’s all part and parcel of Chalet lore!   Having said which, Hilda Annersley would ban computerised spell-checkers, which don’t pick up typos such as borders for boarders or miner’s for miners’.

There’s a lot of careful detail about how they manage for food and shelter on their journey through Turkey and North Africa, and also about the ups and downs – literally! – of sailing on a small boat.  Arletta must have had superhuman strength to have been able to carry both the boys, but there wasn’t really an alternative: EBD doesn’t seem to have considered the practicalities of travelling with a newborn baby and two small children!  Just as an aside, my first ever piece of Chalet School fanfic featured Freddie Helston, Elisaveta’s eldest son, as the hero, so I was very pleased to see him in a “real” book.

The section about their time in Spain and Portugal is a bit rushed, but it would have been a bit samey to have heard any more about trekking and looking for food and shelter.   There’s no suspense element because we know that they’d make it safely to Armishire in the end, but then you kind of know anyway that children’s adventure books will have happy endings, and it doesn’t make the exciting bits any the less dramatic.  And Katherine’s done an excellent job of making sense of what happened when they arrived in Britain, by saying that the six week wait was due to quarantine after coming into contact with a scarlet fever case, that the charring job was shared with a woman with whom they travelled from Portugal, and that they only took a taxi from Armiford station to Joey’s!  She’s also shown Elisaveta being in touch with Belsornian officials in Britain, and other Belsornian exiles, which EBD curiously never does.  Much more realistic than the idea that an exiled Crown Princess would just have a jolly time living with an old schoolfriend.

I thoroughly enjoyed this.  I wonder if we’ll see more “fillers” along this line, a bit of a spin-off.  I think all the missing terms have been “filled” now, and books retelling the story of a “canon” term from a different viewpoint are limited as to what they can say because the story’s already there.   I’d certainly read anything else like this one: it was excellent.

 

Maybe, at some point during her stay in Britain, Elisaveta got to meet the young Princess Elizabeth.  I am so saddened by the loss of our beloved Queen.  May she rest in peace.

My Fair Lady by J P Reedman

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This is a novel about Eleanor of Provence.  Unlike The Silken Rose, which it predates, it covers Eleanor’s childhood, and also her life after the death of Henry III.   It’s pretty much historically accurate, allowing for the fact we don’t really know whether incidents such as Eleanor of Castile sucking poison out of her husband’s wound really happened, shows life at the courts of Provence, France and Scotland as well as England, and is generally very enjoyable.

However, it’s very biased in Eleanor’s favour.   Only a couple of lines are devoted to her mistreatment of Jews on her lands, the de Montforts are very much shown as being the baddies, and no criticism is attached to her over the number of her relatives given important positions.   It’s told in the first person so that’s perhaps inevitable, but, as much as I dislike the de Montforts, I’m not a great fan of Eleanor, so that grated on me a bit.  It’s a good historical novel, though, and there aren’t many books about Henry III and Eleanor of Provence so it was good to find another one.

The Affairs of Ashmore Castle by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

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I’m pleased to say that this was a distinct improvement on the first Ashmore Castle book.  I loved the author’s Kirov trilogy and liked her War At Home and Morland Dynasty series, but The Secrets of Ashmore Castle was a bit disappointing.  This one was much better – a glorious, if sometimes a bit rose-tinted, depiction of Edwardian rural England.

The series is clearly intended to try to ape Downton Abbey, rather than to be particularly original; but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, given good characterisation and good plotlines.  The plotlines in the previous book were rather silly in parts.  Those in this book were more like it.

I was, however, nearly put off very early on: I’d only got as far as page 10 of this before I found a historical blunder.  The book stated that Ernest of Hesse was the brother of the Queen of Romania.  No, no, no!  He was the brother of the Empress of Russia.  The Queen of Romania was his ex-sister-in-law!  Errors like that are extremely annoying.  There were a few spelling mistakes as well.  Spellcheck doesn’t pick up on errors if the incorrect spelling’s a word in itself, and editors don’t seem to read things properly any more.  However, in general, this book was a return to the sort of form expected from Cynthia Harrod-Eagles.

Like the War at Home books, there were a *lot* of characters and a lot of different storylines going on, so it was quite bitty.   And very much one in a series rather than a stand-alone book: ends were not tied up neatly – the book finished so abruptly that I checked the number of pages to make sure that my copy hadn’t got any missing – and readers really needed to have read the first book in the series in order to be able to follow that one.   As a slight aside, were some of the names meant to be a joke?  Bunce the farmer is very Roald Dahl.  And Trump the dog?!

No spoilers, but, as with the first book, we had various members of the Stainton family – the earl, the jam heiress countess, the dowager, the earl’s younger brother, the earl’s two younger sisters and the earl’s uncle – plus the countess’s middle-class friend and her husband, and various servants and other locals.   A few famous names were mentioned, and we even got to meet the King and Queen at Cowes; but there was little mention of national or world events: it was about the domestic, family and love lives of the characters.  And the countryside – glorious rural England in what we think of as the Golden Age before the Great War.  Of course, it wasn’t glorious for everyone, and the book didn’t really show much of the poverty that existed; but it’s period drama escapism … like Downton Abbey.  The descriptions of both the landscape and the grand houses were wonderful.  And the clothes.  Lots of detail about fashion!

Don’t be looking for too many thrills from this, but, as a domestic period piece, it really was good.  Roll on the next one in the series!

The Girl in the Pink Raincoat by Alrene Hughes

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This isn’t a particularly well-written book, but it was on a cheap Kindle offer; and there’s an awful lot of local interest in it for anyone from the Manchester area.   It includes some very evocative scenes of the Manchester Blitz.  It also covers the largely-forgotten story of the internment camps at Warth Mills (in Radcliffe, near where Newbank Garden Centre is now), where many members of the local German/Austrian-Jewish and Italian communities were taken during the Second World War, and how many of them were tragically killed when the SS Arandora Star, taking them to Canada, was torpedoed.   There are also some vivid descriptions of Heaton Park before the war, of town, and of the factories both in the Strangeways area and in Trafford Park.

The storyline’s not particularly convincing, but it’s all right.   Gracie Earnshaw works in a raincoat factory, where she becomes involved with the boss’s nephew, Jacob Rosenberg.   His family aren’t keen, because he’s Jewish and she isn’t, but the two agree to marry … only for him to be taken off to an internment camp just as she was waiting at the registry office.   Without wanting to post spoilers, the story then develops with two other men, with an unlikely switch from war work to working in the theatre, and with a secret long kept by Gracie’s mother.

It’s not the best of books, as I said, but it’s worth reading for the descriptions of the local area and the local communities, and also for the inclusion of the story of the Warth Mills camp.  The author makes good use of real events, and her descriptions of Manchester are very much Manchester.  Overall, not bad!

The Great (second series) – Channel 4

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This really is a load of rubbish, and yet it’s strangely watchable, because it’s so bad!   I was going to say that it was like a very crude Carry On film; but Carry On films are funny, and this is just stupid.   They’ve deliberately got all the history of Catherine the Great’s life wrong, even things which could have been got right without altering the script, e.g. Catherine’s husband being Peter’s grandson (they’ve said that he’s Peter’s son).

At the start of the second series, Catherine has succeeded in overthrowing Peter – but she’s expecting their heir, who was actually born several years earlier.  And the set-up in this bonkers programme is that Catherine rules part of the palace, but Peter and his supporters are holed up in one wing.  No-one seems concerned with such trivial matters as running the Russian Empire or foreign policy.   Peter has a number of lookalikes, who keep getting shot, and there’s a lot of arguing over food.  And dead bodies are hanging around.  And at one point there was a crocodile running round the court.

It’s so bad.  It’s terrible.  And yet it’s worth watching just to marvel at how bad it is!