Before Bethlehem by James Flerlage

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Biblical novels, notably The Red Tent, can be very good.  This one’s only so-so, but it does have a reasonable stab at setting the nativity story in the historical context of the struggles faced by the people of Judaea and Galilee under the control of both the Romans and the religious courts.  It’s easy to forget that the nativity story’s set only 70 years or so before the outbreak of the war that culminated in the mass suicide at Masada, because no-one ever really talks about the two things as part of the same history.  It also includes some interesting Tudor-esque suggestions about Herod’s fears of being overthrown by either the line of the Maccabees or the line of King David.  However, the author’s unwillingness to choose between a Red Tent-type novel presented as historical fiction and a religious story with angels and divine messages means that the book doesn’t really work that well as a whole.

The story follows an Orthodox tradition that Joseph was a middle-aged widower with several children when he met Mary, and is told from the viewpoint of James, his youngest son. I understand that all the details of Joseph’s family as given in the book – his children, his brother and sister-in-law, the name of his first wife – come from the same tradition.  He’s shown as being a reasonably well-to-do man, rather than a “humble” carpenter.

I’m hardly an expert on the Bible, but I don’t know that it actually says anything about Joseph not being well-to-do.  Is the “humble” idea some sort of English thing from the Peasants’ Revolt and “When Adam delved and Eve span”, or am I overthinking this?  And the idea that Joseph was a fair bit older than Mary makes sense, because he disappears from the story fairly early on – although I suppose he could just have died young.  Anyway, whatever, this is the picture we get.

Archaeologists agree that Nazareth, as it is now, was only a two bit village at the time, and the book shows Joseph and his family being based in Sepphoris, a now-ruined city nearby, but also owning and farming some land at Nazareth. It suggests that Herod wanted to force all the builders/craftsmen in the area to leave their homes, close to harvest time, and go and work on constructing his new city at what’s now Tiberias.  Tiberias is – thank you, Wikipedia – supposed to have been founded quarter of a century later, but, OK, I suppose people must have been working on it beforehand.  I’m not sure how well this idea works, but it does get across the point that everyone in the area was very vulnerable at the time – you couldn’t really argue with either the Romans or the religious authorities, and just had to try to keep your head down.

Unfortunately for Joseph, in the story of this book, he not only caught the eye of Romans looking for workers but also caught the eye of the religious authorities, who were looking for a husband for Mary. And this is where the author gets himself all tangled up.

By this point, around a thousand years have passed since the time of King David. The Bible is a historian’s nightmare and it’s well nigh impossible to be sure who did or didn’t really exist, or when, but it’s generally accepted that the reign of David was around a thousand years before the birth of Jesus.  However, according to all the sources, there were still people whose line could be traced back to David, and Joseph – so the New Testament says – was one of them.  And Mary was, according to the book, considered special because she was descended from Aaron, brother of Moses (I think that’s quite a common tradition?) and had been dedicated to the Temple from birth by her parents.

This would make any child of theirs a double threat to Herod. Think Katherine Grey and Edward Seymour, or Arbella Stuart and William Seymour!   This idea works really well, and would explain quite logically why Herod might have had it in for Joseph and Mary.  Herod was only king because he’d sucked up to the Romans.  He’d replaced the Maccabee dynasty.  Yes, all right, all right, it’s officially called the Hasmonean dynasty, but (the nickname) Maccabee works better.  You don’t get football teams called Hasmoneans, do you?  He’d married a Maccabee princess, but she wasn’t his first wife or the mother of his heir.  Meanwhile, most people still regard the descendants of King David as the rightful heirs.

The nativity story totally contradicts itself on this bit. The “king” has to be descended from King David.  Joseph is descended from King David.  Therefore Jesus has to be descended from Joseph.  Let’s not go there, because people can get very offended if you start questioning religious texts, but, as a historical novel, this seemed at this point to be working really well – it was all very plausible.

It was also very interesting, with descriptions of life at the time, of the harsh punishments meted out by the religious courts, of the issues of Roman occupation, and of James and Joseph journeying to Jerusalem and their time there. The idea was that Joseph had agreed to marry Mary – who was very young, and came across as being rather a brat –  in exchange for the religious authorities using their influence with the Romans to get him out of having to work at Tiberias.

However, it then all goes a bit awry, because the author presumably couldn’t bear to abandon the religious story, and brought in angels and miracles. He couldn’t bear to leave Bethlehem out of it either, even though historians can’t find any evidence to support the census story and it’s likely that Jesus was actually born in the Nazareth area and the stable/Bethlehem stuff was “created” to provide a link to Royal David’s City.  He doesn’t go with the census story, and instead, having included angels – although he doesn’t actually show angels appearing in Nazareth, instead saying that they’d appeared “offstage”, whilst Mary was staying with her cousin Elizabeth – and insisted that it’s a miraculous virgin birth, says that they decide to leave Nazareth to get away from the gossip, the scandal, and, above all, fears of punishment by the religious courts.

No stable as such. Instead, the birth takes place in a watch tower.  On the Day of Atonement.  Well, it couldn’t have been December, or shepherds wouldn’t have been watching their flocks by night – and the idea is that they originally went to Jerusalem but the reason everywhere was full up was because there were loads of pilgrims there.  That makes sense, I suppose.  And then three astrologers sent by Herod turn up, everyone keeps going on about miracles and messiahs, and they head off to Egypt.

So it’s a strange mixture of actual, practical history, Orthodox tradition relating to the life of Joseph, and a religious-miracle element which the author evidently couldn’t bear to be without. I’m not knocking religious-miracle stories, if that’s what people are into, but I don’t think that trying to work them into a historical novel really works very well.  It would have been much better to have stuck with the idea of Herod being after Joseph and Mary because he was worried about the threat from a scion of the rightful ruling dynasty.

It might be worth a read, if only for people to remind themselves of the historical context. As I said, no-one ever really relates the nativity story to the issues of Roman rule in Judaea and Galilee.  The Christian stories move on to Rome and Ephesus and don’t cover the destruction of the Second Temple, the destruction of Jerusalem and the Siege of Masada, and the Jewish stories don’t do Jesus, so you don’t get them together. But trying to combine a historical story and a religious-miracle story can get a bit muddled.

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Great Lives: Laura Ingalls Wilder – Radio 4

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This didn’t half pack a lot into thirty minutes!   I have loved Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books ever since I was a little girl, and it made me rather happy 🙂 to hear them being discussed by three people – journalist Samira Ahmed, author Tracy Chevalier and Laura’s biographer Pamela Smith Hill – who obviously love them as well.  It makes me sad 😦 that the books have become the subject of so much controversy in recent years – the much-discussed issue of racism, the question of whether or not it was actually Laura’s daughter Rose Wilder Lane who did most of the writing, and the argument that the books give a completely sanitised view of events.  I thought that this programme tackled and answered all those questions really well, without letting them take the discussion over completely.

I loved how enthusiastic they all were! So often these days, you listen to or watch or read something about a particular author, and it feels as if the broadcaster or author is only interested in pulling their work to pieces.  Quite often, it feels as if they haven’t even read the books properly, especially with some of the rubbish that people spout about Enid Blyton.  What a refreshing change to hear people who were obviously genuine admirers of Laura talking about her life and work.  I always think of her as “Laura”, never as “Mrs Wilder” 🙂 .

They started off by pointing out that the books were first published during the Depression, and appealed to the sense of nostalgia for a bygone era that always tends to flourish in difficult times, and also to the whole romanticised idea of the West. I can’t say I’ve ever really been that into the whole romanticised West thing.  Westerns don’t really appeal to me that much.  I can talk all day and all night about the Civil War, the build-up to the Civil War, Reconstruction and even the Mexican War, but not so much the West.  I don’t even know that the Little House books are “Western” in the “Wild West” sense that people generally use “Western”: they certainly don’t involve showdowns at the OK Corral and all that sort of thing!  But the idea of the pioneers certainly has a very romantic appeal.  I’m being earwormed by the Pet Shop Boys’ Go West now!   One of Pa’s songs was something about “Uncle Sam is rich enough to build us all a farm”.  It’s the American Dream, to own your own land.  And the idea of the American Dream still holds today.  People are trekking across Central America because of it.

They also suggested that writing the books must have been therapeutic for Laura. Reading the books as a little kid, I had no idea that Laura had written them because she desperately needed money after her family lost their savings in the Wall Street Crash, nor about Almanzo’s health problems.  Was it therapeutic for her?  It’d be nice to think so.  And, as they also pointed out, the white settlement of the West is often presented as a male-dominated experience.  With Laura’s books, we see it from the point of view of a girl.  It’s fascinating how we get this incredibly tough lifestyle, but we also get all this really girlie stuff about dresses and hairstyles and wishing that you were prettier than you are.  I still want a delaine dress with buttons that look like berries!

One thing that wasn’t mentioned at all was the religious aspect: I don’t know why that was missed. Having said which, they did say that the books are sometimes presented – presumably in America – in a moralistic way.  Maybe it’s best not to go there.  The Bible Belt culture is something that be quite difficult to get your head round, and which I don’t think most British people are at all comfortable with.  I doubt that Laura would be too comfortable with some of what goes on, either.  As I said, best not to go there.

I never watched the TV series. I don’t know why, given how much I’ve always loved the books, but I never did.  But I gather that it’s that which is largely responsible for the saccharine sweet image that the books have got in some quarters.  As Samira and Tracy stressed, they aren’t saccharine sweet at all.  OK, some of the most unpleasant aspects of Laura’s childhood, which are in Pioneer Girl, aren’t in the Little House books; but the books, especially the early ones, were written for young children, not for adults or even for teenagers.  But the books are essentially a tale of bad luck and failure.  And, as they said, maybe that’s part of the appeal.  The Ingalls family keep having to pick themselves up, dust themselves down, and start all over again.

And Samira said exactly what I think every time I revisit the books – that, as a young reader, you think that their life sounds very exciting and that Pa is wonderful; but that, as an adult female, you think that Pa is an idiot and you feel desperately sorry for Ma. That poor woman, being dragged from pillar to post, with four kids, all because of Pa’s “itchy feet”!  I want to cheer when she finally puts her foot down and says that they’re staying put, so that she can make a nice home and the girls can go to school.

Then they, inevitably, got on to the “culture war” question. As we all know, the Association for Library Services to Children in America recently renamed its Laura Ingalls Wilder Award as the “Children’s Literature Legacy Award”, due to concerns in the books about the attitude towards Native Americans and African Americans.  It’s a very difficult and controversial subject, and I said all I had to say about it at the time.  Samira made an excellent point about how – she said especially in America, but I think it’s happening everywhere – we seem to be losing the concept of nuance.  Everything’s becoming so polarised, and people seem so keen to stick labels on things.  I think it’s largely because of people with extreme views at both ends of the spectrum dominating social media, and dominating universities: surely the majority of people do not view things in such polarised terms.  As she said, surely we can read a book and say that, yes, I enjoyed that book, but/even though there are things in it with which I’m not comfortable.  Why is that a problem?  I thought that she put that very well.

Then on to environmentalism! I am not scientifically-minded, and I can’t say that I’d ever thought very much about how digging up the topsoil on the prairies caused the Dust Bowl phenomenon of the 1930s, but, yes, it’s interesting to think that Laura lived through all that.

And then to the idea of Manifest Destiny. That I can go on about that at very great length – and obviously it’s an extremely problematic concept now, and the treatment of Native Americans, from well before Laura’s time, was beyond appalling, but it’s something that does have to be understood in order to understand the historical context of the books.  Samira commented that the US is still struggling to come to terms with this.  It doesn’t seem to be talked about that much.  The issue of discrimination against African Americans is rarely out of the news, but very little seems to be said about Native Americans – certainly far less than about the First Peoples in Canada, or the Maoris in New Zealand, or the Aboriginal Peoples in Australia.

They then made another interesting point – that the happiest book is Farmer Boy.  I’d actually have said that the happiest book was These Happy Golden Years, but I suppose that doesn’t have the level of security and comfort that Farmer Boy has.  Laura, at 15, having to go to a strange place and teach pupils who are older than she is, isn’t actually a very happy idea at all.  OK, OK, they’ve probably got it right and I’ve probably got it wrong!   And they picked up on the scene in Farmer Boy that most sticks in my mind – Almanzo’s enormous breakfast!  The amount of food they eat for breakfast!   Most people don’t eat that much in two days.  Why did Almanzo and Royal, who both seem to have had considerably more sense than Charles Ingalls, leave that life behind to Go West?  They didn’t mention Eliza Jane, but why did she Go West?   Again, it’s got to have been the American Dream.  All that hope.

And, in poor Almanzo’s case, it all came crashing down. In The Long Winter, he was this super-fit young man who heroically went off with Cap Garland to bring back supplies in order to save the residents of the town from starvation.  Then he was struck down by complications from diphtheria when he was only 31, making it impossible for him to do all the hard physical work their lifestyle required, just as several years of severe drought were making life in South Dakota incredibly difficult anyway.  It’s a sad story.  The American Dream went sour for a lot of people.  Really, it never worked out for the Ingalls family in Laura’s childhood.  The books don’t gloss over that.  And yet they’re never gloomy or miserable.  But they’re certainly not saccharine-sweet.  They might not be an exact historical reflection of Laura’s childhood and youth, but they’re very realistic.

She’s only four in the first book, and, if we include The First Four Years, she’s in her early twenties by the end of the series.  We do grow up with her – as Samira and Tracy said, the tone of the books does change, and they do move from being books for very young children to being books for young adults.  I read the lot when I was aged between about 7 and 9, but I can still read any of them, and enjoy them.

They were scathing about Rose Wilder Lane, though!   I think there’s quite a lot to admire about her life, but she certainly doesn’t sound like a particularly nice person.  They pulled apart the suggestions that she wrote most of the Little House books, and even said – quite rightly! – that Let The Hurricane Roar is basically a rip-off of Laura’s real life experiences.

They finished up by saying that adversity had been the making of Laura, which is something that I don’t think anyone can argue with. I’ve never listened to Great Lives before, so I don’t know whether it should have focussed more on why Samira Ahmed, who nominated Laura, thought they she had a “Great Life”, rather than just being a general discussion about a popular author and her much-loved books, but they got through an awful lot in half an hour, and it really was very interesting.  And it was just so nice to hear people being positive, at a time when so many people in the media only seem ready to criticise.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Seventh Gate by Richard Zimler

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This is an uncomfortable book to read, but so are most of Richard Zimler’s books. It shows how a circle of friends in 1930s Berlin are targeted by the Nazis because one is severely autistic, one has giantism, two have dwarfism and some are Jewish.  We also see former communists rushing to cover up their political pasts and present themselves and their families as Nazis.  Quite a lot of the plot is centred on the Nazi policy of forced sterilisation, and it does focus the reader’s mind on the persecution of groups of people whose treatment has not always been given as much attention as it should have been.

It’s supposed to be the fourth (and final) book in the Zarco series, but, although one of the main characters is a descendant of the other Zarcos and there are various references to the Kabbalistic mysticism of the other books, there isn’t really much of a link. The Zarco books are essentially connected with Portugal, and Portugal doesn’t feature in this one at all.  It also involves a relationship between a teenage girl and an elderly man, and there’s a murder mystery mixed up in it all as well.

Richard Zimler’s books are quite weird generally, and this one’s actually considerably less weird than the second and third Zarco books!   Part of it reads a bit like a Judy Blume book about a girl’s issues with school and boyfriends and hairstyles, and then there’s all this absolutely horrific stuff about what the Nazis did to her friends.  It does a good job of portraying the huge contrast between the culture of Berlin in the early 1930s – think Cabaret – and what came next, as seen through the eyes of Sophie, who links all the other characters together, and of the horrors of the Nazi era and how it tore apart the lives of people who were just minding their own business.

I have to say that I preferred the three earlier books in the series, but that’s probably just because Nazi Germany isn’t particularly “my” subject. This one’s worth reading because there are very few novels, or books in general, about the groups of people represented by some of the characters in this book – Hansi, the boy taken to hospital for TB treatment and gassed to death because he was classed as mentally disabled, Heidi, the female dwarf who was forcibly sterilised without her knowledge whilst being treated for a miscarriage, and Vera, the giantess who was forced to attend a medical appointment where an abortion was performed on her and she was then forcibly sterilised. There were also many other groups of people who suffered at the hands of the Nazis, and their stories need to be told.  It’s happening, but, even now, it’s only happening gradually.

Evita: The Making of a Superstar – BBC 2

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I’ve got the worst singing voice in the entire known universe, but practically the first thing I did in Buenos Aires was sing (quietly) “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” outside the Casa Rosada. It had to be done!   It’s such an iconic song, from such an iconic musical – which, according to Suzy Klein on BBC 2, is Donald Trump’s favourite musical and was so admired by Maggie Thatcher that it led her to say she said she hoped someone’d write a musical about her.  Let’s not go there!   South American history isn’t widely taught in schools in English-speaking countries, but we’ve all heard of Eva Peron.  And we all know that song.

Our group went to a gloriously touristy Argentinian evening, involving large steaks and people (not us) dancing the tango. It also involved someone singing “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina”, which really surprised me.  OK, it was a tourist thing, but I wouldn’t have expected Argentinians to be into Evita.  Quite apart from the fact that it’s a British musical and Anglo-Argentinian relations aren’t exactly warm, it doesn’t portray Eva Peron very favourably.  The expression “scheming tart” was how one of the people interviewed on this programme summed it up.

And she really is still hero-worshipped by a lot of people in Argentina. Our local guide, clearly a very intelligent woman with intensive knowledge of Argentinian history, couldn’t praise her highly enough.  Many political leaders are greatly revered, but that’s usually because they led a country to greatness, or to independence, or saw it safely through a time of great peril.  Eva Peron didn’t do anything of those things.  She wasn’t even a political leader: she was just married to one.  She was, as we’re reminded at the very start of Evita, known as “the Spiritual Leader of the Nation”.  There aren’t too many other people seen in those terms.  Gandhi’s the only one who immediately springs to mind – and he certainly didn’t wear expensive clothes and go on glamorous Rainbow Tours.  To this day, many Argentinian households have pictures of Eva Peron on their walls.  Often next to depictions of the Virgin Mary.

The only other person who seems to be so adored in Argentina is Diego Maradona, and the least said about him, the better. And I see that the final of the Copa Libertadores, between Boca Juniors and River Plate, has had to be postponed because of hooliganism.  That’s actually quite relevant to Evita, because Boca Juniors have always been seen as the team of the poor/descamisados and River Plate as the team of the rich.

I’m not sure what story this programme was actually trying to tell. Was it the story of Eva Peron, the story of Evita the musical or the story of 1970s/1980s culture?  It seemed to be a bit of all three.  Maybe the same theme runs through all three – the cult of hype and image and celebrity.  But that’s one thing with a film or a musical or a pop group, and quite another with someone who has huge political and financial clout.

Tim Rice informed us that he first became interested in Eva Peron when he got some Argentinian stamps for his boyhood stamp collection, and wondered why they bore the picture of a woman who wasn’t a queen! And that, years later, he heard something about her on the radio, and decided to write a musical about her.  It’s certainly a great story – rags to riches, a tragically early death, hero worship, etc – but it’s still a strange choice.  The Perons wouldn’t have been well-known in Britain at the time.  And, even before the Falklands War, making a musical about Argentinian politics was hugely controversial.  Some people accused him of glorifying fascism.  And Eva Peron is a very controversial and divisive figure.  The musical couldn’t make that any clearer.

This was all very interesting, but the programme then veered off the subject of Eva Peron and on to the subject of how the musical was tied in with both the idea of powerful female leaders and the media obsession with celebrity. I’m not sure that either Eva Peron or Margaret Thatcher, whilst they had ambition and ruthlessness in common, would take very kindly to being compared to each other.  There are probably more comparisons to be drawn between Eva Peron and Diana, Princess of Wales, in terms of the “people’s princess” rubbish, but the programme didn’t so much draw comparisons between the two as say that the media were obsessed with the musical and its stars and that that obsession then moved on to Diana.  Er, it’s a great musical, but how on earth can you claim that Elaine Paige & co got the same level of media attention as Diana did?!

All the talk about the hype was actually quite sad. OK, obviously you’ve got to have publicity, to get bums on seats and make money, but it all seemed so cynical.  Much as it annoys me when anything isn’t historically accurate, I love the interplay between Eva Peron and Che Guevara in Evita. It’s so well done.  That bit where they dance together, and he goes on about how she’s conning everyone and she goes on about she can’t really do anything else within the Argentinian system, is just incredible.  It says so much about Argentina, and South American politics in general.  So I was rather upset to hear that the reason for including Che wasn’t to make some great political point but a) to appeal to the public by bringing in a household name and b) to provide a glamorous and romantic male lead role in which an attention-grabbing good-looking bloke could be cast.  OK, Antonio Banderas would be reason enough to watch the film version, even without the music and the history, but … well, it all sounds so cynical!  Boo!!

As I said, it wasn’t quite clear exactly what story or whose story the programme was trying to tell, and it this point it went back to Argentina and discussed the “Evita Movement”, set up in 2004 as a sort of social protest movement, and also commented that Eva Peron now has admirers from all social classes. I like that.  Whatever you think of Eva Peron, you’ve got to love the line “But our privileged class is dead.  Look who they are calling for now”.  I think that’s only in the film, not the stage version, isn’t it?  Great line.  And the line about “No we wouldn’t mind seeing her in Harrods, but behind the jewellery counter not in front” is a reminder that, long before the invasion of the Falklands, the privileged class was very Anglophile and there was huge British influence in Argentina.  There still is.  Harrods might have closed down, but there are still red postboxes in Argentina, and the uber-iconic Café Tortoni in Buenos Aires serves extremely nice scones.  Take that, Peron!

Lovely, lovely city, by the way. Beautiful buildings.  Great food.  Everyone talks about football all the time.

They then flipped from Eva Peron to Madonna. It does say a lot that Madonna was so absolutely desperate to play the lead role in the 1996 film version of Evita.  Like Bridget Jones J , I pretty much know all the words to The Immaculate Collection.  A lot of people who grew up in the ’80s will do!   You want celebrity, hype, image, and someone who really made the most of what they had?  Madonna.  I can’t imagine ever being friends with her, if I knew her personally, but what a woman!   Really, it was quite a risk for her to become involved in something that was very controversial at the time, because filming took place in Argentina at a time when, in addition to anger over the way Eva Peron was portrayed by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, both Britain and America were very unpopular there.  The programme showed us some of the “Fuero Madonna” and “Fuero Ingles” graffiti that appeared in Buenos Aires at the time.  It wasn’t mentioned in the programme, but the Argentinian government actually produced its own film about Eva Peron, as a direct response to all the controversy.

I can’t believe that the film’s 22 years old! I’ve seen it more often than I’ve seen the stage version (which is now 40 years old!), because cheap and easy to watch a DVD in your own front room, so I know it better than I know the stage version.  I’d never thought that much about the reasons for the differences between the two, but, as this programme pointed out, the portrayal of Eva Peron in the film is much softer and much more appealing than in the stage version.  “You Must Love Me” was a new song for the film, and the portrayal of terminally-ill Eva practically being propped up on the balcony of the Casa Rosada really tugs at the heartstrings.  Was it a sop to Argentinian sensitivies?  Well, the programme didn’t really go into that.  It just said that it was inaccurate, because the real Eva Peron was making feisty, rousing speeches right until just before the end.

It didn’t really answer any questions. It didn’t go into the real history of Eva Peron’s life and Juan Peron’s rule of Argentina, which is now all so confused, between the myths of Eva and the myths of the Evita musical, that it’s very hard to know what to think.  Even putting the myths aside and trying to rely on actual sources, historians can’t agree on exactly what was going on.  What was going on with the money from the Eva Peron Foundation?  Was Peron a fascist?  No-one seems to be sure.  But not too many people in the West talk like this, or even in Argentina, talks this much about General Galtieri, or about any of the umpteen other very questionable people who ruled Argentina or other South American countries during the 20th century.

Musicals and history are an incredible combination, when you think about it. Look at some of the subjects covered by the most popular musicals of all time.  The June Rebellion of 1832.  The Anschluss.  Pogroms.  The rise of the Nazis in 1930s Berlin.  Criminal gangs in Victorian London.  Gangland conflict in New York.  The Vietnam War.  The Second World War in the South Pacific, also covering racism.  The miners’ strike.  Pretty weighty subjects.  I assume that the word “superstar” in the title of this programme was meant to refer to Eva Peron, not Evita the musical, but the image of Eva Peron outside Argentina, certainly in the Angophone world, has largely been determined by Evita.  That says a lot about the power of musicals.  It’s quite frightening, actually!   Imagine if someone did make a musical about Margaret Thatcher, or Donald Trump, or any of the other controversial figures of our times.  Maybe not …

Hooligans or Rebels? by Stephen Humphries

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I rather like the idea of kids calling a school strike and spending the day hanging around outside Strangeways. Why did we never do that when I was at school?!  Seriously, school strikes were called for very good reasons  – in that particular case, calling for the abolition of the cane and for schools to pay monitors who were used as lackeys –   and this book, whilst it’s not very reader-friendly, makes some interesting points about how young people between 1889 and 1939 were nothing like as obedient to authority as the powers that be would have us believe.  There were school strikes across the country in some years, notably 1889 and 1911.  No-one tells you about that, do they?  And it certainly never happens in school stories!  And yet protests by schoolchildren can be incredibly important – look at what happened in America after the tragic shootings in Florida in March.

This book is hard going. It’s full of theories about behaviour.  Theories are fine in science or maths or economics, but not so great when talking about history or social science.  Whig history, Marxist history … if any of these theories actually worked, we’d be able to extrapolate what’s gone on in the past to predict exactly what’s gone on in the future.  Anyone confident that they can predict with reasonable accuracy how world events, or even just national events, are going to pan out over the next few years?  Also, the author is obsessed with trying to show that the middle-classes were trying to control the working-classes via the media of schools and youth organisations.  OK, he has a very good point, but he doesn’t seem to want to let the reader come to their own conclusions, so really he’s being just as controlling as the educational establishment he’s criticising was!  And it’s not very polite to keep referring to the people he interviewed for his work as “old people”!!

Still, the book makes some good points. It covers various aspects of the life and culture of working-class children in the UK between 1889 and 1939 – school, borstals/reformatories, youth organisations, legal and illegal work, and street gangs.   The chapter on street gangs was particularly interesting.  Or maybe that was just me finding it interesting because so much of it was about North Manchester 🙂 .  But it was the rewriting of history over school strikes that really struck me.

Every generation seems to take the view that When I Were A Lad/Lass we all behaved ourselves in school and we were scared of the teachers and scared of the police and didn’t dare defy our parents and all the rest of it, and The Youth Of Today are all totally undisciplined and so on and so forth.  But there is very much an idea that, however large class sizes may have been, and however bad conditions may have been, there was absolute discipline in schools.  Even though there can’t have been, because we’re always hearing about corporal punishment, and corporal punishment wouldn’t have been used if the kids had all been so well-behaved in the first place!

There is some mention of general skiving, but the strikes weren’t about trying to get out of work – they were about genuine grievances. Excessive use of corporal punishment was one.  Homework was another – not because of laziness, but because it was genuinely difficult for many children to work at home in the evenings, because of poor lighting and lack of space.  Schools were supposed to provide meals for children in cases of need, but that wasn’t always done, which was another source of grievance.  Sometimes a popular teacher had been sacked in order to save money, or there were plans to relocate the school to an inconvenient location.  In other cases, there was anger that the authorities were interfering with longstanding local traditions by trying to make children go to school during wakes weeks or on the days of local fairs  And some children genuinely found it a problem to attend school for such long hours, especially with the raising of the school leaving age from 12 to 14 in 1918, because they had to take part-time jobs as their families needed the money.

There were school strikes in 62 areas of the UK in 1911. I’m just going through the list, and we’ve got five areas of Manchester, plus six other parts of the North West … and many of the other areas are in either other parts of Northern England and Scotland. And it all started in Llanelli, which was at the centre of a strike by coal miners and railway workers that year.   Other areas were involved, though, and the longest-running school strike was in Burston in Norfolk, where a separate Strike School was eventually set up, with support from trade unions, the Co-op and left-wing political groups.

And there certainly wasn’t just a “Wa-hay, no school today,” attitude. The strikes were properly organised, just as strikes by adults were.  Banners, committees, protests.  Boys and girls were all involved, and children from all different religious backgrounds were involved.

But no-one teaches you about this. Our school history curriculum certainly wasn’t about trying to impose any sort of Establishment view on children.  We learnt about the Peterloo Massacre, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the development of trade unionism, the Chartists, the suffragettes, the General Strike … it was quite radical, really.  But no-one mentioned school strikes.  We’re all supposed to think that children in the past respected, and were even afraid of, anyone in any sort of authority.  I’m not for a moment saying that they shouldn’t.  I feel incredibly sorry for teachers, when you hear about some of the abuse that goes on in schools.  But this wasn’t about a lack of respect for teachers – in some cases, it was in support of teachers.   It was about protesting against what was seen as unfair treatment.  And it was about children not being over-awed by The Authorities – not being seen and not heard, when they needed to be heard.

I wouldn’t particularly recommend this book, but Googling something like “1911 school strikes” or “1889 school strikes” does bring up some very interesting articles. Oh, and I do wish someone had put it in a school story.  We get plenty of midnight feasts and running away. And then, today as in the period covered by the book, we get people whingeing that children, especially those from underprivileged backgrounds, are ignorant and delinquent and even dangerous.  But no-one wants to tell us about schoolchildren organising themselves, for legitimate reasons, and protesting against the authorities.  Now why could that be?!

 

 

Till the Boys Come Home by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

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The “War at Home” series has got better and better as it’s gone on.  This one – which includes a slight crossover with the much-missed Morland dynasty series – takes us up to the Armistice, making it clear to us as we go through 1918 that a German invasion was a very real possibility in the spring and that there seemed to be no end in sight even by late summer.  It was only in 1918 that compulsory rationing was introduced, risking letting people go short of food apparently having been deemed preferable to interfering with market forces (too socialist!), and, with so many deaths, Russia pulling out of the war and the arrival of the first wave of the Spanish flu, things were looking pretty grim … and yet life went on, with moments of joy as well as sadness for most of the characters.

There are a lot more scenes actually at the Front than in the previous books.  I’ll try to avoid spoilers (in case anyone is actually reading my drivellings, and is also reading the books), but we get scenes with the Army, the Air Force, and with Laura Hunter driving an ambulance and running her hostel close to Ypres/Ieper.  However, it’s not a military book, and most of the action does still take place on the Home Front, with the Hunter family and their domestic staff.  We even get to attend a meeting with Lloyd George and Haig, at which the introduction of rationing is discussed.

The overall sense is of war weariness.  It’s not a gloomy book in any way, and it’s never less than entertaining, but the sense of war weariness is very well conveyed.  I quite understand about Liberal ideas of laissez-faire and all the rest of it, but it almost beggars belief that compulsory rationing wasn’t introduced until 1918.  Whilst food shortages here were obviously never as bad as they were in Russia, it’s incredibly impressive that people did put up with it.  We all know the jokes about the British forming orderly queues, but standing in orderly queues, knowing that there might be no food left by the time you got to the front of it, would have been no bloody joke.  And this was after more than three years of war, with no end in sight … and there can’t have been anyone, by early 1918, who hadn’t lost people who were important to them.  Even hearing of the death of someone you only vaguely knew, maybe even someone you didn’t like, must have been just beyond distressing.

The only people who don’t seem to be war weary are young lads, still hoping that the war isn’t going to end before they can get in on the action.  Meanwhile, men up to the age of 51 are being called up.

At home, it’s total war.  Most of the book’s set in the countryside, away from the air raids.  We don’t see anyone working in munitions factories.  The female domestic staff, and the older male domestic staff, are still in their old jobs.  Yet the sense of total war still comes across.  People look back at their lives before the war and feel that they were different people then.  That’s particularly so for the women of the better-off classes – to whom the war’s brought opportunities, as well as sorrow.  Unfortunately, some of the characters from the earlier books don’t really feature in this, so we don’t get to see how Audrey, the Hunters’ cousin, is going on in her managerial role in her father’s business, and we don’t get to see much of their cousins Jack and Beth either.  I suppose only so much could be fitted into one book, and it seemed better to concentrate on the core family and their servants.

There is a lot about the servants – but what there isn’t is any real sense of a change in the class system.  And we don’t really see the effect of the war on the working-classes: we hear about food shortages, and we’re told that the Spanish flu has killed many people in the poorer neighbourhoods, but we don’t actually see that, because the focus is on an upper-middle-class household.  That’s not a criticism, because the books are what they are and they do centre on this household, but it means that there are major aspects of the war at home which we don’t see.

On the other hand, the book shows aspects of the effect of the war which most Great War novels, or any war novels, don’t.  We get to see how a young man invalided out of the war at any early stage – David Hunter – copes with his injuries, and with his feelings of uselessness and helplessness.  We also get several romances involving older couples, which is unusual and rather nice.

A couple of minor points.  The Morland crossover is only that David is treated at the Southport Hospital, and we don’t actually get to see any of the Morlands again; but it was still nice to have that mention there.  And is Cynthia Harrod-Eagles a big Noel Streatfeild fan?  She talks about being “all over” things rather than “covered in” things, which is very Streatfeild, and Munt the gardener refers to elevenses as “beaver”!

I feel as I’m not saying very much, but I can’t say that much more without giving the game away.  Like the Morland dynasty books, nothing actually goes that deep.  The Kirov trilogy books, which IMHO are the best ones Cynthia Harrod-Eagles has ever written, go so much deeper!   Let’s say that there are births, and marriages, and deaths.  The book actually ends with a death.  It’s the death of a very minor character, but it says a lot that Cynthia Harrod-Eagles wanted to end that way, with a death at the Front on the very day of the Armistice, rather than with scenes of wild joy and rejoicing.  Yes, the war is over, but too many of the boys won’t be coming home.

I assume that this isn’t the end of the series, because a lot of loose ends have been left rather than tied up.  And I just keep thinking that the next one will inevitably involve the Spanish flu, and that that’s going to mean more deaths.  And I want to shout, no, please don’t kill off anyone else, I can’t take it.  That’s reading a book about fictional people.  How must it have been to have actually lived through that time?  Thankfully, we don’t know – but we can get quite a good sense of it, or at least of aspects of it, from these books.  At a time when the Great War is much in the news, they give you a lot to think about.

 

WWI’s Secret Shame: Shell Shock – BBC 2

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This was horrible; but it said a lot about attitudes towards ordinary soldiers during the Great War, and also about attitudes in general towards mental health issues in men. It went into some detail about the story of a young man from Bolton who, having been found wandering about in an obvious state of severe trauma, was court martialled and shot at dawn.  Stories like that – and it was very sensitively presented by Dan Snow – aren’t unfamiliar, but they’re none the less distressing for that.

Jimmy Smith joined the Army in 1910, in his late teens. He was with the Lancashire Fusiliers during the famous “6 VCs before breakfast” assault on Gallipoli in 1915.  To mark the centenary of it, in 2015, there was an exhibition at the Lancashire Fusiliers Museum in Bury: I went to see it.  Incredible bravery, but the extent of the fighting, the brutality of it, for 6 VCs to have been awarded for that one action, is almost beyond imagining.  And then, in 1916, he was at the Battle of the Somme.  He won a promotion, and good conduct awards: he was a brave soldier and a hero.  But then he was buried alive after a German artillery explosion.

He was rescued, and sent to a hospital back home in Bolton for treatment. As soon as he was deemed physically fit, he was ordered back to the front; but he wasn’t up to it.  He hid under the stairs at his family’s home and wouldn’t come out, but the Military Police came round and pretty much dragged him out.  Then he was transferred to the King’s Liverpool Regiment- the regiment with which my grandad enlisted during the Second World War – and sent to Ypres/Ieper.  He wasn’t well and he couldn’t cope, and he was disciplined for not obeying orders, and eventually he was found wandering about near the town of Poperinghe, a few miles away, court martialled, and sentenced to death.  They ordered his friends to shoot him.  The execution was botched, so that he was injured rather than killed: it seems likely that his friends did that on purpose, hoping he’d be taken to hospital.  No.  His best friend was forced to finish him off.

He was one of 306 men executed under similar circumstances. Pardons were issued in 2009, but that was hardly a lot of use to them, or to the grieving families and friends they left behind. shot at dawn?  I doubt it, somehow.

So what was going on? We know that mental health issues were not really understood at the time, and we also know that they were stigmatised.  People were shut away in asylums for years on end.  But shutting someone away in an asylum, however horrific, at least acknowledged that they were suffering from a medical condition, and that it was something that they couldn’t help and weren’t doing on purpose.  The attitude of the military authorities towards shell shock – and, yes, some people still hold this attitude today, with depression and anxiety related disorders – was that it was a weakness, and that was extrapolated to being a moral disorder, cowardice, a disgrace.

That talk of “good conduct awards” sounds like something out of a school story, and the whole attitude sounds, in some ways, like something out of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, which was bad enough in a school situation, being applied to the horror and slaughter and … whatever words you use to describe the fighting in the Great War aren’t bad enough.  And yet, earlier in the war, attitudes had actually been more sympathetic.

From what the programme said, the symptoms associated with shell shock hadn’t been seen before. That seems strange, because there must always have been battlefield trauma, but maybe it was the technological advances that made the fighting in the Great War different to what had gone before that created different symptoms.  Or maybe it just got more attention because of the sheer numbers involved – around 250,000 men.  Doctors genuinely didn’t know what was going on, and at first thought that there had to be some sort of physical cause.

Eventually, in January 1916, psychiatric units were set up close to the front line. The idea was more to patch ’em up and send ’em back as quickly as possible, but I think that attitude, harsh as it seems, was understandable given the desperation of the situation.  At least it was acknowledged that people needed help.  The programme then explained that work was being done at home to try to improve psychiatric treatment.  One doctor, at the Maudsley Hospital in London, was trying to develop forms of pastoral care.  Another doctor, according to Dan, was a bit of a charlatan, claiming that he could cure people in an hour, and showing “before and after” film footage which clearly wasn’t what it claimed to be.

The second doctor having a local-sounding name, I decided to see what Google could tell me about him. He was actually born in Bradford, but he attended VIth form at the boys’ school which is the “brother school” to my old school.  Oh dear.  That was a bit awkward.  However, further investigation found out that he was a very highly-respected doctor, the founder of the British Society of Gastroenterology, and that many of his former psychiatric patients wrote to thank him for his help.  So I think Dan was a bit hard on him, really!   Anyway, there were two main points to this part of the programme, one being that treatment offered varied widely, and the other being that at least it was being acknowledged that these men were not cowards, or “deficient” in any way: they were ill.

Then attitudes hardened. It seems to have been largely a reaction to the number of shell shock cases.  There’s a scene in Blackadder Goes Forth (this wasn’t mentioned in the programme, but everyone was really into Blackadder in my teens, and I remember this scene well) in which Blackadder tries to get out of being sent “over the top” by pretending to be “mad”.  It doesn’t seem very funny now, because the authorities took the view that that was what was going on.  They seem to have viewed men suffering from shell shock along the lines of naughty boys trying to skive out of PE lessons.  What did I say about Tom Brown’s Schooldays?  A cap was put on the number of people allowed treatment, and 3,000 men were court martialled – of whom, as already mentioned, 306 were executed.  An inquiry held after the war said that shell shock was a “disgrace”.  The term was actually banned, and little help was given to men struggling to cope once the war was over.

The current take on the Great War is that we should be trying to move away from the idea of lions led by donkeys. But … bloody hell.  And what makes it worse is that attitudes actually had been getting better.  And then they got worse again.  It’s understandable that the authorities wanted people back in action as soon as possible, but the attitude, the callousness, when doctors had said that these men were not cowards, that they were ill.

How do you make sense of it? Desperate times call for desperate measures?  No – that doesn’t make sense.  If soldiers have got something wrong with them, you’d try to sort it.  It was the failure to accept that something was wrong, the insistence that it was cowardice, moral failure.  Part of me wants to say that it was some sort of male public school attitude, but I’ve heard plenty of people who are neither male nor the product of public schools sneer that people suffering from depression and anxiety are just looking for attention and need to pull themselves together.  And, as bad as it is for women, it’s worse for men, because of this whole “macho” thing, especially in a military environment.  So I don’t really know what to say – apart from a big thank you to Dan Snow for his very sensitive discussion of a very distressing subject, and one which many people don’t find it easy to talk about.

The programme didn’t end with the Great War. It went on to discuss the resurfacing of shell shock during the Second World War.  At the start of the Second World War, talk of shell shock was banned, and, despite everything that had happened during the First World War, the advice given was to slap “hysterical” men across the face or throw cold water over them.  Thankfully, that changed, and the number of psychiatrists attached to the Army was increased from 6 (6!  For the entire British Army!) to 300.  It was after the D-Day Landings that huge numbers of shell shock cases were seen.

That happened to my grandad: he had shell shock after the D-Day Landings and the fighting that followed. Dan spoke to a surviving veteran about his experiences, and to the son of Len Murray (the Secretary General of the TUC during the Winter of Discontent and the early Thatcher years) about his father’s experiences.  In both cases, the men’s lives had been permanently affected by what had happened to them, and neither had received much help.  I know Grandad did receive treatment, so maybe it was the luck of the draw, and it depended on whether or not you got a sympathetic doctor.  Certainly there wasn’t enough support, though.

The programme then went on to say that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was only officially diagnosed/recognised after the Vietnam War, and only recognised by the British military after the Falklands War. Excuse my medical ignorance, but I’d kind of thought that PTSD was an official name for shell shock.  Apparently not.  The symptoms aren’t the same: PTSD sufferers have flashbacks, which First and Second World War veterans suffering from shell shock didn’t.  Sir Simon Wessely, who’s done a lot of work in relation to PTSD (and also Chronic Fatigue Syndrome), explained about it, and suggested that it might be a cultural thing connected to the frequent use of flashbacks in films about war.  I don’t pretend to understand how that would work, but it was certainly interesting to hear about.  Dan then spoke to a man who served in Afghanistan and, although the Army apparently knew that he was displaying symptoms of PTSD, was only officially diagnosed years later, by his GP.

It was pointed out that, whilst there’ve been improvements in psychiatric treatment for serving troops, the availability of treatment for those who are no longer in the Army is actually being reduced, to save money.  And, even when treatment’s given, it’s only really palliative.  A century after the Great War ended, we still don’t really know how to treat this.

None of this was easy to watch. Jimmy Smith’s story nearly had me in tears.  It had Dan Snow visibly distressed.  “The guy was a hero,” he said.  Yes.  He was.  And he was executed by his own side.  The programme was well-named.  “Shame” is the right word.