Living in the Shadow of World War II – More4

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Programmes about the history of food are always interesting, and the effect of food rationing during the Second World War is still with us. Apple crumble and carrot cake, anyone 🙂 ? My fridge is full of leftover bits and pieces, even fruit that’s starting to go off, because my grandparents’ generation trained my generation never to throw good food away. This programme managed to cover all sorts of things in under an hour – glorious terms such as “National Loaf” and the “Rural Pie Scheme”, some strange revelations about the testing carried out by nutritionists, the Dig For Victory scheme, mobile demonstration vans showing people how to make eggless cakes, issues with knicker elastic, how being Land Girls made life easier for lesbians, “Doctor Carrot” (with very odd-looking shoes) and, of course, queues. You’d think they’d have mentioned that Lord Woolton, the Minister for Food (and only a “lord” since 1939) grew up just round the corner from Old Trafford, though. I mean, I’d have said that in the first few minutes.  What came across really well was what a good job the authorities did of managing a difficult situation, and how they really tried to make it as fair as possible.

I’m not sure that I really needed to know that nutritionists were analysing what came out as well as what went in, but, OK, it made the point that there was serious scientific research going on into what people needed to eat in order to remain healthy. Whilst the Nazis allowed people not considered to be part of the master race only 450 calories a day, and the Soviets prioritised the transport of armaments even if it meant food supplies running short, the government here really did try to make sure that no-one went without – even though, by late 1942, pretty much all types of food other than vegetables were on ration, and it wasn’t always possible to get certain items even if you had the coupons for them.

All that queuing! And then trying to feed yourself and the rest of your household on whatever you’d managed to get. My grandmas and great-aunts used to keep ridiculous amounts of non-perishable foodstuffs in stock, because they never quite got past the psychological impact of coping with rationing. And it was a huge amount of work for shopkeepers. The programme talked about all the detailed record-keeping that had to be done, especially when people wanted to take only part of their weekly ration and come back for the rest another day, and people remembered little arguments over things like whether or not the weight of the paper that the food was wrapped in should be taken into account. And, OK, there was a fair bit of black market activity going on, despite the large fines and two year prison sentences that could be imposed for it, but people were generally very accepting of the situation. There were no food riots, even though everyone must have got thoroughly fed up (no pun intended) with it all.

So much thought and work went into it all. What a contrast to the times of food shortages in earlier periods of time, when the less well-off were just left to suffer. Famously, even the Royal Family were subject to rationing, and we heard Eleanor Roosevelt’s account of being served off gold and silver plates on a visit to Buckingham Palace, but only getting the same amount and type of food that was available to everyone else, including “National Loaf” bread – which must have been very good for you, because it contained extra calcium and vitamins, but which apparently looked and tasted bloody awful. Price caps were put on the amount that restaurants could charge for a meal, to ensure that it didn’t become a case of the rich eating out all the time whilst everyone else had to cope on rations, and subsidies were given to the least well-off.

It didn’t mention school dinners, which was a shame, but I suppose they couldn’t cover everything. We did hear about British Restaurants, though – and how they got their patriotic name because Churchill thought that terms like “community feeding centres” sounded too socialist! It wouldn’t be a bad idea to bring something like that back. And the wonderfully-named Rural Pie Scheme, providing pies for farm workers. A lot of voluntary work was involved. Then there were the “mobile demonstration vans”, doing their eggless cake demos! Austerity food like apple crumbles and carrot cakes are still very popular … although some of the other stuff mentioned, including horse meat and (immediately after the fall of Norway) whale meat, didn’t go down very well even at the time. It seems a bit unfair that game wasn’t rationed, seeing as people in inner city areas would have had far less access to it than those in rural areas, but I suppose there was no practical way of monitoring it.

The programme talked a lot about the campaigns to help people cope with rationing and promote healthy eating, as well. There seemed to be a lot of films, which presumably people only got to see if they went to the cinema, although wireless programmes were also mentioned. Doctor Carrot, with a top hat, glasses and some very odd-looking shoes, helping fighter pilots to see in the dark!  A lot of it sounds horrendously patronising now, especially as the voiceovers were always by men, at a time when nearly all the cooking would have been done by women, and always in those terribly posh accents that all BBC announcers used to speak in, but the authorities really were trying hard to make sure people could manage.

We also heard a bit about the Dig For Victory scheme, including film of Aintree racecourse, a golf club and parts of the royal estates being dug up. It was all so well-organised. I hate to sound like some old biddy going on about how everything was done better back in the day, but imagine if the people in charge of, say, rolling out Universal Credit had been in charge of distributing ration coupons or encouraging people to Dig For Victory. Domestic food production levels rocketed. Farm labourers’ wages went way up! People volunteered to help bring in the harvest. The Land Girls did incredibly important work – some of it, especially for those in the Timber Corps, extremely physically demanding.

The programme also touched on how the war was quite liberating for those women, with particular reference to lesbians, and also briefly mentioned clothes rationing – with specific reference to painting your legs to make it look as if you were wearing stockings, and the potential issues that a shortage of elastic could cause with underwear! – and petrol rationing, but it was mostly about food. It says a lot about how attitudes had changed. I’ve got the Napoleonic Wars on the brain at the moment, because of the Peterloo bicentennial, and there were terrible food shortages then, with people just left to cope as best they could, food riots breaking out, and then, after the wars, the Corn Laws making it all worse. During the Second World War (I do wish people would not talk about “World War II”, as if it were a film franchise), things really were pretty well-organised – and, as we’re always being told, the health of the working-classes actually improved.

I don’t know why this series was shoved in a graveyard slot, on More4 rather than on Channel 4 itself, because there’s usually a lot of interest in the Home Front during the Second World War. There are two more episodes, which I haven’t had chance to watch yet. I’m looking forward to them: this was great.

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Who Do You Think You Are? (Kate Winslet) – BBC 1

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I thought that this was the best episode of the series so far, despite Kate’s melodramatics. I don’t think we’ve ever had anyone with Swedish heritage before: it was like stepping into the world of Vilhelm Moberg’s Karl Oskar and Kristina, and it’s a subject that’s not often covered on English language TV. It was really good to see something different. The military heritage on the other side of her family was interesting too. It had never really occurred to be that the Armed Forces would have been the main employers of musicians before the days of civil orchestras, although it’s really obvious when you think about it! And it’s nice to have an A-lister on the programme: they do sometimes have people whom I’ve barely heard of.  This was a very interesting hour’s TV.

She did overdo it a bit, with the tears and the “I can’t bear it”-ing. OK, it can’t be very pleasant finding out that your long-lost ancestors lived in poverty, had brushes with the law due to stealing food and lost children in infancy, but it’d probably be a similar story for most people’s families. Even those at the top of the social ladder would have been hit by infant deaths, and adults dying young. There were the constant references to her ever-so-‘umble roots, as well. One would have done! But, hey, at least she was interested enough in the social history to get emotional about it.

The story with Kate was that her great-great-grandfather had moved to London from the Halland region of Sweden, becoming a successful tailor on Savile Row. This was fascinating: you think of emigration from Sweden as being to Minnesota and other parts of the American mid-West, not to London. Even Swedish emigration to America isn’t something that’s talked about that much in English language books or TV programmes. So much attention’s paid to emigration from Ireland and, later on, from Italy and the Russian Empire, and yet relatively little’s paid to emigration from Sweden and (then under Swedish rule) Norway, or even to the huge waves of emigration from Germany. I suppose it’s because there wouldn’t have been that much of a cultural or, with Scandinavia and mainly Protestant parts of Germany, religious clash, but it’s certainly a neglected area.

I don’t know what Kate was expecting to find out, but I got the impression that she wasn’t expecting to find that her ancestors’ lives had been so hard.  We think of Sweden, as with Norway and Switzerland, as being a very wealthy country, and forget that that’s a fairly recent development, and how difficult it was historically for countries with very cold weather, very hot weather and or a lot of mountainous terrain, especially at a time of rapid population growth.  The same with the idea of some countries as being particularly liberal, and or as not having a rigid class structure. It hasn’t always been like that.  Take the Netherlands, generally seen as the most liberal-minded country in Europe now, and its centuries of strict Calvinism.

Vilhelm Moberg described life for lower-class people in Sweden in the first half of the nineteenth century so well in The Emigrants, and I kept thinking about that when Kate was learning about her ancestors, although at least there were no religious issues here.  When she was taken to a grand castle type place, she must have wondered if they were aristocrats. But no – her great-great-great-great-grandfather was a worker on the estate, paid in tokens that could only be spent in the estate shop, and ended up dying in prison after being convicted of stealing potatoes, shortly after the death of his infant son.  The family were starving, with Sweden being hit by successive years of food shortages even before the Hungry Forties and the Great Famine of the late 1860s.  Neither of those two major famines came into it, strangely enough – we heard about the early 1830s and the early 1850s, but not the two “big” famines, although that was just because of which dates fitted with major events in the family’s history.

Her great-great-great-grandfather fared better, going into the Navy; and it was brilliant that she was able to see the sort of croft house that he’d have. But her great-great-grandfather was the only one of the three children he and his wife had who survived to adulthood.  He became a tailor, like his father – who’d been booted out of the Navy for embezzlement!  I can’t think of any other episode that’s featured Swedish history, and I really enjoyed it. How brilliant were the records, as well? Very impressed with mid 19th century Swedish record-keeping!

Turning to the other side of her family, she found out that her great-great-great-grandfather had served in the Grenadier Guards, joining up at the age of just 11, during the Napoleonic Wars. After having to leave the Army due to rheumatism, he became the head prison warder at Dartmoor … but, at that time, Dartmoor was seen as a sort of new model prison, with inmates working in gardens and attending classes in all sorts of subjects.

That was interesting as well, but I thought that the really good bit was his time in the Army, starting off as a real life Little Drummer Boy, at a time when the sons of soldiers often joined up as children so as to benefit from the educational and career opportunities offered, and rising to the rank of Drum Major. We’re all familiar with military bands, and the importance of drummers and buglers and fifers in the Army in the 18th and 19th centuries – I’m going to have “Oh, soldier, soldier, won’t you marry me, with your musket, fife and drum?” going through my head for the rest of the day now – but, as with Swedish and German emigration to Britain and America, it’s something that doesn’t get all that much attention, and it’s always nice to see new topics covered on a long-running programme.

I’d love to know how they choose people to go on this programme. Presumably they must do a certain amount of research first, to make sure that they can actually find something out, and that it’s something reasonably interesting. But do they approach the celebs, or do the celebs approach them? Where would you start, when it came to choosing people?   They usually manage to turn up something of interest, but often the socio-economic history behind it is something we’ve heard before, with other people.  But, as I’ve said, I don’t think they’ve shown anyone with Swedish heritage before.  A really good hour’s TV.

The Queen’s Lost Family – Channel 4

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The title of this programme was very misleading – none of George V’s children were “lost”, with the arguable exception of Prince John, whom the programme never even mentioned – but it was quite an entertaining hour of serious talk about the changing role of the Royal Family, combined with a fair amount of gossip and scandal. OK, it didn’t really say anything new, despite making a big deal of having access to the newly-released letters and diaries of Princess Mary, Countess of Harewood, and it jumped around a lot; but still, I do love a bit of royal talk! It also made some good points about life in the Britain of the 1920s in general. It was too light on the gossip element, though: it never even named any of Prince George (the future Duke of Kent)’s alleged celeb lovers!

I’m not entirely sure what it was aiming to do, especially given the confusing title. Explore the relationships between George V’s children? It was lovely to see, from the letters, how close Mary was to her brothers, and especially to her eldest brother. She’s known to have been quite supportive of him over the Abdication Crisis. Make a point about how all George V’s children suffered from his strictness? I think he gets a bit of a raw deal, TBH. Many fathers of his class and generation were quite remote from their children – although he does, to be fair, seem to have been exceptionally strict. If they were trying to do that, they should really have said more about Bertie’s stammer: it wasn’t mentioned once. Nor was Prince John, which really was weird. There was just no reference to him at all, even in passing. Trace the lives of each of the children (well, except from John)? Maybe. Very little was said about either Mary or Bertie after their marriages, but I think it was focusing on the more glamorous and more scandalous siblings. It was a shame, really, because both Bertie and Mary did a lot of charity work, much of it in unglamorous places, and I think they deserved more attention than the programme gave them. But I suppose you can only fit so much into an hour. Minus adverts.

Or was it meant to be about the changing face of the Royal Family in the 1920s? That was certainly how it started. With the Romanovs murdered, and the Hohenzollerns and Habsburgs sent packing, the newly-renamed Windsors must have been more than a bit worried – and it’s to the eternal credit of King George V and Queen Mary that the British monarchy came through this period so strongly.  The programme made it sound as if the country had gone straight from the pre-1832 world of only the upper-classes being able to vote to the post-1918 world of all men and most women being able to vote, which was hardly accurate; but the general point that Britain in 1919 was a very different world to Britain in 1914 was fair enough. The independence movement in India was also covered, although, for some strange reason, Ireland wasn’t mentioned at all.

There were clips of the princes and princess carrying out royal engagements in all sorts of different places. Edward/David got to go on tours of the Empire: Bertie got to visit factories at home. There was also some interesting talk about Mary, and how she was stuck at home whilst her brothers were away at school or naval college, not really allowed to do anything and with no hope of escape other than marriage. Being a princess sounds so glamorous, but it really wasn’t … until Princess Margaret came along, and showed that princesses could go living it up on the town just as well as princes could! A good point was also made about how it was Mary’s wedding, the first time the daughter of a sovereign had married in Westminster Abbey since Edward I’s time, that set the tone for modern royal weddings, with huge crowds in the streets and widespread coverage in the media.

Edward/David missed it, because he was away on a royal tour. He came across as being incredibly annoying. There’s this image of him as the people’s prince, because of his “something must be done” talk after the famous visit to mining areas of the North East, but comments he made after the 1922 General Election and during the General Strike make it pretty clear that he wasn’t actually that keen on “the people” at all. And he did a lot of moaning about how hard his life was, but was quite happy to be a prince when it came to getting into all the best nightclubs and pulling plenty of attractive women. He even moaned about being expected to return from a tour of Kenya when his father fell seriously ill. Bertie, meanwhile, was living a life of eminent respectability, and genuinely trying to help the working classes by running his Boys’ Camps – which the programme didn’t mention.

Henry, Duke of Gloucester, is usually seen as the one who kept a low profile, but he created a bit of scandal of his own, getting involved with an unsuitable woman and installing her as his mistress in a house close to Buckingham Palace – whilst she was heavily pregnant with someone else’s child. He did make a career for himself in the Army, though. And then there was George, who ran wild. The programme was very unsympathetic towards him – OK, he did run wild, but saying that it was “irresponsible” to have homosexual affairs and get addicted to cocaine was a bit much!  “Irresponsible”?!

It was all very bitty, and the title was very silly, but there was some good stuff in it, both about the Royal Family and about the social and economic issues facing post Great War Britain.  Also, whereas the BBC would have spoilt this by shoehorning in their own political agenda and making a load of irrelevant references to modern political events, Channel 4 just talked about the period that the programme was about, and I appreciated that.   Not bad at all!

Jews Queers Germans by Martin Duberman

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This book, which can’t decide whether it’s a novel or an academic work, traces prejudices in Germany from the Harden-Eulenburg affair, which brought down the Kaiser’s inner circle and sparked a major homophobic and anti-Semitic backlash which those involved in the associated trial naively hadn’t seen coming, through the First World War and the “Cabaret era” of the Weimar Republic, and on to the rise of the Nazis.  There’s not as much about the royal family as I was expecting, but all sorts of well-known figures from the arts world of the time – Degas, Nijinsky, Colette, Josephine Baker, Isadora Duncan, George Bernard Shaw and numerous others – make appearances.  It’s not particularly well-written: I can just about live with the lack of commas in the title, because I think it’s the author’s way of showing that many key figures at the time were Jewish and gay and German; but having a 334-page book which isn’t divided into chapters is not ideal, books being written in the present tense can be irritating, the dialogue’s very clunky and it jumps around too much!   However, it’s an interesting take on a pivotal period in world history, and how people manipulate old prejudices in order to further their own political ends.  Also, one of the key figures in it has some sort of Manchester connection, but I can’t get to the bottom of it and it’s really annoying me!

It’s supposed to be a novel, written around three main characters – Graf Harry von Kessler, son of a German banker father and an Anglo-Irish mother, a diplomat and patron of the arts, on whose diaries much of it’s based, Walther Rathenau, businessman and liberal politician, and Magnus Hirschfeld, doctor and gay rights campaigner whose work was mentioned a lot in A Terrible Splendor. However, it would really have worked better as an academic book.  There are pages and pages of information about history, law, politics, scientific theories and philosophy, and much of the dialogue is just the characters repeating factual information to each other.  I never felt that I got to know any of them: there was no plot and no characterisation.

It’s quite bitty, as well – all the more reason why it would have benefited from being broken down into chapters.  It’s split into six parts, to be fair, but couldn’t half do with being split into chapters within those.  Also, whilst I’m moaning, it annoyingly refers to “England” and “Austria” rather than “Britain” and “Austria-Hungary”, doesn’t seem to realise that Disraeli converted to Anglicanism, and spells “principle” as “principal”!

Having said all that, the actual information is quite interesting.  It was the Harden-Eulenberg affair that I was really after, and about a quarter of the book covers that – with the Kaiser, who was portrayed sympathetically in The Summer Queen, coming across here as the very nasty piece of work that he really was.  The book opens with a conversation between the Kaiser and the Grafin von Moltke. To cut a long story short-ish, she claimed that her estranged husband, a general in the German army, was having an affair with the Kaiser’s best friend, Philipp von Eulenburg-Hertefeld, the Kaiser’s best mate and the leader of their so-called “Liebenberg Round Table” group of close male friends. Eulenburg & co came into conflict with another political clique, led by Friedrich von Holstein. There was a lot of tension over foreign policy, and over the Kaiser’s rather absolutist style of rule. At the same time, a number of military officers were tried by courts-martial for being gay, and six of them sadly committed suicide.

Journalist Maximilian Harden, a supporter of the Holstein clique, decided to bring von Eulenburg down by publishing reports about him and von Moltke. Moltke sued him for libel, and various other names were brought into it.  Strangely, the book suggests that Harden actually admired von Eulenburg and thought he was a good influence on the Kaiser, which makes no sense and completely contradicts what everyone else says about the whole affair!  Magnus Hirschfeld, a prominent doctor who’d long been campaigning for the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the German Empire, especially after observing how many of his gay patients had tried to commit suicide, was one of the key witnesses in the trial, naively thinking that proving that senior army officers were gay would do away with negative stereotypes.

Unfortunately, it backfired badly, with the far-right claiming that Hirschfeld, who was gay and Jewish, and Harden, who was a Lutheran convert but had previously been Jewish, were conspiring against straight, “Aryan” German men. There was a major homophobic and anti-Semitic backlash. Von Eulenburg’s influence was ended, but, however unpleasant he and his cronies may have been – they’re known to have held strong racist and anti-Semitic views – they’re also now seen as having had a moderating influence on the Kaiser.

Did the trial and its aftermath lead to a culture of what would now be called “toxic masculinity” in the upper echelons of Berlin society?  What was its personal and political effect on the Kaiser?   That was what I was hoping the book would discuss, but, instead, it jumped on to Harry Kessler’s travels in Britain, France and Greece!   All sorts of well-known arty figures, and a few obscure ones, get mentioned in this section, and then we jump back to politics with the introduction of Kessler’s friend Walther Rathenau, who would later play an important role at the German War Ministry during the Great War, and then become Foreign Minister. Wikipedia says he had business interests in Manchester, but I can’t find any more information about that and it’s really, really annoying me!!

So we go from arts to politics, and then, just as we’re getting into the build-up to the Great War, Kessler and Rathenau fade into the background and there’s a section about Magnus Hirschfeld, his theories about sexuality and gender identity, and his campaign, backed by many others, for gay rights.   Whilst it’s probably quite well-known that the Code Napoleon gave civil rights to religious minorities, it’s not very well-known that it also decriminalised homosexuality … but that didn’t apply in the German Empire, or, obviously, the British Empire.  Some of Hirschfeld’s theories read rather strangely now, but he really was a pioneer in his field.  Sadly, being gay, Jewish and what would now be called a gay rights activist made him a target for the far right – but he himself was a strong German nationalist, as was Rathenau (who was Jewish but not gay) and Kessler (who was gay but not Jewish), which I think is what the lack of commas in the title’s getting at, and the far right don’t get at all.  There’s also some interesting commentary on the differences between attitudes in Germany, France and Britain.  But this is not historical novel stuff: it’s stuff that belongs in an academic book.  I do not know why the author tried to present it as a novel!

Then Hirschfeld fades back into the background, and Kessler and Rathenau take centre stage again, having long discussions about Martin Buber and anti-Semitism.  Kessler’s presented as quite a liberal figure until this point, but, once the Great War starts, the book shows him developing more right-wing views.  Hirschfeld, by contrast, adopts more radical views.  We also see him defending the rights of gay men to serve in the Armed Forces.  It does feel a bit more like a novel at this point, but we’re still very detached from the characters … which is a shame, because they all seem rather interesting.

We then move on to the political and social chaos after Germany’s defeat.  It’s particularly unfortunate that we don’t really get to know Kessler, because he seems to have known everyone!   He was pals with the leader of the German delegation at the Versailles peace talks, as well as knowing anyone who’s anyone in the arts world.   This bit’s well-known – the war guilt clause, and the attempts to blame Germany’s defeat on Jews.  I honestly hadn’t realised just how much violence there was in Germany at this stage, though.  Over 350 political figures were murdered by right-wing extremist group Organisation Consul.  I’d have expected the book to focus on Rathenau’s role in the Treaty of Rapallo, in which Germany and the Soviet Union agreed to renounce all territorial claims and claims to war reparations against each other, but, instead, we get Rathenau talking to Kessler about Zionism.

Maybe this is the author’s way of saying that Rathenau’s assassination, in 1922, was because he was Jewish?  Was it?  Or was it because he was seen as a liberal?  Or accused of having links with communism?  Probably all three.  We do see that trade union leaders call on their members to down tools for a day and stage demos in honour of Rathenau.  He’s seen now as some sort of martyr to democracy … but he’s not very well-known in Anglophone countries, so it’s nice to see him playing a big part here.  Still can’t sort out the Manchester connection.  Apparently it was something to do with an electrical power station.  Could it have been the one at Radcliffe?

Hirschfeld isn’t killed, but he is badly beaten up.  This is the “Cabaret” era, and Hirschfeld does actually get involved in that: he promotes various films, and he’s friendly with figures from the arts world.  Max Harden also reappears at this point, having not been mentioned all through the war.  It’s all just so bitty!

Then, with the rise of the Nazis, another character enters the fray – Ernst Rohm, one of Hitler’s closest friends and allies and leader of the Stormtroopers.  There’s a strange parallel between the Harden-Eulenburg affair and the Night of the Long Knives, and it’s never usually picked up on.  I was going to say that I suppose it’s because what the Nazis did later was so horrific that it seems inappropriate to compare the rise of the Nazis to anything else, but some people seem to throw the word “Nazi” around strangely casually these days.  Anyway.  The views of Rohm and his circle on political and military affairs brought them into conflict with other members of the Nazi party, and, just as had happened with Eulenburg, his homosexuality was used against him by the faction who wanted to bring him down … although the author rather overlooks the fact that this was more of a common or garden power struggle than anything else.

Strangely, the author doesn’t actually draw the parallel.  There’s a lot of talk about about homophobic attitudes within the Nazi party and within German society in general.  We see how the Social Democrats attack the Nazis by associating them with homosexuality.  We see how the Nazi party tries to make a link between being Jewish and being gay.  This happens throughout history – people exploit hatreds and prejudices against different groups by making links.  It can be anything.  Sometimes there’s some sort of logic to it, e.g. linking Catholics and Jacobitism.  Sometimes there’s none at all. e.g. linking Jews and Communism.

But, as I’ve said, the author doesn’t link this back to events at the start of the book – and that says a lot about how bitty it is, and how there’s no real plot.  We see Hirschfeld travelling the world, before eventually settling in France.  We see Kessler also settling in France.  But there’s no real conclusion, and no bringing together of the different aspects of the book.  It was an interesting idea, and the author, himself both gay and Jewish, obviously feels incredibly strongly about both anti-Semitism and homophobia and is trying to raise awareness of where they can lead.  There’s a huge amount of information in this: he’s obviously done a lot of research.  But it does read as if someone’s bursting to tell you something and they just want to get it all out there, without making it particularly clear or easy to take in.  Good idea, not particularly good execution!

Imagine – Hitler, the Tiger and Me (Judith Kerr) – BBC 1

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This was originally shown in 2013, but was repeated recently as a tribute to the late Judith Kerr, who died in May. Part of it was about the Mog books and The Tiger Who Came To Tea, and there were some references to her personal life; but most of it showed her revisiting Berlin, in the company of the BBC’s Alan Yentob, and talking about her experiences there – as told in When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. As the programme explained, the book isn’t only widely read by children in English-speaking countries but is also a set text in German schools. Various other authors were interviewed about their views on Judith’s books: Michael Rosen said that children’s books were a place of safety. Maybe that’s partly why some of us keep on going back to them, even when we’re supposedly grown up.

During her visit to Berlin, she went back to her old home, and met the people living there now. It must have been very strange both for her and for them, but she was very calm all the way through. It was so emotive – and even more so when she went to the local railway station and saw all the memorials there, with the dates of the wartime deportations, the numbers of people deported and the names of the concentration camps to which they’d been sent.

As she said, it was all very well having memorials, but no-one did anything at the time. The Nazis came to her family’s home, intending to confiscate their passports, just two days after they’d reached safety in Switzerland. Two days … had they stayed in Berlin just another two days, they’d almost certainly have ended up on one of those death trains. But, as in her books, she didn’t seem bitter. She just said how thankful she was too have been so lucky, and how she felt obliged to try to make something of her life, when so many people had been denied the chance to make anything of theirs.

It was also interesting to hear more about her father. I don’t think I’d realised just how important a figure he was. Apparently, he was considered to be second on the Nazis’ hit list. He was even friendly with Einstein, and hoped to join him in America – but America wouldn’t let the Kerrs in. It was very poignant to hear about how he felt that he’d lost not only his country but also his language: how could he keep on writing in German? It’s not the most obvious of issues to think of in terms of refugees and persecution, but it’s a very good point. If you’re someone to whom it’s important to write, and especially if you’re a professional writer, how do you cope when you lose your language? He went back to Germany after the war, but took ill soon afterwards, and, with the help of his wife, committed suicide. As we’re told in the books, they had suicide pills with them all through the war.

Judith and her brother didn’t; but she spoke about her terror in 1940, when the threat of invasion seemed so real and there was nowhere else to run to. Towards the end of the programme, we heard from some of the German children, two of them Jewish, studying When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit at school. They all spoke excellent English: most British schoolkids of that age can’t speak a word of German or even French! They’d have been about the same age that Judith was then, and they’d clearly taken in what the book was saying, but they didn’t seem scared.

It’s not a scary book. And I was the over-imaginative kid who had nightmares about the Vermicious Knids in Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator! Not all children’s books, even those aimed at very young children, are a place of safety.  Mind you, I never re-read Roald Dahl’s books.  I suppose the children’s books that I do read over and over again – and there are many of them – are a place of safety, even though some of them take the reader to some pretty disturbing places along the war..  Michael Rosen was actually talking about the Mog books, and how Mog ends up curled up safely in a basket, with a fish, but the When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit books aren’t scary either. Maybe Roald Dahl wanted to scare kids. Judith Kerr didn’t. It takes one hell of an author to be able to write a book about fleeing Nazi Germany, with the word “Hitler” actually in the title, informing kids about what happened, without scaring them. Judith Kerr was that author.

Thanks to the BBC for repeating this: I didn’t see it first time round.  I’m glad I’ve seen it now.

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit review.

Ann the Word by Richard Francis

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Shakers are a lot more interesting than Transcendentalists.  They do not worry about cold showers or manure.  More importantly, there’s the local connection.  Whilst obviously I knew that Shakerism originated in Manchester and Bolton, even I wouldn’t have claimed that “American’s most important and successful utopian community” had been deeply influenced by a fight over potato prices on Shudehill.  I’m not sure that I’d have claimed that Ann Lee, the first leader of the Shakers, was the most influential working-class woman since Joan of Arc, either – although I can see the point.  This isn’t a particularly good book, and it says nothing about the influence that Shakers had on architecture, furniture and education, not to mention bonnets, but it makes some very valid points about how the authorities couldn’t handle the idea of a religious community being led by a woman.  And it goes into quite a lot of detail about the geography of 18th century Manchester – which will probably mean nothing to New Englanders, who are presumably the intended audience, but is very interesting if you’re me.

To be fair, it’s meant to be a biography of Ann Lee, not a book about Shakerism; and she died before the Shakers had established their reputation for being skilled farmers, craftspeople and educators.  It’s a shame that something wasn’t said about that, though, especially as the author was quite negative about Shakerism.  OK, it’s hardly most people’s thing, but each to their own!  There aren’t many sources about Ann, other than those written by people who lived and worked with her, so most of what the book says about her time in America is just an account of conversions of different people, and it reads like a novel, with a lot of dialogue and detailed accounts of who took whose arm and who got upset and so on.

The part about her early life in Manchester is much more interesting – probably because there were virtually no sources about it, so it’s mainly about Manchester!  There’s an account of the Forty-Five, and also an account of food price riots in 1757, notably the one on Shudehill – along with comments about how this was all linked to working-class assertiveness.  If you go back to the Civil War era, and look at the Levellers and the Diggers, there’s certainly a link between working-class assertiveness and radical Protestantism: I’d never really thought about it in connection with the Shakers, but it’s a fair point.

Ann was born in Toad Lane, which is now Todd Street – by the side of where Cathedral Gardens, Chetham’s and the National Football Museum are – and, of course, that was the heart of town in those days.  The Infirmary, where Ann worked as a cook, and the “house of correction”, where she was imprisoned for a while, were all in that area.  So was the grammar school, which the author annoyingly doesn’t mention!  The descriptions of town in the mid-18th century are the best part of the book!   Ann’s early life is interesting, too, especially how she suffered from what would now be recognised as depression and eating disorders, and spent some time in an asylum: it was after that that she really got into the religious stuff.

There are also references to Shakers in the Cheshire area – mainly in the Marton area just north of Congleton.  There’s a really nice café there: I sometimes stop at it on my way home from Little Moreton Hall and Biddulph Grange!  And a reference to groups of “prophets” meeting in Great Budworth.  There’s a nice ice cream place there.  Sorry, food on the brain!

The parts about her life and work in America are, as I’ve said, mostly about converting different people: there are a lot of names, which I doubt will mean anything even to someone who’s very au fait with Shakerism.  However, the accounts of how the Shakers were persecuted by the authorities are fascinating, and disturbing.  They were accused of being British spies, this being the period of the American Revolution, and, as they refused to swear an oath of allegiance because they said it was against their faith, many of them were imprisoned.  Suspicion about a woman leading a religious group meant that Ann was horrifically persecuted. OK, there’d have been hostility towards anyone seen as claiming to be some sort of Second Coming, but Ann was seriously sexually assaulted.  It wasn’t just the authorities: the Shakers were attacked by mobs as well.  Think about the treatment of the Yazidis by ISIS.  Was the treatment of the Shakers by other Christians so different?

It’s not the greatest of books, but I very much enjoyed reading what it said about 18th century Manchester, and it made some very good points about hostility towards the idea of women as religious leaders.  It also said a lot about attitudes towards religious minorities in both Britain and America – not just Catholics and Jews, but minority Protestant groups as well.  I think we tend to forget that it’s only very recently that that’s changed, and there are still some issues now.  Anyway, I think that’s enough reading about New England Utopian groups – on to something else now!

Fruitlands: the Alcott family and their search for Utopia by Richard Francis

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I have *not* taken to Transcendentalism: this is for research purposes only.  Fruitlands was the short-lived commune set up by Bronson Alcott, Louisa M Alcott’s father, and his London-born associate Charles Lane. They had an interesting range of ideas, from the admirable, notably supporting Abolitionism and, to some extent, women’s rights, to the offensive – some of their ideas about producing a perfect new generation came unpleasantly close to eugenics – and all sorts of other things.  Opposing organised religion and political parties – wouldn’t life be so much more peaceful …?   Following a vegan diet. Trying to avoid cooking anything.  Opposing individual property ownership. Drinking nothing but water, not using artificial lighting, showering and bathing using only cold water, not using any form of animal labour, not using even natural fertilisers (they said that manure upset the weather), practising celibacy except as “necessary” to procreate; and one of them was into nudism because he thought that clothes stifled the spirit.

Some of it seems rather extreme; and their experiment didn’t last very long.  After only a few months, Lane and Alcott fell out, Lane joined the Shakers – everyone knows that Shakerism originated in Manchester and Bolton, yes 🙂 ?!  – , Mrs Alcott put her foot down, and Fruitlands was abandoned. But certain aspects of their theories and practices held some appeal at the time and afterwards, and do resonate in our own age of concern about environmental issues and religious and political extremism.  But, as so often happens, it wasn’t thought out properly – trying to live entirely off natural products on land that wasn’t really arable wasn’t the greatest of ideas – and those in charge were so repressive and dictatorial and determined to force their views on everyone else that they created more discord than harmony.  Louisa wasn’t impressed … and yet there are certainly some aspects of Fruitlands in Plumfield.

This is for research purposes, as I’ve said – it’s not really bedtime or holiday reading.  But there’s some interesting stuff in it – plenty of food for thought.

Transcendentalism’s usually said to be an offshoot of Romanticism, combined with religion, and then taken off in the direction of separating yourself from wordly things and sticking closely to nature. I get myself all tangled up with Romanticism. It’s a Lancastrian thing – we’re very proud of the Industrial Revolution, but we also want to keep the Lake District unspoilt so that we can wander about dreaming of hosts of golden daffodils!

I do not get tangled up with religion, but some of the Transcendentalists did – Eve eating the apple was apparently a bad thing because, although apples work with veganism, she was looking for knowledge instead of just looking for an apple. This is not my department. If someone says “The Fall”, I assume they mean the late, great, Mark E Smith & co. It had links to aspects of Unitarianism, and also to the Shakers – who’ve always interested me because of the local connection.  I’m so parochial!  It’s linked to Hinduism and Jainism as well, and I find those links easier to follow, because they don’t get everything mixed up with the creation story.  Anyway, this is not my department, as I’ve said: I’m just doing some research into the history of New England, and this particular area of it appealed because of the Alcott connection.

Louisa M Alcott’s own take on it was that the men did a lot of waffling whilst the women tried to keep body and soul together.  I feel so sorry for Abigail Alcott, Louisa’s mother. Some observers commented that the Transcendalists – like 17th century Puritans – thought that no-one should be allowed to be happy; and remarks made in Abigail’s letters and diaries suggest that that was how she felt. Bronson, like a lot of idealists, conveniently ignored the practicalities of real life, so they were always in debt. He also nearly ended up in prison for refusing to pay his tax so that he could distance himself from the state – a bit like that Australian couple who were in the news recently, for refusing to pay their property taxes because they said that their property actually belonged to the Good Lord. (Presumably they were quite happy to use all the public services paid for by everyone else’s taxes.)  And he didn’t want to get a job because he thought that being a wage slave was bondage, but he thought it was fine to tap friends and relatives for money because that was encouraging them to be charitable!  A very far cry from Jo March writing penny-dreadfuls in order to pay her way in life.

Abigail suffered from both physical and mental health problems, as well.  A vegan diet is obviously fine if you’re getting the proper nutrition, but they didn’t have the requisite knowledge about that and so she was existing on fruit, bread and water, and consequently felt ill for a lot of the time. And the ideas about producing perfect offspring meant that Bronson blamed her when they had a stillborn baby. Even the domestic postbox idea, which she introduced and which sounds like such good fun when Laurie introduces it in Little Women, came about not as a bit of fun but as a way of trying to relieve domestic tension – write your issues down instead of bottling them up or yelling at each other about them. I don’t wonder she had enough. It can’t have been very nice for either her or the children … although it’s interesting that the Bhaers’ Plumfield, which was supposed to be so wonderful, was probably named after Plum Tree Meadows, the previous name for the area where Fruitlands was situated.

On a more positive note, the Anglo-American links are fascinating. I always think that with 19th century movements. Considering that letters must have taken quite a while to cross the Atlantic, the amount of communication and sharing of ideas is fascinating. The nudist guy was British, incidentally.  There was even an Alcott House, predating Fruitlands, in Surrey, named after Bronson Alcott. He seems to have been obsessed with the idea that American women were better than British women, though! That probably explains the rather offensive way that Louisa portrays Kate Vaughn, which always annoys me. And their contacts, or at least Bronson Alcott and Charles Lane’s contacts, with some very well-known names on both sides of the Atlantic, are worth nothing – Carlyle, Hawthorne, Thoreau. Louisa M Alcott’s probably better known than any of them these days: I wonder what Bronson would have made of that!

If Bronson Alcott were around today, he’d probably be one of those people who, whilst some of his ideas would be too extreme for most people, would have many ideas which made a lot of sense, especially with all the current concerns about the environment … but who alienate others with their lecturing tone, their refusal to respect or even listen properly to other people’s views, their lack of humour, their failure to consider practicalities and their constant attempts to guilt-trip everyone.  I don’t know why it always seems to get like that.  It’s a great shame.

Also, as the author points out, they didn’t really get involved with the Abolitionist movement, and they didn’t seem very concerned about all the other social and political issues of the day.  Marmee and the girls taking their Christmas breakfast round to the Hummels (this is my comment, not the author’s!) might not have changed the world, but at least they tried to help people in need!

It seems very likely that Plumfield was Louisa’s attempt at showing a gentler side of it – one which might have worked.

There’s a lot of philosophy in this book, so it’s quite heavy-going, but the author’s done a very good job with the subject matter.  Some of the ideas are quite outlandish, and he’s very critical of how self-obsessed they were, but he doesn’t mock them – yet, at the same time, he shows the impracticability of Alcott and Lane’s particular experiment, and its negative impact on Abigail Alcott and others.  And he gets a few Little Women/Little Men references in there, whilst resisting what must have been a strong temptation (well, it would have been to me!) to include dozens of them in a book which isn’t actually about them.  I wouldn’t say that this was an entertaining book, but it was quite interesting.

And, whilst I’m certainly not suggesting that we all start running around starkers, or avoiding eating potatoes because they grown downwards rather than upwards, some of the ideas are certainly relevant to today.  Avoiding buying clothes or other items known to have been produced unethically.  Being careful when it comes to artificial substances getting into the food supply. Not being cruel to animals.  The Fruitland experiment just wasn’t viable, and I don’t think I’d have liked Bronson Alcott or Charles Lane very much, but, as I said, there’s some food for thought here!