Make-up: A Glamorous History (final episode) – BBC 2


I do love a good American Dream story!  Max Factor, born Maksymilian Faktorowicz in a small town outside Lodz, started work at the age of 8 because his family were so poor, sailed steerage to Ellis Island to escape the pogroms, moved to LA because he was so taken by “the movies”, and pretty much created the modern make-up industry.  Amazing.  Meanwhile, his half-brother became a Chicago gangster who worked closely with Al Capone!  The programme didn’t actually mention the gangster brother, but I thought I would!

I do not love 1920s fashion.  It seems to have been designed for women who were no more than a size 6, and had no tummy, backside, waist, hips or bust.  On top of that, it involved miniscule handbags.  What a larger-sized female who couldn’t leave the house without carrying everything but the kitchen sink with her, i.e. someone like me, was supposed to do, I have no idea.  Just look uncool, I suppose 😢!  But, hey, at least women of any size could choose what sort of make-up they wore, and the 1920s/1930s was the era in which it became affordable for everyone.

It’s important for everyone to be able to choose a look which works for them.  The current Coronation Street storyline, in which Nina was badly beaten up because of her choice of clothes, make-up and hairstyle, based on the horrific murder of Sophie Lancaster in Bacup in 2007, is reminding us how prejudiced people can be just based on someone else’s look.  We’ve still got a long way to go, but the inter-war years were the period in which we at least really started to move towards each person choosing what worked for them.

But to get back to the point …

…. this was another fascinating episode, as we saw the make-up/cosmetics industry roll on into the days of mass marketing, getting people in white coats to convince you that it was all good for you, and setting up all those counters which still tend to be the first thing you see when you walk into a department store. On the one hand, women were rebelling, choosing their own looks, and having their hair cut short – despite schools suspending girls who turned up with short hair, employers sacking women with short hair, and clergymen preaching against the evils of having your crowning glory cut off.  On the other hand, there was all this advertising making you feel that you didn’t look right.

And, of course, there was the obsession with the cinema!  A lot of this was about film star looks.  And a lot of it was about the actual science of make-up, and how people were influenced by the idea that this was all good for you.  But I think the main theme was that, after the Great War, women were increasingly rebelling against the control of society and the patriarchy, and how changing hairstyles, styles of clothing and trends in make-up all showed that.

Like the previous two episodes, it said so much about the society of the day, and how trends involving hair and clothes and make-up were a part of that.  This really has been a great series, and I’m only sorry that there’ve only been three episodes of it.  Well done, Lisa Eldridge and BBC 2!   Good stuff 🙂 .

Great British Railway Journeys (series 12) – BBC 2


 I wasn’t sure how this was going to pan out, but Michael Portillo and BBC 2 have done an excellent job of adapting to Covid restrictions; and they managed to make Slough, Pinner, Hatch End and various other places which, with all due respect, don’t scream “glamour”, sound very interesting!   Windsor, Winchester and Oxford added some rather more traditional interest, along with Downton Abbey (OK, Highclere Castle), and we even got to see Michael riding on Thomas the Tank Engine along the “Watercress Line” heritage railway in Hampshire.

The theme was the 1930s, and we heard about a wide range of subjects relating to that decade, although we did also cross into the 1920s and 1940s.  We got the Abdication, the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, the establishment of the spinal injuries unit at Stoke Mandeville, the opening of a Mars factory 🙂 in Slough, Heath Robinson’s cartoons and the model village at Bekonscot, to name but a few.  And, of course, we got Thomas the Tank Engine!  The second week’s going to cover the Kindertransport, Sutton Hoo, the (in)famous Summerhill School and 1930s art in the first episode alone, so they really are packing a lot into each half hour slot.

The pandemic wasn’t really mentioned, but we did see Michael wearing his (garishly-coloured) mask on the trains, and he only spoke to one person at a time – no big groups, no joining in with dancing or other activities.  And he’s unlikely to be filming abroad any time soon.  But it didn’t spoil any of the programmes.  This is what we’re all having to do at the moment – adapt as best we can, and try to find interesting things to see and do within the restrictions.  It’s lovely to see another series of this, and it’s wonderful that they’ve been able to film it despite everything that’s been going on.

Make-up: A Glamorous History (second episode) – BBC 2


  I am so impressed with this series!   I thought it was just going to be, well, lipstick, powder and paint, but the episode on the Georgians was great and so too was this episode on the Victorians.  I couldn’t help thinking how some of the Victorian ideas on appearance were still influencing children’s books written in the mid-20th century, which I was reading as a kid in the early 1980s.  As Lisa Eldridge pointed out, Victorian ideas on being able to judge someone’s personality based on how they looked verged on the bonkers – but, in Enid Blyton adventure and mystery books, you always know that anyone with a thick neck or “eyes set too closely together” will turn out to be a baddie!   And, at the Chalet School, wearing more than the slightest hint of make-up is a sign that you are a Very Bad Girl, and yet you’re supposed to look attractive at all times.  As Lisa said, that works OK if you’re naturally stunning, but it really doesn’t for the rest of us!  I do not have the nerve to go anywhere without make-up on.

All sorts of other things also made their way into this – from the Contagious Diseases Act, to people having issues with red hair because of Scottish and Irish nationalism, to soldiers being expected to have huge moustaches because it was thought that Indian men with lots of facial hair looked uber-virile and that British men should try to get the same look.

It started with fairly standard stuff about Victorians not being keen on the idea of make-up because it was associated with being on the stage, and also because the later Victorians were obsessed with the idea that cleanliness was next to godliness and thought that a clean face meant a bare face.  But it went beyond that, to talk about how it was felt that, if you covered your face with make-up, you might be trying to hide something … like the fact that your face was ravaged by syphilis, and from there it got on to the Contagious Diseases Act, and how women were so frightened of being dragged in for those horrific speculum examinations that they were afraid to wear make-up in case it led to their being mistaken for prostitutes.   Very interesting point.  And it also talked about the general attitudes towards women, and how a lot of make-up looked as if you were putting yourself out there rather than fading into the background.

There was also some talk about phrenology, which always makes me think of Mr Rochester doing his “feeling your bumps” thing, and the general idea of being able to judge people by their appearance.  It didn’t go into eugenics in too much detail, but it did touch on the idea.  And it also mentioned the idea of TB being seen as making people look attractive – bright eyes, rosy cheeks, etc – and compared it to the heroin chic idea of the 1990s.  It was just fascinating how the programme developed.

There was also some talk about hair.  There are still some rules about facial hair in the Armed Services, aren’t there?  Anyway, we heard about how, after the Crimean War, soldiers were banned from shaving above their top lips, and this was in force until 1916 … and how this was because Indian men with luxuriant beards and moustaches were thought to look very manly.  I have to say that I am not a fan of men having either beards or moustaches, although I know that some people wear them for religious reasons, but each to their own!

And then the issue of red hair.  I thought that prejudice against people with red hair was to do with religion, because Judas was supposed to have had red hair, and the Spanish Inquisition associated red hair with being Jewish, but the programme made the point that it was also associated with Scotland and Ireland – and presumably, by extension, with ideas of Irish and Scottish nationalism.  If Nicola Sturgeon was watching, she was probably quite chuffed to hear that!   Interesting idea.  I don’t really know why, but everyone has this image of Jacobites as having bright red hair.  You can even buy Jacobite tam o’shanters with a load of false red hair attached, which is utterly ridiculous: the Old Pretender and Bonnie Prince Charlie both wore white powdered wigs, and had brownish hair!    Scotland and Ireland do both have far higher percentages of people with red hair than England does, though.

All this from talking about make-up!   This series really is good.  It’s a shame that there’s only one episode left.


Make-up: A Glamorous History – BBC 2


  I wasn’t sure what to expect from this programme, presented by make-up artist Lisa Eldridge, but it turned out to be pretty interesting, as she discussed how upper-class High Georgian ladies piled their hair so high that they had to sit on the floor of their carriages rather than their seats, and were so obsessed with painting their faces with white lead that at least one woman died of lead poisoning as a result.  The men got in on the act too, with the craze for “macaroni” dress – tall, powdered wigs, diamante buckles on shoes, et al.

Meanwhile, Georgian lads’ mags printed league tables ranking famous women according to their beauty, grace and elegance, with Georgiana Cavendish nee Spencer, the famous Duchess of Devonshire, always coming out on top.  Georgiana actually employed a personal hairdresser, who was paid more than her lady’s maid, housekeeper, butler or coachmen.  And such was the general interest in all these goings-on that shop windows were full of prints of pictures of the rich and famous, and people even rented hotel rooms so that they could hang out of the windows to watch their faves go by.  And we think that obsession with celebs is a 21st century thing!

But, according to Lisa, the shock of the French Revolution caused such a reaction against excessive make-up that it wasn’t until the days of glam rock and the New Romantics that people went so OTT again. I can honestly say that I’d never really thought of it quite like that before, but I can see where she was coming from!   I was going to mention Adam Ant, but dandy highwaymen and Prince Charming are more Regency than High Georgian 🙂 .

However overboard the whole make-up and hair thing went in Britain, it was far worse in France, where hundreds of courtiers would actually go and watch Marie Antoinette performing her toilette, because it was such a long and elaborate job.  It’s fairly hard to argue that that in itself had much to do with the French Revolution, but, OK, it was all part of the culture of excess.

The general idea of the programme was that make-up says a lot about the era, and that, in this instance, the upper-classes used make-up to show off their wealth and power – an ordinary person would never have been able to afford those sorts of cosmetics, nor would they have had the time to apply them.  The programme was as much about hairstyles as make-up, but, OK, the two things go together.  I could have done without the attempts to make everything “relevant” to today – I’m sure we can all think about the Georgians without needing to think about the Kardashians – but it really was quite interesting.

Churchill – Channel 5


  Whilst I could have done with a bit less Freudian psycho-analysis (we were told every two minutes during the first episode that Churchill had been desperate for his father’s approval, wanted to emulate his father, and was always “trapped in the moment of his father’s death”), the first two episodes of this have been very entertaining.  I love Churchill as a historian, especially when he’s writing about the first Duke of Marlborough, but his own life was pretty interesting as well: the first episode took us from Blenheim Palace to the North West Frontier, to Oldham, to South Africa, to Westminster.  Shame it didn’t mention the fact that one of the people who helped him hide from the Boers was an Oldham coal miner: I like that story 🙂 .

The interpretation of his life was quite strange – apart from the obsession with his father, the presenters’ idea was that he thought politicians had to be celebs.  I’m not entirely convinced about that, but, yes, he probably did go off both to the Boer War and the Great War more with the aim of winning attention and popularity than anything else … rather drastic decisions!   And it worked.  You’d think that the wealthy aristocrat, turning up at the Front with a load of luggage including his own bath, and having been all over the papers after he was pushed under the bus and made the scapegoat for Gallipoli (for which he was partly to blame, but so were plenty of others), would have been resented by the ordinary soldiers, but it sounded as if they all thought he was great.

It’s unfortunate that his own father didn’t – we were shown extracts of letters in which Randolph Churchill said that young Winston would probably turn out to be a “social wastrel and a failure”.  And his mother was more interested in her social life and affairs than in her children.  So rather a sad start in life, despite the immense privilege.  None of this was anything that most viewers wouldn’t already have known, but it was interesting.

So too was hearing about his Army service in India, and then the crazy escapade in South Africa in which he escaped from a Boer POW camp armed only with a bar of chocolate – you really couldn’t make it up!    Then came his first forays into politics, but then the Gallipoli disaster, his rejoining the Army, and then his successful return to politics against all the odds.

I really did enjoy both episodes, and am looking forward to the rest of the series.  I thought they might wokify it and make irrelevant criticisms, but they didn’t – they did make the point that some of his views on imperialism and race might not be acceptable now, but they also made it clear that the articles he wrote whilst in South Africa were very well-received, so he was only reflecting the views of the time.  Instead, they focused on what a character he was – he really was one of a kind!  Enjoying this, and looking forward to more 🙂 .

Russia Vs The World – Channel 5


What on earth was this rubbish?  I’d been looking forward to it, seeing as it promised to tell “the epic story of Russia and how a millennia [sic] of explosive drama ….” but it was just awful.

It started by jumping from Grand Prince Vladimir of Kievan Rus to Ivan The Terrible, and ignoring the five centuries in between.  Hey, let’s make a programme about “the epic story of England”, and jump from William the Conqueror to Elizabeth I.   And that was just the start.  A small sample of things which it totally failed to mention – the Mongol invasions, the Battle on the Neva, the Time of Troubles, the Schism, the Table of Ranks, the Pugachev Rebellion, the Napoleonic Wars, the Decembrists, the Crimean War, the liberation of the serfs.  It did however mention James Bond, Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, Rasputin, Vladimir Putin going scuba diving, Boris Yeltsin’s drinking habits and Roman Abramovich.

Then it concluded by saying that Russia had come full circle from Grand Prince Vladimir to Vladimir Putin.  Presumably apart from Vladimir Putin not being a Russian Orthodox saint, and Grand Prince Vladimir neither being interested in scuba diving nor having spies who went to watch Arsenal.

Seriously, Channel 5?  I thought you’d got your act together with history programmes, but what on earth was this?

I think it was just meant to be Cold War-esque propaganda making out that Russia is the Big Baddie.  I don’t want to see stuff like that.  We’re supposed to have moved on from those days, and I don’t want to see any sort of propaganda on British TV.  Out of two hours, about twenty minutes was spent on pre-revolutionary Russia.  Then even the Civil War was pretty much skipped over, and it was on to Stalin, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Chernobyl, the fall of the Soviet Union, Boris Yeltsin sitting on a tank, and then loads and loads about Vladimir Putin.

The argument seemed to be that Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great and Catherine the Great (apart from Vladimir and Nicholas II, every other monarch was completely ignored) were dictators (Catherine would not be impressed with that at all) who paved the way for Putin.  Well, that’s logical, isn’t it?  Three monarchs in 500 years.  You might as well say that Henry VIII, George IV and Victoria are the reason that Boris Johnson could do with losing a few pounds (on which score I sympathise with them).  You could look at any country’s history and pick three monarchs in 500 years, and claim that they somehow typify the country’s leadership.  Then it completely contradicted itself, by saying that it was actually the KGB in charge, not Putin.

Not impressed.  We don’t need this sort of programme on TV.  And, if you say you’re going to talk about a millennium of Russian history, even if you don’t seem to know that the correct word is “millennium” rather than “millennia”, then please, er, do so.

Wartime Britain – Channel 5


  The star of this programme, with all due respect to the family reconstructing life in wartime Britain, was a trilby-hatted potato being serenaded by Betty Turpin (sorry, Betty Driver).  “Potato Pete, Potato Pete, look who’s coming down the street.”  I love the wartime information cartoon characters – Potato Pete, Dr Carrot, and, also featured in the first episode of this two-parter, Mrs Sew-and-Sew.  So much better at getting the message across than the likes of the irritating “obesity tsars” we get now.  Nice mention of the work done by Guides and Scouts, as well: we don’t hear much about the important contribution made to the war effort by young people.

I’ve had it up to here with lockdown.  My respect for the generations who got through six years of war has always been high, but it’s gone stratospheric since all this started – and it was fascinating to see how, despite all the talk of keeping calm and carrying on, so much attention was paid to looking after the nation’s mental health, whether it was putting morale-boosting music on the radio and encouraging employers to letting it be played in workplaces, or promoting the idea of “victory roll” hairstyles.  Or having a laugh with the Colonel Bogey “balls” song (you know the one).  And, of course, getting Betty Turpin to serenade a trilby-hatted potato.

It wasn’t the best programme I’ve ever seen, it has to be said.  Referring to the Second World War as “World War II” seems to be endemic now, and I suppose could be forgiven.  Referring to the Queen as “Her Royal Highness” rather than “Her Majesty” really couldn’t be forgiven, though, and saying that GIs were in Britain in 1940 was even worse.  And a lot of it was same old, same old – using gravy browning to draw on stockings, thinking that carrots help you to see in the dark (because RAF men joked about how that was how they were able to see what they were doing), etc.

But there were some fascinating snippets in there, which aren’t mentioned so often.  If the binmen noticed food in your bin, you could get into trouble for wasting food at a time of shortages.  (Potatoes were not affected by shortages, as so many of them could be grown in the UK, hence the Potato Pete song encouraging people to eat potatoes!)   Even growing up in the ’80s, we had the mentality that it was a sin to waste good food.  I never understand younger people chucking stuff out because it’s five minutes past its sell-by date, although I don’t think doing that’s as common now as it was twenty years ago.  And, whilst I think most people are familiar with the idea of “make do and mend”, we don’t usually hear about bemused servicemen coming home on leave to find that their clothes had been transformed into outfits for their female relatives 🙂 .

Another good point made was about the role of older children in the war – all the work done by Guides and Scouts, and the importance of young people aged over 14 in the workforce.  Also mentioned was how families made their own toys for little kids, because toy factories had been turned over to producing goods for the war effort.

And there was a lot about hair and make-up – and how part of the reason for focusing on this was to cock a snook at Hitler, who subscribed to the idea of “pure natural womanhood”.  Sanctimonious people going on about how people shouldn’t moan about hairdressers and beauty salons being closed during lockdown could do with watching this part of the first episode.  OK, if people don’t want to wear make-up or do their hair, that’s obviously up to them, but my eldest great-aunt, who lived through two world wars, was still slapping on a faceful of make-up every day when she was in her 90s and living in a care home, and I really do get that.  Anyway, I haven’t got the confidence to leave the house looking “natural” – it might work if you’re stunningly beautiful, but it certainly doesn’t for me!  Using beetroot lipstick, boot polish mascara and cornflour/calamine lotion foundation when you couldn’t get anything else … brilliant!

But the main thing that really came through was that, as far as possible – obviously not so easy with so many people away in the Armed Forces or doing other war work, and many children having been evacuated – people got through it together. Yes, all right, we all know about the people who broke rules on rationing and all the rest of it, but they were a minority, and things like sewing circle and dances were so important.  Even during air raids, you’d often be with neighbours.  It helps so much when people pull together.  And people understood the importance of keeping up morale.  Also, they had a trilby-hatted potato.  I’m going to be earwormed by that potato song for days …




Silenced: the hidden story of disabled Britain – BBC 2


  I was expecting a programme to mark the 50th anniversary of Alf Morris’s landmark Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act last year, but there wasn’t one – maybe due to the problems of filming during lockdown? – and, strangely, this programme didn’t even mention it.  It was rather confused, starting by talking about physically disabled people, then switching to mentally disabled people, then switching back to physically disabled people and leaving the story of the rights of mentally disabled people stuck in the 1930s, but it made some interesting points.

It was very distressing to hear the story of the family from Birkenhead whose mentally disabled daughter was taken away by the authorities, against her will and theirs.  Her brothers were under the impression that she’d died, and only learnt 70 years later that she was still alive, and had been in an institution all those years.   By contrast, praise was heaped on Ludwig Guttmann, about whom we heard so much about during the London Paralympics, for doing so much to change attitudes towards physically disabled people in Britain … although the programme seemed quite critical of doctors who’d tried to treat those injured during the First World War.  Maybe the most telling moment was at the end, when campaigners talked about able-bodied and physically disabled children wanting to go to school together, none of them wanting to be separated from their friends.

Ironically, the programme started by reminding us about when Cerrie Burnell, the presenter, who was born with half of one arm missing, became a presenter on CBBC, and some parents complained.  Parents, not kids.   It then went back to the late 18th/early 19th century, making the point that mechanisation and industrialisation made it difficult for disabled people to find work, and forcing many into the workhouse as a result.

Then it jumped forward to the late 19th century, to talk about a woman called Mary Dendy.  Why had I never heard of her?  Although she was originally from Wales, she ended up in the Manchester area, and was one of the founders of the “Lancashire and Cheshire Society of the Permanent Care of the Feeble Minded”.  At this point, we left the history of physically disabled people and moved solely on to the history of mentally disabled people: as I said, the programme did jump around a lot.  Mary Dendy was distressed at seeing people, especially children, just left in workhouses to die, and founded a settlement at Sandlebridge, near Alderley Edge, where mentally disabled people could be cared for.  To that extent, she meant well … but she seemed to have no idea of mentally disabled people being able to care for themselves and make choices, and she wanted them kept away from society as a whole.

And then we came to the difficult subject of eugenics.  As most people know, the idea of eugenics did have a lot of support in the first half of the 19th century, including from some very well-known and well-respected figures.  Times change, thankfully.  Although Britain never had a policy of forced sterilisations in the way that some countries did, the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913 led to people being forcibly removed into institutions, and there was very much an idea that men and women should be segregated to avoid any possibility of their having children.

It remained in force until repealed by Harold Macmillan’s government in 1959 … long after the idea of eugenics had been completely discredited by its association with the Nazis.  But we never heard about that, because the focus then switched to physically disabled people, and the argument that, especially in the inter-war period, able-bodied people were trying to “mend” physically disabled people and “cure” their disabilities.

I must say that I’d dispute the criticism of doctors who provided false legs for men who’d had legs amputated as a result of injuries and gangrene in the First World War.  And, indeed, the general criticism of people with prosthetic limbs.  Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, but I did find it quite odd.  My late grandfather had a false leg.  He had a leg amputated due to a combination of a car accident and poor circulation resulting from diabetes.  Having a false leg was what was right for him.  I don’t see why that’s any more “ableist” than a short-sighted person such as myself wearing glasses or contact lenses, or a deaf person wearing a hearing aid.  Cerrie doesn’t want to have a prosthetic arm, and that’s what right for her, and it’s appalling that she was criticised for that when she was on CBBC.  But, if someone else makes a different choice, then surely that’s up to them.

However, there were some horrific stories of the treatments to which people were subjected, often when they were only children – one woman spoke about having her legs broken over and over again, to try to get them to grow back straighter.

Then it moved on to the work done by Dr Guttmann, and then to the campaigns for disability rights.  I do think it odd that the Alf Morris Act wasn’t mentioned, but the focus was more on the protest movements than the actual legislation.  It was a shame that it didn’t go further back, really: it said “history”, but it did said next to nothing about anything prior to the early 19th century.  But I think that the idea was to mark the 10th anniversary of the Equality Act, which was also last year, and to focus on what still needs to be done.

When we finally get out of this bloody pandemic, it’s going to be a different world, and, as happened after the Boer War, the First World War and the Second World War, we’re probably going to see a lot of social and economic change.  Given all the economic problems caused by the situation, some of that will inevitably be bad, but hopefully some of it will be good too.

This wasn’t a particularly good programme, unfortunately: it jumped around a lot, it didn’t seem to want to give space to different viewpoints, and the position of people with mental disabilities wasn’t brought up to date.  But, as I said, it did make some interesting points. It just could have been a lot better, because it had an important story to tell.


Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman


  Full title “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of my Hasidic Roots”.  This is the memoir on which the much-discussed Netflix series is based.  I haven’t got Netflix, so I haven’t seen it, but the book was available as a 99p Kindle download, so I thought I’d see what all the fuss was about.

I can’t honestly see quite what all the fuss is about – although the TV series may well be much better.  The book’s interesting; but it’s written in rather a rambling way, and there’s way too much detail about things which really aren’t that interesting, like what they had for their tea, and how people were pushing and shoving to get to the front to see people dancing at a religious festival.  Some of the small details really are interesting, though, like just how much the furry hats cost, and how girls are supposed to wear particular types of tights/stockings.  I also liked the fact that the author said she’d been inspired by the fictional heroines of books she’d managed to obtain secretly.  Elizabeth Bennet.  Jo March.  Anne Shirley.  People often talk about how these fictional heroines can form a bond between women, or at least Anglophone women, from completely different backgrounds.  How very true that’s shown to be here.

Having said all that, it does raise some important issues about the lack of choices for people raised in closed religious communities.  It’s not even just closed religious communities: there’s a growing movement, in the US if not so much elsewhere, for religious parents, especially those from evangelical churches, to home school their children, which means that the children only learn what the parents want them to learn, rather than the mainstream curriculum.  The lifestyle of strict religious communities does work for many people, and obviously that’s great for them, but it’s very difficult for those who are brought up in those communities but want something different from life.

What I’d like to have heard more about – in addition than the story of the author’s mother, who was born in Manchester, and left the New York Hasidic community she married into because she was gay – was the history of it all.  I’ve spent quite a while reading up on this, since reading the book.  I – spot the Eastern European history specialist 🙂 – knew the basics, about the Khmelnytsky Massacres, and Sabbatai Zvi, and the Haskalah, and the split between the Hasidim and the “Lithuanians” – but I didn’t really understand that they were so many different groups, and that they all centred on individual dynasties.  It’s more interesting that what people had for their tea. OK, it is to me, anyway!

Honestly, it is fascinating.   Most of the groups originated in South Central/Eastern Europe, where the Russian Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire (as it became), the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Ottoman Empire and the Danubian Principalities met and collided and took and swapped territory.  The Satmar group, the one which this book is about, originated in Transylvania, in a city called Satmar in Yiddish, Satu Mare in Romania and Szatmarnemeti in Hungarian.  Without going into the rights and wrongs of the Treaty of Trianon, it’s now part of Romania, but was under Hungarian administration during the war.  A lot of Hungarian Jews were deported to a ghetto there, and many of those who survived the Holocaust later moved to Williamsburg, New York, where the leader of the Satmar dynasty had established a new community.  The book doesn’t go into this in much detail.  It’s a shame.  As I’ve said, it’s a lot more interesting that what people had for their tea.

And these communities are closed.   A lot of people in Manchester will be familiar with the name “Chabad-Lubavitch”: that’s the more open Hasidic group, and they do engage with the wider community, with things like putting menorahs up in different parts of town during Chanukah.  They’re mentioned in passing here, as living in the Crown Heights area of New York, and having little to do with the Satmars, who live in the Williamsburg area.  But, until I looked on Google, I didn’t even know that there was a big Satmar synagogue in Salford.  I know the street it’s on, and I know that there’s a big synagogue there, and I see men wearing furry hats when I drive through that area, but I’d never heard the word “Satmar” mentioned in connection with it before.  This is not in New York.  This is a few miles down the road.

And there are loads and loads of other groups, as well as the Satmars and the Chabad-Lubavitch, especially in New York.  There are even splits within the Satmar group: Deborah is shocked when she thinks that her husband-to-be is a member of one faction, when her family are members of another. I honestly didn’t realise it was all such a complex situation.

The book does explain briefly that children are taught that the Holocaust was a punishment for assimilation.  This does partially explain why the community shuts itself off.  I don’t know how much that’s specific to the Satmars, because of the particular history of Hungarian Jews.  There’s not much historical background, though.  To be fair, it’s not intended as a textbook.  It’s the story of one woman’s experiences.

I wasn’t very comfortable with the fact that she included so much personal, very intimate detail about her marriage.  Her ex-husband doesn’t sound like the world’s greatest guy, but he wasn’t personally to blame for the ways of their community, and it must have been very embarrassing for him to have had all this private stuff made so public.  I also wondered what her son, who must now be a teenager, thinks about it.  Having said which, I gather that the ex-husband has now also left the community, and is happily remarried and leading a secular lifestyle which suits him much better, so hopefully things have worked out for him too.

This book is now eight years old and, since it was written, it’s become a little more common for people to move away from closed religious communities.  Obviously, those lifestyles do work for some people, as I’ve said, but it’s clearly extremely hard for those who do want to get away, especially women who are usually married off in their teens, expected to start having children immediately, and are then in a position where it’s even harder to leave.  Having said which, there was a lot of talk in the UK a few years ago about non-registered schools, and several points were made about how difficult it is for boys who’ve attended Hasidic schools, because they’ve been taught little other than religious studies.

The theme of the book is the author’s own struggles with the restrictions of the closed community in which she’s been brought up.  Her own position’s unusual, the child of a mother who left the community and a father who seems to’ve had severe learning disabilities.  She’s brought up by her grandparents. We hear about her school, and all the emphasis that’s put on “modesty” in dress and behaviour, and then about her arranged marriage at the age of 17.

They have a lot of problems in the bedroom, and there’s really way too much detail about that, but they do eventually have a child.  She’s always been a bit of a rebel, but, after her son is born, she rebels much more, enrols on a college course, starts dressing differently, not wearing a wig, eating out at non-kosher restaurants with her new friends … and, eventually, she takes her son and leaves.

Perhaps inevitably, the book is very critical of the community, even of some her own relatives.  It also goes into detail about the customs of this community which keeps itself to itself – it’s as much an expose as a memoir.  Some of that’s fairly uncontroversial, such as how rabbis are seen as celebs to the extent that children have “rabbi cards” in the way that other children have football cards, and details about keeping a kosher kitchen.  A lot of it will be interesting to people who are not familiar with Hasidic Judaism, such as married women not being allowed to show their own hair, and how marriages are arranged.

Some of it is much more controversial.  I think everyone’s aware that cases of child abuse within a lot of religious communities have been covered up, and that’s something that’s mentioned here.  The book also alleges that a father murdered his own child when he caught him masturbating, and that the community covered it up.  The author’s said that she would not have made something like that up.

It ends with her leaving the community, and we get the impression, although it’s not made clear, that she’s now cut off from it completely.  It’s all shown very positively.  If she feels any regrets about being cut off from her grandparents, her father, her aunts, uncles, cousins and old friends, and about cutting her son off from them too, she doesn’t express them.  Having said which, she had nothing positive to say about any of them, other than her grandparents.  If she’s got no regrets, that’s great for her.  It’s probably a lot more difficult for most people to make that break.

She also had friends from college who were able to help her, notably by introducing her to publishing contacts so that she was able to get a contract to publish her book and make some money.  A lot of people, especially women, in her position, wouldn’t have had that help.  It is very, very difficult for people to escape that lifestyle, if they want to.  And I suppose the reason for the popularity of the book is that people admire someone who was able to do that.

This isn’t a literary masterpiece.  It rambles.  People who are unfamiliar with Judaism and with Yiddish words will probably find some of it hard to follow.  Two different forms of transliteration from Hebrew are used, rather randomly.  It’s also all me-me-me -OK, it’s the author’s memoir, but she never seems to stop to consider how her husband might feel about things, or how her grandparents might feel about things, or how anyone else at all might feel about things.  But there’s clearly something about it, because the book was a best seller, and the TV series was a big ratings winner.  I think the 99p Kindle offer’s finished now, but, if it comes up again, this is worth a go.

Britain’s Most Historic Towns: Manchester – Channel 4


This was one of the best programmes I’ve seen all year.  There should be programmes like this on every day.  On every channel.  At prime viewing time.  What more could anyone ask for than to watch a TV programme which says that “Manchester is as great a human exploit as [ancient] Athens” (Disraeli), talks about Manchester “pumping the rich blood of economic vitality and revolutionary identity around Britain” and points out that Frederick Douglass was “fascinated” by Manchester because of the number of people here working to change the world for the better?  And it showed a picture of Old Trafford.  (OK, OK, it also showed a picture of the Etihad, but never mind that.)  And it talked about the Cotton Famine.  The Cotton Famine was my dissertation topic.  I get very excited when people talk about it.

We got Peterloo.  We got the Anti Corn Law League.  We got the Manchester to Liverpool Railway (the Huskisson incident was not mentioned).  We got Engels and Marx meeting up at Chetham’s (the fact that Engels’ office was in what’s now Kendals, which always amuses me, was sadly not mentioned).  And, of course, we got the suffragettes.  I just need to mention for the ten billionth time that I went to the same school as Christabel Pankhurst and her sisters.  Then, at the end, we were shown a picture of Marcus Rashford.  Marcus, being a very modest young man, is probably rather embarrassed at being mentioned alongside the likes of Richard Cobden, Elizabeth Gaskell, Emmeline Pankhurst and the organisers of the meeting which sadly ended in the Peterloo Massacre, but I thought that that was rather lovely.

This really was brilliant.  Alice Roberts was so enthusiastic and so totally biased in favour of all the radicals and reformers of 18th, 19th, 20th and now 21st century Manchester.  I got all excited, like I did when I was a teenager reading books by Asa Briggs et al about the role of Manchester in the Industrial Revolution.  Yes, I really, genuinely am that sad and that weird.  Always have been, always will be.  Indulge me, OK.  Christmas has just been cancelled.  I needed cheering up.  This cheered me up.  So has United beating Leeds 6-2.   Well, somewhat.

We started off with canals, cotton mills and railways – and a drone flying over the city to take pictures.  This was obviously filmed recently, but they managed very well with social distancing – Alice Roberts met various historians, but only one at a time, and they stood well apart.  Then we heard about the difficult conditions under which the mill workers lived and worked, and then moved on to the mess which was the constituency system pre 1832, and, of course, the electorail system too.

That, obviously, brought us on to Peterloo.  We heard about the radical press here, notably the Manchester Observer, and then about the Massacre itself. If Mike Leigh hadn’t made such a mess of the film, we might hear a lot more about Peterloo: I’m still narked about that.  Anyway.  Even now, we get people saying that it wasn’t really a peaceful protest, or that it wasn’t really that bad.  This, using documents from the time, kept in the wonderful John Rylands Library, made it quite clear that, yes, it was a peaceful protest, and, yes, what happened was that bad.  We heard about the Peterloo Relief Fund set up to help the injured and the families of the dead.  And we heard about the “fake news” put out about it all.  It was all very, very much on the side of the peaceful protesters.  And quite rightly so!

Strangely, there was no mention of the Chartists.  That was a very odd omission.

However, we did hear about Richard Cobden and the Anti Corn Law League.  Possibly a teensy bit of political agenda pushing here, the only bit of the programme I wasn’t keen on.  Or maybe I imagined it.  But let’s ignore that, and focus on the fact that the Anti Corn Law League eventually succeeded in bringing down food prices – at a time when, even during the Potato Famine, landowners were only interested in keeping prices up, and never mind the fact that people were going hungry.   And, oh, how I wish that the Free Trade Hall had never been sold off and turned into a hotel!  It’s such a big piece of our history. We used to have school Speech Day in there.  It was always very boring, very hot, and at the same time as a crucial match at Wimbledon, but the fact that it was in the Free Trade Hall rather than the school hall was rather exciting.

On to Marx and Engels, and the interesting point was made that Elizabeth Gaskell probably did more to draw public attention to “the condition of the working classes” than Engels did.  Lucky Alice Roberts got to visit her house, and also Chetham’s Library: both are sadly closed to the public at the moment 😦 , thanks to bl**dy Tier 3 regulations.  Charles Dickens also got a mention, but I find Hard Times unspeakably annoying.  Mrs Gaskell’s books are much better.  And, yes, they would have reached a far wider audience than the Engels book did.  Both them were rather patronising, quite honestly, but those were different times.

Then on to the Cotton Famine.  I’ve just read an utterly ridiculous book which claimed that everyone in the Lancashire textile areas supported the Confederacy.  It also said that the Confederacy only had six states, when it had eleven, so the author was clearly pretty clueless.  And he said that Prince Albert was gay, which seemed a rather odd comment.  But it annoyed me that a supposed history textbook has gone on sale spouting such rubbish.  Yes, there was some support for the Confederacy, but the general feeling in the Lancashire textile areas (I’m saying “textile areas” because it was a whole different ball game in Liverpool) was pro-Union because of the slavery issue.  Whether the war was actually about slavery or about states’ rights is a debate for another time, but there’s that famous letter sent to Abraham Lincoln from “the citizens of Manchester”, and the equally famous reply.  And there’s a statue of Lincoln in the city centre … close to where one of the Christmas markets should currently be being held.  Given the damage done to the regional economy by the Cotton Famine, that was a very big thing.

We were also told that Frederick Douglass was fascinated by Manchester. Well, of course he was.  Anyone would be 🙂 .  But I love the fact that he was.

And then to the suffragettes.  Emmeline Pankhurst, of whom there is, finally, now a statue in town.  Alice spoke to a woman who’d actually changed her surname to Pankhurst!   That’s rather extreme fangirling, but it’s fascinating that someone does find Emmeline Pankhurst so inspirational that she’d do that.  And we saw the Manchester – First in the Fight” banner which now lives in the People’s History Museum.

First in the Fight!   “We are a city of changemakers.”  “Greatest Hits of Radical Movements.”  I actually Googled Alice Roberts to see if she had Manchester connections, but, as far as I can see, she hasn’t.  She was just being gloriously pro-Manchester.  We take all this as a compliment, obviously!   We are very proud of being involved in the Repeal movement and the Suffragette movement and everything else.  And, as I said, I thought it was rather lovely that that picture of Marcus Rashford was shown.  We’re having a tough time at the moment.  But we’ve had tough times before.  We’ve come through those and we’ll come through this.

And this programme was brilliant.  Not that I’m biased or anything …