Pilgrimage: the Road to Rome – BBC 2


Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have the time and opportunity to get away from it all for a few weeks and travel along a historic route, dating back well over a thousand years, through the glorious Swiss Alps and beautiful Northern and Central Italy, in blessed peace and quiet?  OK, OK, I’d end up whingeing about the heat, the insects and the lack of proper sanitation, not to mention any walking uphill, but I still love the idea of it.  Like last year’s series about the Camino to Santiago de Compostela, this is following a group of minor celebs, with different backgrounds and beliefs, along a traditional pilgrimage route, this time the Via Francigena (“French/Frankish Way” – it doesn’t sound nearly as good in English!) from Martigny (near Verbier) to the Vatican City.  Featuring St Bernard dogs, thermal baths and wine.

The Via Francigena actually starts from Canterbury, but I suppose that would have taken too long!   They’re using various modes of transport, but the last 100 km (just over 60 miles), from Viterbo to Rome is being done on foot.  And the “pilgrims” involved are Stephen K Amos, Mehreen Baig, Katy Brand, Brendan Cole, Les Dennis, Lesley Joseph, Greg Rutherford and Dana Scallon.

I’ve been to various pilgrimage sites – as a holidaymaking historian, not as a pilgrim (although I think I get some sort of medieval pilgrimage gold star for having been to Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela)! – relating to various different religions/denominations, but, due to being a wage slave, it’s only ever been for the day.  I love the idea of being able to take a couple of weeks, or more, and walk the historic routes – having time out to think and to take in the experience and to see the different places along the way.

I’m not sure that I’d go for the Vatican City, though.  It’s an incredible place to visit, but there’s too much else going on there.  It’s so grand and so full of incredible artwork, and also so much an administrative centre, and it’s surrounded by Rome, the Eternal City, in all its ancient and modern glory … and it’s all just too much to feel really spiritual.  OK, all pilgrimage sites are busy and touristy, and you’d probably feel a lot more spiritual if you weren’t stood in a horrendous queue to see whatever you’d come to see, looking at your watch to see how long you’ve got before you need to be back at the coach, hoping fervently that you’ll have time to get something to eat and drink and that there won’t be a long queue for the toilets.  But I think that places that exist purely or mainly as religious sites – and it can be any religion or denomination; you don’t have to “belong” to that religion or denomination yourself to appreciate the place – maybe work better as “spiritual” places.  Having said which, the Vatican is great, and our eight celebs got to meet the Pope at the end of their journey (which will be shown in the final episode, on Good Friday)!

It’s actually the journey that’s the most interesting bit, though, more than the destination.  We don’t hear that much about pilgrimage routes – although I think that the National Trust are going to try to start promoting some of the old routes within the UK – but they are very much a “thing”. I was quite surprised to see how many pilgrims were heading into Santiago de Compostela when I went there.   It’s not necessarily a religious thing – it’s that taking time out.  It could be, say, the Inca Trail.  Or, nearer to home and with rather fewer altitude sickness issues, the Pennine Way.  Along the Via Francigena, our pilgrims – although they were using apps and Google maps! – found pilgrimage signposts, and “donativo” refreshment places and hostels primarily serving people travelling the route, and had their pilgrimage passports stamped at each stop.

And it seemed so quiet, for all that it’s a “thing”!  OK, maybe other people were just politely asked to move whilst the BBC were filming, but you often see TV programmes filmed amidst hordes of people, so I doubt it.  Peace and quiet are so, so hard to find!  Even when you’re in your own home, even if you’re not answering the phone, there are often dogs barking, kids yelling, cars and motorbikes revving their engines, or someone mowing the lawn or playing music loudly.  And there’s usually a nagging feeling that you really ought to be doing one of the seventy billion things on your To Do List (capital T, capital D, capital L!).

That seemed to be how the “pilgrims” were looking at it too – I don’t think St Peter was mentioned once, and even Rome itself was only mentioned in terms of going the right way, but there was a lot of talk about peace and “mental space” and time out.  There was some general talk about faith and religion, though.  In Viterbo, it’s traditional to go into a Catholic church and receive a pilgrims’ blessing.  Some of the group – with Lesley, who’s Jewish, and Mehreen, who’s Muslim, amongst the most enthusiastic – chose to do this, but others said they didn’t feel comfortable about it.

There was more talk on the subject at other points of the journey, as well.  Dana, a practising Catholic and the most religious member of the group, said that religion is very important to her, but alluded to the “difficult time” in the Catholic church at the moment – i.e. with the child sex abuse scandals.  Stephen said that, as a gay man, he doesn’t feel that any religion welcomes him.  Les spoke about how his mother had once been very religious, but had lost her faith after being shunned by her church when she had a child outside marriage.  Brendan Cole summed it all up very well by saying that the problems are not with particular formal/organised religious, but with some of the people in them.

It was great to see people discussing sensitive issues – faith and religion are awkward topics to discuss, because people can be very sensitive about them –  without arguing and shouting each other down.  I’m so, so sick of seeing social media posts in which people use the word “stupid” (or worse) to describe anyone whose views on a political issue differ from theirs.  Some people will be abusive towards anyone who disagrees with them over a sports event, a film, a TV series, a book … anything!  This was just nice.  It was nice TV.  And it’d be a nice thing to do.  Just given the time …



Countryfile (70 years of national parks) – BBC 1


Four of the six people arrested during the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass of 1932 were from Cheetham Hill, and “The Manchester Rambler”, the song famously inspired by it, was written by Ewan MacColl from Lower Broughton, so I do tend to get very parochial about it 😊 … although I do acknowledge that it was a Sheffield thing as well as a Manchester thing!  Workers of the north unite!   Whilst the trespass didn’t bring immediate results, it played a crucial role in the campaign for access to the countryside to all and in the creation of national parks – and the people jailed over it were rightly hailed as heroes in this BBC programme.  2019 marks the 70th anniversary of the passing of the National Parks legislation, which led to the creation of Britain’s fifteen national parks – the first one, fittingly, being the Peak District, and the second, a few weeks later, my beloved Lake District ❤, where I’ve just spent the weekend.

Countryfile marked the anniversary by visiting seven of the parks – the Peak District, the North York Moors, the New Forest, the South Downs, the Pembrokeshire coast, the Cairngorms and Exmoor.   I was very sorry that they didn’t include the Lake District, I have to say.  I love the Peak District, but the Lake District is my favourite national park by a country mile.  Every romantic word that Wordsworth wrote about the Lake District is true!  The Yorkshire Dales is a third one that’s near enough to me for day trips.  Sadly, Northumberland National Park isn’t near enough for day trips, but it’s somewhere else I’m very fond of … partly because of the Lorna Hill books (Guy Charlton ❤!).  And neither of them got a mention either.  But, OK, they couldn’t get round all of them in an hour-long programme, and they had to give other parts of the UK a look in too!

The programme started off with a large group of people walking though the Peak District in the footsteps of the Kinder Scout Trespassers.  When I say “walk”, the group included people in specially-adapted wheelchairs: it was good to see accessibility being considered.  It also discussed the work done by Ethel Haythornthwaite, the founder of the Friends of the Peak District, and how important being able to get into the countryside was to her whilst she was suffering from severe mental health problems following her first husband’s death in the First World War.  The countryside is a great balm to troubled souls.  I know that well!   Later, it went right back to the early 1800s, to talk about agricultural pioneer John Knight, who dreamed of creating a national park of sorts – long before the term existed – in Exmoor.  And then all the way back to the 16th century, to talk about Huguenot refugees (before the Edict of Nantes was even passed, never mind before it was revoked) working as glass-blowers there, and how there are still glass-blowers working there.

There wasn’t much more history in the programme, sadly, but it did make some extremely important points about the issues faced by national parks – partly due to the inevitable issues of funding, partly due to climate change and the damage caused by severe weather, and, unfortunately, mostly the problems caused by inappropriate behaviour by a minority of visitors.  There’ve been arguments ever since Victorian times, when the railways made the countryside and the seaside accessible to people who’d never have been able to get there otherwise, about overcrowding in places like the Lake District; and it seems to be a particular problem in the South Downs, which has a far greater population density than most other national park areas, about the effects of large numbers of people coming into rural areas, and about anti-social behaviour.

I find this quite difficult to write about, because, as a little girl, I read so many books where it was all tied in with snobbery, in a way that still makes my blood boil!   Characters like the Famous Five are always making snooty remarks about “day trippers” – i.e. the people who are enjoying a day out, which they’ll have been look forward to for months, as opposed to the people who can afford to spend the entire school summer holidays in some picturesque location! – and blaming them for every gate that’s been left open or every piece of litter that’s been dropped!

Countryfile wasn’t like that at all, though, I’m pleased to say!  It was making the point that these are working landscapes, and that it’s not acceptable for people to treat them however they like.  As much as the national parks belong to everyone, setting up an unauthorised campsite close to areas where they are livestock is not appropriate.  And the worst problem of the lot is people failing to keep their horrible dogs under control, and sheep and other animals being attacked as a result.  I was reading the other day that the NFU (National Farmers’ Union) insurance company has called for changes to the Dangerous Dogs Act because of the growing numbers of attacks by dogs on sheep and other farm animals.  And there are issues about overcrowding.  That’s no-one’s fault – it just reflects the fact that the roads in the countryside weren’t built for huge numbers of cars, and that there isn’t room for parking for all those cars, nor are facilities in small villages able to cope with vast influxes of visitors.

This is sounding negative now!  It wasn’t a negative programme: it was a lovely programme, showing some of the most beautiful areas of our beautiful country (even if it didn’t include the Lake District, which is the most beautiful part of all!).  But, as with so many things, it’s essential to remember not to take what we’ve got for granted – and to show courtesy and respect to other people, to animals, to birds, to plantlife, and to the environment in general.

Due to the unfortunate fact of being a wage slave on Monday, also on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday (“The Manchester Rambler” – “I may be a wage slave on Monday, but I am a free man [or indeed woman] on Sunday”), I’ve yet to make it to the non-northern national parks covered by the programme.  I suppose I must have been through the South Downs on the way to Brighton when I was 13 (long before the South Downs even was a national park), but that doesn’t really count.  I would love to visit the Pembrokeshire coast, and especially to see Caldey Island because of its Chalet School connections, and the New Forest because of Children of the New Forest.  And I’ve been wanting to go to Exmoor ever since seeing the Polly Walker/Clive Owen/Sean Bean BBC adaptation of Lorna Doone when I was 15.  Yes, all right, all right, I don’t suppose much of it was actually filmed in Exmoor, but anyway!  And I’ve only ever made it to any part of the Scottish Highlands once.

I suppose that proves everything that those who took part in the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass said – that most of us don’t have much time to enjoy the countryside, and that that makes it incredibly important for us to have access to it in the time that we do have.

So it was certainly worrying to hear those involved in running our national parks, and those who farm within them, talking about the problems that they’re facing.  Without wanting to get political over this, there are big issues with severe funding cuts.  And, as already mentioned, there are issues with poor behaviour by some of visitors, especially in relation to dogs not being kept under control.  It’s certainly concerning.  Let’s never forget that the general public didn’t always have access to these beautiful places, and that people fought long campaigns, even spending time in prison in some cases, for our “right to roam” – which, even now, is limited, in England and Wales, and that we didn’t even have that much enshrined in law until 2000.   And let’s hope that ways can be found to deal with the challenges which the parks are facing at the moment, so that we’re able to keep enjoying them in the years to come.

And all hail the Kinder Scout heroes!  Quick chorus of The Manchester Rambler, anyone (as ever, if anyone’s actually read this!!)  😉?



For Folk’s Sake: Morris Dancing and Me – BBC 4


Passing through town on the Metrolink on Saturday, I was intrigued to see a group of Morris dancers performing outside Manchester Central (G-Mex). Cecil “the Prophet” Sharp would have been over the moon about that! It turned out that it was part of the Joint Morris Organisations National Day of Dance, launching the 2019 Manchester Folk Festival Programme. Those involved included the Stretford-based Manchester Morris Men, who featured prominently this BBC 4 documentary. Morris dancing in North West England, and in some other parts of the country, traditionally included women, but the “Morris Ring”, founded in 1934, only admitted all-male sides … until last year. With numbers dwindling, it agreed to admit mixed-gender and all-female teams … and a lot of the blokes are not happy about this.

We’re not talking a storm in a teacup here. In one village, a woman who’d joined the local Morris side – not even as a dancer, but as a musician – had been given such grief that she and her husband had moved to another part of the country!  Feelings on this matter run very high. There’s the “adapt or die” issue – new blood is urgently needed. And some men, especially the younger element, feel that society has changed and people now prefer to socialise in mixed gender groups. However, others feel strongly that admitting women to their sides would destroy Morris dancing’s traditions. It’s partly about the actual art of Morris dancing – one man compared it to admitting women to a male voice choir – and partly about heritage.

It’s hard to know how much of the Morris dancing traditions are genuinely historical and how much were the invention of folk revivalists looking for ideas of a mythical Merrie Englande, but the general idea of Morris dancing is thought to go back to the 16th century. The revival of Morris dancing, after it had largely died out amid the social and economic changes of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, is considered to have dated from 1899, and is closely associated with Cecil Sharp – founder of the English Folk Dance Society and known to me and other readers of “Girls’ Own” books as “The Prophet” in Elsie J Oxenham’s Abbey books.

As Richard Macer, the presenter of the programme, explained, Cecil Sharp at one time worked closely with a woman called Mary Neal – who sounds absolutely fascinating, but that’s another story. However, they fell out, and, one way and another, the idea that male Morris dancing was superior to female Morris dancing took hold. It was also explained that Morris dancing had experienced a heyday in the 1970s, but had been declining since then. With a lot of Morris dancers now ageing and approaching a point where they’ll probably have to consider retirement, what does the future hold? Part of the programme involved Richard himself learning Morris dancing, with the Manchester Morris Men, and, at fifty-odd, he was about twenty years younger than the average age of the side.
It would be very sad to see the tradition die out – and traditions, in cultures all around the world, die out frighteningly easily.

So what’s going wrong? I love to watch traditional dancing, in any country or region. And Morris dancing’s linked with other traditions, too. The programme started off by showing Morris dancers escorting a May queen at a procession through a Norfolk village. And, towards the end, it showed the wonderful Saddleworth Rushcart ceremony. At one time, there were rushcart ceremonies all over the area, usually during local wakes weeks, but they’ve pretty much died out. The one at Saddleworth, though, is a really big event, and that’s largely due to Morris dancers.

But … well, the dancers themselves admitted that Morris dancing doesn’t exactly have the coolest of images. Flowers on hats, bells on knickerbockers, brightly-coloured socks and ribbons, waving hankies … it’s often seen as a bit naff. Yet no-one would ever think of Spanish flamenco, Scottish reels, Russian kazatskies or Bavarian schuhplattler dancing as being naff, would they? As one of the men said, maybe we just get embarrassed very easily in England!

Another issue is that, in many rural areas, Morris dancing is a big local “thing” and young lads would traditionally follow their dad, grandads, uncles et al into the local Morris side, and that was how the sides kept going. With more and more people moving away from where they grew up, that’s becoming a problem. And, in towns and cities, that idea of Morris dancing as a community thing doesn’t really exist anyway. I must say that I had no idea that there was a Morris dancing side in Stretford! They train in a church hall which is about a mile and a half from the two Old Traffords. It’s not exactly somewhere I’d particularly associate with folk dancing.

But will women join, given the option? We hear about a lot of arguments over male-only or female-only organisations, most famously the row over admitting women to The Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews. It’s usually a case of members of the excluded gender demanding admission. That doesn’t seem to be the case here. The Morris Federation and Open Morris both admit male-only, female-only or mixed-gender teams, and there was no suggestion that female Morris dancers were all that fussed about being excluded from the Morris Ring, and certainly not that they were lobbying for admission.

The suggestion came from an all-male side, in Leicester – and even that particular side hasn’t actually admitted any women! Whilst the vote on the issue resulted in a landslide majority in favour of admitting women, it was left to each individual side to decide whether they wanted to do that or not. And most of them, so far, have decided not to.

Do women even want to join sides that are currently men-only? Richard spoke to some members of a women-only side – all considerably younger than our Manchester Morris pals – and they said that they preferred to operate as an all-female group. No-one (I hope!) wants to see anyone suffering discrimination, but most of us do like to spend some time socialising in an all-male or all-female environment. There’s an issue with arrogance here, as well. There’s long been this attitude that male-only Morris dancing is better than female-only or mixed-gender Morris dancing. And the Morris Ring, which has been a bastion of that attitude, is only prepared to admit women now because it thinks that its sides aren’t going to survive otherwise, and hasn’t made any secret of the fact.

But I didn’t get the impression that any of the men Richard was talking to were male chauvinists. They just wanted to keep their traditions, and they also wanted to have some male-only time and activities. Richard pointed out that it’s usually male-only organisations which are coming under pressure to admit women, not the other way round. It has to be said that that’s a fair point. You don’t hear of campaigns for men to be allowed to join the WI, do you? And we weren’t talking about the days of the FA banning women’s football, or women being denied access to top level golfing facilities or the best seats at cricket grounds. There are women-only and mixed-gender Morris sides. By the end of the programme, I found myself hoping that the male-only sides would be able to continue, and – hey, I’m the person who’s always reminding everyone that I went to the same school as Christabel Pankhurst! – I hadn’t expected to feel like that.

And Richard had clearly ended up feeling like that as well. He’d got really into it, especially after discovering that his granny and grandad had met through Morris dancing and his great-aunt had corresponded with Cecil Sharp. He was rather upset at being told that, unfortunately, he wasn’t good enough to dance at the Saddleworth Rushcart ceremony, and delighted when he was deemed good enough to dance at an event in Mossley. The guys were really into their traditions – the names used for people holding particular positions in the sides, the annual meet-up to honour the memories of old Morris dancing friends who’d died, and so on. And these were the traditions of a male-only organisation. He observed that some of them felt that there was honour in sticking to traditions even if it meant that the sides couldn’t go on.

A crucial point he made at the end was that male-only Morris dancing was about masculinity and male bonding without any hint of the “toxic masculinity” culture which is sometimes associated with men-only activities. He even said that male Morris dancers could be role models for young men – and, as he said, the idea of bells and whistles and flowery hats being associated with masculinity sounds a bit mad, but it does actually work. And they were enjoying themselves! They were having such fun, and so were the people watching them – and they were also keeping an old and important tradition alive. It would be a tragedy if Morris dancing died out.

But, having said all that, the Manchester Morris Dancers didn’t participate at Saddleworth, because they weren’t able to muster a full side. And they’ve now voted to admit women members, largely because they need to boost numbers, and hope that admitting women will attract more people, especially younger people, both female and male. I really hope they’re able to keep going, and the same with other sides across the country. Morris dancing is not seen as cool, and that’s the big problem – but who’d have thought that knitting and sewing and baking and so on would become cool? Is “cool” still a cool word? I am old and out of touch!! So maybe there’s hope for Morris dancing. I really do hope so. Richard Macer got rather attached to the Manchester Morris Men, and to Morris dancing in general, because of this programme. I did too!



Second Serve by Renée Richards with John Ames


Taking a quick break from my usual historical novels to read a tennis-related book –  the story of Renee Richards, born Richard Raskind in a family of New York doctors, who, after transitioning from male to female, won a legal battle against the US Tennis Association to be able to compete in women’s events, reached the final of the ladies’ doubles and (partnering Ilie Nastase) the mixed doubles at the US Open, and later coached Martina Navratilova.  It’s not particularly well-written, and says disappointingly little about actual tennis history, but it makes some interesting points, including about the way in which sports players from minority groups attract a lot of press attention which other players don’t have to deal with.

There isn’t actually that much tennis in the book.  A lot of it details Richard (Dick)’s female conquests and Renee’s male conquests, which the reader probably doesn’t really want to know about, especially not in quite as much detail as it gives.  It also gives the impression of someone who was rather confused, rather than that of a transgender person who knew that they were a woman in a man’s body.  Young Dick seems to have had unhealthy relationships with both his mother and his sister, and in fact all the relationships within the family seem to have been strained.

They (I’m initially using gender-neutral pronouns because they write about Dick and Renee living inside the same body and vying with each other to get out) were a top student, who went to Yale, captained the tennis team there, qualified as a doctor and became a leading ophthalmologist, and also spent time in the US Navy, and had a lot of girlfriends.   They at one point made the decision to transition, and went as far as having hormone treatment and developing female characteristics, but then decided to go back to being a man, stopped the treatment, had surgery, and married a woman and fathered a child.   It’s very unusual to hear of someone going backwards and forwards like that.  It’s very sad: they said that they suffered periods of depression and contemplated suicide, and weren’t really able to find help despite seeing a number of very prominent psychiatrists.

Eventually, they came to the decision to undergo gender reassignment surgery, and moved from New York to California to begin a new life as a woman.  A lot of good points are made about the practical problems of passports, driving licences, certificates showing professional qualifications, etc, being in the name of a man when the person is now a woman.  These days, people would just explain, but, in the 1970s, Renee felt unable to acknowledge her previous identity as Dick in her working life, and had to try to establish her professional reputation all over again.  She was told that, as Dick had been quite well-known in the tennis world, she would probably be recognised if she took up playing tennis again, but she did so anyway – and was indeed recognised.

She was in her forties by this time, which is very late for someone to try to begin a professional tennis career, but she felt that she was playing well and had a chance of success in the big events, but was refused permission to play because of being transgender.  After various legal battles, and with the support of some big names, notably Billie Jean King and Gladys Heldman, she was allowed to compete in women’s events – although only in the US and South America, because there wasn’t a unified tour in those days and she didn’t feel that she wanted to fight any more legal battles in order to try to win the right to compete in Britain, France, etc.

The issue of transgender athletes is very much in the news now, thirty years later.  Several leading athletes have called for medical research to be done to establish whether or not a transgender woman has an advantage over a cisgender woman, but it all seems to be up in the air at the moment, and has been complicated by the separate issue of cisgender women who have naturally high testosterone levels … which seems rather an odd thing to penalise people for, as a lot of athletes have a natural advantage due to height or build, and no-one suggests that they shouldn’t be allowed to compete.

This book really isn’t very good, but, as I said, it does raise some good points.  One that’s very relevant at the moment, with the ongoing issues of a) racism in sport, very much in the news this week following the disgraceful scenes during England’s match in Montenegro, and b) why there are still no openly gay top level male footballers, is the amount of attention which players from any minority group attract, and how they’re expected to be spokespeople for the community concerned.  Hopefully most of that attention is positive and supportive, but many people may neither want nor be able to deal with that.  It would have been better to have heard more about that, and more about Dick/Renee’s personal issues and feelings, and less about all of Dick’s women and Renee’s men, but, hey, the book is what it is.  I wouldn’t spend too much money on it, but, if you happen to stumble across a cheap copy, it might be worth a read.

Victoria (series 3) – ITV 1


Oh dear. This was all very dramatic, and made for entertaining Sunday night TV; but it completely misrepresented the Chartist movement, Lord Palmerston, Queen Victoria’s relationship with her half-sister, and even the sort of clothing worn by the little princes. I’m rather annoyed about the portrayal of the peaceful Chartists as a baying mob hammering on the gates of Buckingham Palace. As for Palmerston looking thirty years younger than he was, Feodora being turned into a jealous schemer in scarlet lace and the idea that the viewing public wouldn’t be able to cope with seeing little boys wearing dresses … come on, ITV, give us a break!!  Entertaining, yes; but an accurate portrayal of events and personalities would have been equally entertaining, and a lot less frustrating for historians!

According to this, Victoria resented the fact that her half-sister, Princess Feodora of Leiningen, had left Kensington Palace to get married, Feodora was jealous of Victoria’s position, and Feodora randomly turned up in London in the middle of the 1848 Revolutions, got on everyone’s nerves, and went around wearing scarlet lace dresses. Er, no. Victoria and Feodora got on extremely well, and Feodora, after her marriage, lived out her life at the Schloss Langenburg in Germany. For an accurate portrayal in fiction of their relationship, see the excellent books by Jean Plaidy and Cynthia Harrod-Eagles.  Come on, ITV, this is supposed to be a programme about Queen Victoria, not Dallas or Dynasty! Oh, and we’ve also got a fictitious duchess who’s going to have an affair with a footman, but at least that won’t be misrepresenting someone who really existed!

Palmerston would probably be quite flattered at being shown as a raffish man about town in his forties, when he was actually nearly seventy at the time, but it’s hardly very accurate! In the first series, Lord Melbourne was also shown as being a lot younger than he was. Do the scriptwriters have a problem with men past a certain age? The Victorian establishment certainly didn’t: the Duke of Wellington was in charge of dealing with any unrest in London in 1848, and he was getting on for eighty. My first ever encounter with Palmerston was in the context of his nearly dragging Britain into the American Civil War, which would not have been a good idea; but I’ve got quite fond of him since then, because of his support for Greek independence, reform in Central Europe, and Don Pacifico. And there’s certainly an argument that the Crimean War might have been avoided had he been Foreign Secretary in the mid-1850s.

There was certainly controversy over his outspoken support for the 1848 revolutions, but this programme made it look as if he was saying that everyone should go around chopping off monarchs’ heads, whereas he was actually speaking in favour of self-determination. As a sensible, liberal person, he realised that the nation state was, and is, the most successful and effective form of political unit ever known.  Being trapped in “a prison of nations” leads to instability, economic disparity, and an often violent break-up.  And, OK, he might have been fond of the ladies, but there was no need to suggest that he was some sort of pervert and no woman was safe in the same room as him.  Apparently Daisy Goodwin was trying to make him seem like Boris Johnson!  He didn’t seem anything like Boris Johnson, but he didn’t seem very much like Lord Palmerston either.

There were some annoying minor inaccuracies, as well. Someone was surprised that the Duchess of Devonshire had let her footman leave. There was no Duchess of Devonshire in 1848! The Duke wasn’t married, and his mother was long since dead. The first name of Cuffay, the leader of the radical faction of the Chartists wasn’t Samuel; it was William. Uncle Leopold had written to say that he was under threat from the revolutionaries. Seeing as there wasn’t a revolution in Belgium in 1848, I don’t think so. Then there was the thing with the boys’ clothes. Affie, being much too young to have been breeched, and probably Bertie as well, would have been wearing dresses, as little boys did in 1848. Instead, they were shown wearing kilts. In London. Apparently, the scriptwriters thought that viewers would have been confused by seeing boys wearing dresses. What??!! This isn’t a debate about gender identity: it’s a simple matter of what a particular section of the population would have been wearing at the time.

Irritating as that was, what really got to me was the way that the Chartists, who – admittedly apart from the radical wing led by William Cuffay, but their plans for armed insurrection didn’t actually come to anything – were a peaceful movement, looking for reform and certainly not revolution, were shown as an angry mob hammering on the gates of Buckingham Palace and throwing bricks through the Palace windows. And, for added drama, Queen Victoria was shown as going into labour in the middle of it all! (Princess Louise was actually born several weeks before the Chartist mass meeting of 1848, which was nowhere near Buckingham Palace anyway.)

What a load of rubbish! To be fair, the programme did initially stress that Chartism was generally peaceful and sought reform through constitutional means – universal male suffrage (female suffrage, annoyingly, doesn’t seem to have come into it), the secret ballot, equal constituencies, annual Parliaments, the abolition of property qualifications for MPs, and payment for MPs to enable people who actually had to work for a living to sit in Parliament. The first People’s Charter was presented to Parliament in 1838, the year of the great Chartist meeting on Kersal Moor (I had to get that in!), the second in 1842, a year which also saw a series of strikes, especially in Lancashire and Cheshire (had to get that in as well!), and the third in 1848. A large meeting was organised in London, to form a procession, leaving from Kennington Common, to present the Charter to Parliament.

Unfortunately, it was all a bit of a damp squib in the end, not helped by the fact that some of the signatures were fake (some things never change). But it certainly wasn’t violent. Yes, there was some unrest later in the year. I like telling people that the only place in England which actually joined in with the 1848 Revolutions was Ashton-under-Lyne! But that was a fairly minor thing. There was also some talk of an uprising in the West Riding of Yorkshire, and, yes, in London. As happened after the original French Revolution in 1789, the authorities panicked and brought in legislation meant to stop public meetings and supposed plotting, and people were rightly angry about it. But to show radical Chartists attacking Buckingham Palace is completely inaccurate, and I think it was really quite wrong to do that: it gave a completely misleading impression of an organisation which played an important part in the move towards bringing democracy to our country.

I don’t think what happened abroad was portrayed accurately, either. OK, this wasn’t meant to be a documentary on European history, but it made it sound as if it was all about trying to overthrow monarchies. And, yes, Louis Philippe did take refuge in London, but he tried to keep a low profile: he certainly didn’t move into Buckingham Palace! The July Monarchy in France was overthrown, and replaced by the Second Republic. Which only lasted a few years, before the Bonapartists were brought back. Bourbons, republic, Napoleon, Bourbons again, Orleanists, Napoleon’s nephew, another republic … they never seem to be able to make up their minds in France! There were also uprisings in several German states, and in Austria. But not really in Belgium.

Reforms in Denmark and Switzerland. An uprising in Ireland, which wasn’t mentioned – although, to be fair, it wasn’t until later in the year. I’ve been doing some Hungarian history revision recently, and the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 went on for eighteen and a half months, before being crushed by Austrian and Russian forces. There were also uprisings in Austrian-ruled Northern Italy, Bourbon-ruled Southern Italy, German-ruled Poland, Austrian-ruled Ukrainian Galicia, Moldavia (Moldova) and Wallachia, It’s hard to think of anything comparable. The fall of communism in 1989, maybe. Or the “Arab Spring” might be a better comparison – promising a lot but sadly achieving very little.

And it wasn’t all about upheaval and violence, which was how the programme made it sound. It was liberal. It was the Springtime of Nations: it was about self-determination. To be fair, both Palmerston and Prince Albert were shown expressing some sympathy for the “revolutionaries”, but it still all came across as being about violence and chaos. Not impressed.

Sadly, most of the 1848 Revolutions were crushed. But, in Britain, the campaign for parliamentary reform went on. Now we can all, regardless of socio-economic status or gender, elect MPs. That was supposed to be the answer to everything. Many of the leaders of the 1848 Revolutions admired the British parliamentary system and wanted one like it. And look what a mess the bunch of idiots we’ve got in the House of Commons now are making of everything . But that’s beside the point. The point is that, whilst this was great entertainment, and whilst anything that gets people talking about history is welcome, it was chock-a-block with inaccuracies, and it will have given people unfamiliar with the period completely the wrong impression of what was going on. Black mark, ITV!

I was glued to every second of it, though … .

Some other posts about Queen Victoria 🙂 :

Victoria (series 1)

Queen Victoria’s Letters

Queen Victoria and her tragic family


London: 2000 years of history – Channel 5 (episode 3 – gin and sewage)


There is a vile stench in the House of Commons. It’s so bad that people are having to cover their noses. Meanwhile, the well-being of the working-classes is being completely ignored. I’m talking about 1858, obviously. I wouldn’t normally watch a programme about sewage (!), but, by talking about the railways, the “Great Stink” during the exceptionally hot summer of 1858 and the long overdue introduction of a proper sewerage system for London, this made some very good points about the importance of health and sanitation in history. I really want to write about Edwin Chadwick and James Kay Shuttleworth, and I’m having to make a huge effort to make myself write about London instead! There was also a lot of talk about gin and shopping. Not a hint of politics, and not much talk about economics. This was definitely different.

This episode actually started with the Great Fire of London, and the rebuilding of the city afterwards. This was pretty familiar stuff, but it then moved on to the growing division of London between the wealthy West End and the working-class East End, and how areas that weren’t affected by the fire lost out during the rebuilding; and then, in early Georgian times, grand houses for the well-to-do were built in the Mayfair area. Whilst the ton were living it up, the poor were turning to gin. OK, that’s a ridiculous generalisation – and it’s Channel 5’s, not mine! – but the expression about gin being the quickest road out of [any city you care to name] lasted well into the 19th century, and there was a particular increase in gin consumption in the first half of the 18th century, blamed for an increase in anti-social behaviour, until the Gin Act of 1751 made gin more difficult to obtain.

There followed some discussion of the development of the West End as a shopping area. It was also mentioned that London was full of professional criminals, and the need for security provided the impetus for the building of professional docks. So London was full of drunks and criminals. I’m not saying that: Channel 5 said it 😉 . And then on to the Industrial Revolution. I get extremely excited at any mention of the Industrial Revolution, but most people are familiar, from Bill Sikes drowning in a ditch if nothing else, of the pollution which it created, and of the appalling living conditions associated with it. I want to write about Engels now, but I’m trying hard to stick with London, seeing as that’s what the programme was about!

Then something I’d never really thought about very much – how, in the early days, the government intervened to stop railways from going right into the centre of London. So we have to get off at Euston or wherever, and get the Tube to wherever we want to go. It actually went on the technicalities of railway-building in rather a lot of detail, but, hey, some people probably found that interesting! The point was that the railways were moving out to areas beyond the city centre, meaning that people didn’t have to live close to where they worked.

Finally, the Great Stink, which I thought was probably the most interesting part of the programme. I’m not sure what that says about me! But vast numbers of people had died in a number of cholera outbreaks in the 1830s and 1840s, and it took a while for people to realise that that was because of drinking contaminated water, and not because of “miasma”. Even once doctors had provided clear evidence, the powers that be weren’t very interested. Sewage, slaughterhouse waste and industrial effluent continued to be dumped in or on the banks of the Thames. And nothing was done … until the very hot summer of 1858 created the “Great Stink”, and, with the smell in the House of Commons having become unbearable, a proper sewage system was finally built.

I feel like saying that the lesson from this is that, if we want anything done, we need to stink out the House of Commons! Seriously, though, this programme got from the 1660s to the 1850s without making even one reference to the Glorious Revolution, the War of the Spanish Succession, the Jacobites, the Seven Years’ War, the Napoleonic Wars, the Great Reform Act of 1842 or the Corn Laws. Instead, it talked about gin and sewage. And, do you know what? It was really interesting! Well worth a watch.

A Very British History – BBC 4


This was a four-part series looking into the experiences in 20th century Britain of four different groups of people – “Romany gypsies” in the Home Counties, “Black Brummies”, “the Jews of Leeds”, and “Ugandan Asians” in the East Midlands.    Each programme in the series was presented by a member of the community in question, rather than the BBC pushing its own agendas, and, although there was sometimes a bit too much focus on personal family history rather than broader community history, it generally worked very well.

A BBC-led series would probably have focused largely on prejudice, in a way that attacked the wider community.   This didn’t, although obviously the issue of prejudice and how it was faced did come up.  There were old BBC films (with subtitles where people were speaking in Cockney accents!) of people making negative comments about gypsies.  I’m not entirely comfortable with using the word “gypsies”, because we’re usually told now that it’s offensive, but the presenter said that he was OK with it.  People who’d moved to Birmingham from the Caribbean in the 1950s and 1960s spoke about struggling to get mortgages, and of the abuse suffered by couples in mixed-race relationship.  Jewish people who’d lived in Leeds during the inter-war years talked about being called “Christ killers” at school (the old religious prejudice that’s now largely been replaced by other manifestations of anti-Semitism) and of Oswald Mosley trying to whip up trouble in areas with large Jewish communities.  And we were shown photographs of notices issued by Leicester council, saying that Ugandan Asians shouldn’t move to their city.

But there was overall a fairly positive feeling, with the Jews of Leeds and the Ugandan Asians in particular speaking about their pride in being British. One of the Black Brummies said that he felt that a lot of prejudice was due to ignorance and fear of the unknown; and that’s why programmes like this are important.  I know I’m always harping on about soap operas, but I think it makes such a difference when they include characters from minority groups!  TV can do a lot.  Only the Black Brummies programme said much about the influence of the culture of different groups on British culture in general – music, food, language etc – though, although the Jews of Leeds programme did mention Michael Marks and Montague Burton and their influence on the British fashion industry and British retail in general.  I’d like to have heard more of that, but I suppose you can only fit so much into an hour.

There was a lot of talk about socio-economic issues, and how all four groups had to some extent struggled with poverty. The Ugandan Asians who came to Britain had generally lived affluent lifestyles in Uganda, and then came here and initially had to take what jobs and houses they could get, before improving their situation through hard work.  British Jews have a very diverse cultural heritage, something that’s very rarely discussed on TV; but the family of the man presenting this programme had moved to Leeds from Eastern Europe in the late 19th/early 20th century, which is perhaps typical of the majority of British Jews, coming from very little to very little, and worked their way up the socio-economic ladder from there.  I’d take issue with the historian who said that their main reason for coming here would have been economic opportunity, rather than discrimination and persecution, though.  People from the Caribbean did move to Birmingham in the hope of better economic opportunities, though – and it was interesting to see film of smiling, very smartly-dressed people disembarking from a plane … but, having come here with high hopes, many of them initially found themselves in low-paid jobs and poor accommodation, as the Jews of Leeds had before them.

The Romany gypsies were in a different position, having done the same jobs for years but then being forced to change their way of life as technological change took away many of their traditional jobs on the land, and – an issue that’s also being faced by Bedouins in the Middle East – the authorities increasingly tried to discourage nomadic/travelling lifestyles. Barbara Cartland, who was a councillor in Hertfordshire, spoke out in support of Romany people in the Home Counties, which I never knew!  This was at a time when there were major problems over agreeing on sites where Romany people living in caravans could base themselves.

Government involvement played a big role in the experiences of both Romany gypsies and Ugandan Asians. Quite a lot of the Ugandan Asian programme was about the initial arguments about whether or not Ugandan Asians, expelled from Uganda in 1972, should be allowed to settle in the UK, and the belated organisation of an airlift, followed by the organisation of camps for people to live in until they found homes and jobs.  We saw pictures of noticeboards giving the names of areas in which jobs were available, and were told that the presenter’s family had ended up in Scunthorpe because that was where her dad found a job, and that other relatives had ended up in Leicester.

It was very different from the experiences of the Jews of Leeds and Black Brummies, who’d gravitated to areas where there was work but also, except for the very first to arrive, where there were already established communities. The Windrush Generation were encouraged to come here, “pull factor”, whereas Jews in Leeds had been looking for somewhere to go, “push factor”, but in neither case had the government really got involved in where people went when they got here – which was very different from the experience of the Ugandan Asians.

This issue came up quite recently, over the question of refugees from the civil war in Syria coming to Britain. The idea was that each local council should agree to take a small number of people.  I can see the reasons for that, because large numbers of people, regardless of ethnicity or language or religion or anything else, settling in one area at once is going to put a strain on housing and public services; but it’s not the way that immigration has traditionally worked, in Britain or anywhere else.  It didn’t really work with the Ugandan Asian refugee programme, either, with the vast majority of those concerned eventually ending up in either London or Leicester.

Some of what was said did wander off the point a bit. The programme on the Jews of Leeds got as far as the Second World War and then turned into Who Do You Think You Are, with the presenter visiting Vilnius, where his great-grandmother had come from, and learning that some of her cousins had been amongst the Jews massacred in 1942 in a village, now part of modern Belarus, about 80 miles away.  It was very interesting – I’ve been to the Vilnius Jewish Museum myself, and he was able to speak to an elderly lady who’d been living in the village at the time and remembered what had happened – and of course it was an important story to tell; but the programme was supposed to be about Leeds.   And the programme on Ugandan Asians tackled the issue of whether or not Asians in Uganda might have to some extent brought their expulsion on themselves.  It was brave of the presenter to tackle her own relatives and family friends about their attitudes towards black people, but, again, the programme was supposed to be about people’s experiences in Britain.   The other two programmes did stick more to being what the series title said, with the Romany gypsy programme showing coverage of the Appleby Horse Fair, and the Black Brummies programme discussing all sorts of things from hairstyles to dominoes to language.

Quibbles aside – hey, there are always going to be some quibbles! – , all four programmes were well worth watching, and I’m hoping there’ll be a second series at some point, covering the experiences of other communities.  British Chinese people seem to be very under-represented on TV.  There’s been a lot of immigration from Poland to the UK in recent years, but it’d be interesting to see a programme about Polish immigration to the UK in the aftermath of the Second World War.   There’s a long and varied history of Somali immigration to the UK.   There’ve long been communities with Armenian, Greek or Italian heritage in Manchester and elsewhere.   I’ve just been reading about Hungarian refugees who fled the suppression of the 1956 Uprising.  And, of course, Irish immigration to Britain has had a huge influence on British society.   And that’s to mention just a few groups.

It’s not helpful when organisations omit the word “Easter” from Easter egg hunts, and it’s not helpful when people start shrieking about “cultural appropriation” because a chef has served a dish or a singer has sung a song from a culture to which they don’t have a personal genetic link. However, it is helpful when programmes like these, explaining and celebrating the culture and heritage of the different groups within the British population, are shown.  And it’s also very interesting.  Good series.