Evita: The Making of a Superstar – BBC 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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WWI’s Secret Shame: Shell Shock – BBC 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WWI: The Final Hours – BBC 2

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This was an interesting programme, but it was focused entirely on the Armistice and eventual peace deal between the Western Allies and Germany. Obviously it is that Armistice of which we’ll be marking the centenary this weekend, but we’re still dealing with the fallout from the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire, and it was a shame that none of that even got a mention.  It was also a bit too ready to criticise the Allies.  Horrendous mistakes were made in the agreements that ended the Great War, but a bit more understanding of why that was could perhaps have been shown.  And it completely missed the point that the events of 1918-1919 were deliberately misinterpreted in Germany during the 1920s and 1930s – fake news is hardly anything new.

Incidentally, I don’t think it’s very appropriate to call a programme “WWI”. It’s bad enough when people refer to “World War I” rather than “the First World War” – it makes it sound like a film – but “WWI” is just ridiculous.  Show a bit more respect, please, BBC 2!

The programme was largely about the negotiations which took place between Admiral Rosslyn Wemyss of the United Kingdom, Marechal Jean Marie Foch of France, and Herr Matthias Erzberger of Germany.  The titles say a lot – the British representative was a naval man, the French representative an army man, and the German representative a civilian.

I don’t think it was mentioned that it was Wemyss who made the decision that the ceasefire should come into force at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month – partly because it sounded poetic, but also because, had it been delayed until the afternoon as Lloyd George wanted, even more men would have been killed. Lloyd George was apparently rather narked about it, because it meant he missed the chance to make a big announcement in the House of Commons.  Pretty much all the politicians were given short shrift in this: it was suggested that they were all more concerned about their own images and, to use the modern term, legacies, than in anything else.  A bit harsh, maybe.

The only ones who came in for any real praise were Woodrow Wilson – a progressive American president who wanted to promote peace and understanding between nations, free trade and a reduction in armaments, and showed respect for all nationalities (those were the days!) – and the German representative at the Armistice talks, Matthias Erzberger. It was hard not to feel sorry for Erzberger, who was in an impossible position, especially with all hell breaking loose in Berlin.  He eventually became a victim of the false theory that Germany didn’t really lose the war but was betrayed by internal factions, and was assassinated.

Going back to the subject of what wasn’t mentioned, the decisions made regarding the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires are, as I’ve said above, still causing issues today.  The South Tyrol question’s reared its head again of late.  Every so often, there’s a row over the linguistic rights of all the ethnic Hungarians living in Ukraine, Serbia, Romania and Slovakia.  As for the mess in the Middle East, don’t even go there.

This was all about Germany, and I assume that the idea of the programme was to show that the excessively harsh treatment of Germany by the victorious powers played a large part in the rise of Nazism. It’s a fair point.  Well, it’s more than a fair point – there isn’t really any arguing with it.  Right from the start, the attitude of the Allies was very harsh.  They refused the German request that a ceasefire be put in place whilst negotiations were taking place.  And the naval blockade of Germany was not fully lifted until July 1919: thousands of German civilians died of malnutrition between the Armistice and the lifting of the blockade.  It’s not in any way disrespectful to those who fought on the Allied side to say that that was completely inappropriate.  Shameful, in fact.

Then there were the reparations. Germany would have been paying reparations until 1988 if things had gone ahead as originally agreed.   There’s an ongoing argument about this: some economic historians claim that Germany could have afforded the repayments, whilst others say that, had the reparations been made in accordance with the original schedule, the German economy would have been destroyed.  Austria, Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria were all supposed to pay reparations as well, but that wasn’t mentioned.  The programme did make the point that demanding reparations of the defeated sides was an established principle of warfare at that time.  It also pointed out that France (although it didn’t mention poor Belgium) had suffered severe damage, and that all the countries involved had large numbers of wounded service personnel and the dependants of the fallen who were in need of financial support.

It is generally agreed that the terms were harsh, though. As well as being economically harsh, they were seen as a humiliation – along with the occupation of the Rhineland, which was intended both to make sure that reparations were made, much of Germany’s heavy industry being concentrated in that area, and to stop Germany from invading France again.  The programme laid the blame for all this very much on France.

Just to go on to something else for a moment, the programme said that, and it was a reasonable enough point, Britain was more concerned with what might happen on sea than what might happen on land. Germany was made to agree to disarming its battle fleet and sailing many of its ships to Scapa Flow – where the German Admiral von Reuter decided to scuttle the fleet rather than hand it over to the Allies.  British ships managed to save some of the ships, but most of them sank.  The fact that the German sailors scuttled their own ships just shows how humiliated they felt.

Back to the issue of the programme blaming France over the question of reparations and the occupation of the Rhineland. It was another a fair point.  Marshal Foch was all for France occupying the Rhineland permanently; and the French – along with the Belgians, it should be said – occupied the Ruhr in 1923, despite British opposition.  Then again, France had been humiliated by Prussia in 1871, and French territory had been ravaged during the Great War.

You can go on and on with this, tracing things backwards and forwards. The Second World War.  The Franco-Prussian War.  The Napoleonic Wars.  But the humiliation of Germany … that was something that hadn’t really happened before, not to that effect. Austria and Hungary both came off far worse, really, losing so much territory, but it was Germany that had to sign the war guilt clause.  The infamous Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles.

OK. It had been arguably the most terrible war in human history. Everyone wanted someone to blame. But making Germany accept full responsibility for the war?  Arguments about who and what was responsible for the outbreak of the First World War will probably go on for ever, but no one country was to blame.  The general view is that the war guilt clause was seen by Germany as a national humiliation.  Well, that is how it was seen by Germany.  But it didn’t actually use the word “guilt”.  It didn’t even say that Germany had started the war.  It said that Germany accepted responsibility for the damage caused by herself and her allies.  It was the way it was represented in Germany that caused such a mood of anger.

And, as much as the Allies behaved badly towards defeated Germany, the anger of the inter-war period wasn’t really directed at the Allies. It was directed at the mythical forces within Germany who were supposed to have stabbed the German army in the back.  Basically, it was fake news.  There was an awful lot of it about in the inter-war period.  The Zinoviev Letter springs to mind.  There was an awful lot of it about during the First World War, come to that.   And I don’t feel that this programme got that at all, other than saying that Erzberger was very badly treated.

I’m not entirely sure what this programme was actually getting at. Well, it had an agenda: it wasn’t just presenting the facts relating to the Armistice and the Treaty of Versailles, it was making the point that the harsh terms imposed on Germany helped to create the environment that led to the Second World War.   But, then, why call it “the Final Hours”, which made it sound as if it was going to be about the last elements of the fighting?  That was probably a bit of deliberate misleading as well: BBC 2 probably didn’t want to sound too negative, at such a sensitive time.  Some good points were made.  But a lot of important points were missed.

Hitler’s Holocaust Railways with Chris Tarrant – Channel 5

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It’s a horrible irony that railways, once the ultimate symbol of human progress, were a sine qua non of the Nazi atrocities. Chris Tarrant’s said that he had nightmares after visiting Auschwitz. I didn’t, but it was certainly a very disturbing experience. When you’re there, you can see the railway lines which brought over a million people there from across Nazi-occupied Europe. Without the railways, it would have been almost impossible for the Nazis to have carried out mass murder on the almost unimaginable scale that took place. This programme saw Chris, in a journey through Poland, the Czech Republic and Poland, explore various aspects of what the Nazis did, and the role that the railways played in that.

There are a lot of historical railway programmes around these days. Most of them have quite a romantic feel to them. This one was chilling. It was cleverly done, with a long railway journey taking in various different places and tied in with the timeline of events.  And it was good that it didn’t just focus on the death camps – because some Holocaust programmes do do that, and it’s important to remember that many people either died in ghettoes, because of the conditions there, or were killed close to their homes, whether at large scale killing sites like Babyn Yar or in woodlands near isolated villages.

The programme began in Nuremberg. I’ve been to various places in Germany and very much liked most of them – I have particular soft spots for Cologne/Koln and Oberammergau – but I did get the creeps a bit in Nuremberg, so I was interested to hear Chris say that he found it unsettling as well. The Nazis held annual rallies there from 1923 to 1938, the infamous Nuremberg Rallies. Thousands of people attended them – and they travelled there by train. Those huge propaganda events could not have taken place without the railways, and Chris visited the main station where people would have arrived, and followed their tracks along the local line taking them to the area, now a sports field, where the rallies were held. The Nazis had it all very well organised. Chris said that he wouldn’t like to be there after dark. I’m not surprised.

From there, he travelled on through the Sudetenland, talking about how the railways made it possible for the Nazis to get their troops to all the countries they invaded. Movement of troops by rail’s been important since the mid-19th century, so it’s hardly something specific to the Nazis, but it was still a valid point. He was openly critical of the Munich Agreement, but that’s another story.

On to Prague – and this was one part of the programme which showed how the railways had been used for good, as we heard about the wonderful work done by Doreen Warriner and Nicholas Winton in helping refugees to leave what was then Czechoslovakia. Chris spoke to an elderly Jewish lady who, aged 12, had come to Britain on the Kindertransport. It was very moving hearing about how the children had been separated from their parents – although this lady’s family had eventually been reunited, and had all survived – but at least some lives, around 10,000 in all, were saved.

He then met another elderly Jewish lady, who’d been in the ghetto/camp at … the programme referred to it by its Czech name, Terezin, but I’d’ve thought it was better known by its German name, Theresienstadt. She travelled with him on the train journey, and went round the remains of the camp with him. Again, it needs to be remembered that many victims of the Holocaust died at sites other than death camps: around 33,000 people died at Theresienstadt. This lady, who later became an artist, had drawn pictures depicting her time there. One thing she hadn’t drawn, but bravely spoke about, was seeing a group of young boys hanged because they’d tried to send letters to the women’s part of the camp, to tell their mothers than they were OK.

Thousands of people were deported by train to Theresienstadt – and then the railway line was extended right into the camp, to facilitate the deporting of people from the camp to mass execution sites further east, and then, as the plans for the Final Solution were put into practice, to Auschwitz.

The pictures of those overcrowded trains, from all over Nazi-occupied Europe, carrying people to the extermination camps, are very familiar. Chris, as he travelled on to Berlin, touched on the subject of complicity. How much did people know?   He visited the site, now a memorial, from which deportations from Berlin to the death camps took place. Those being deported were made to pay for their own transport. And he travelled on one of the railway lines along which those trains travelled. It’s a sort of heritage railway now. People go for nice days out on it, like we might go on the East Lancashire Railway or the North York Moors Railway. As he said, they’ve probably got no idea of its history.

Into Poland – and his first stop there was at Gniezno. It’s supposed to have been the first ever capital of Poland. During the war, the Nazis operated a huge railway building yard there. They forced 150,000 prisoners to work on the railways, something that’s not often mentioned.

As Chris said, additional trains were needed because of the invasion of the Soviet Union – but, infuriatingly, he kept referring to it as “Russia”. It is very, very annoying when people do that, and, given the number of people killed by the Nazis in Ukraine and Belarus, it’s particularly annoying when people do it when talking about the Second World War. Whilst I’m having a moan, he also completely mispronounced the name of his next stop, Lodz, over and over again. The researchers should have checked that. Gah!

And he didn’t mention that it was a textile city. Well, I would have done. I’ve seen the sites of the Warsaw and Krakow ghettoes, and those in Vilnius and Riga, but I haven’t been to Lodz … but it always strikes a particular chord with me because it was a textile city, and referred to “Polski Manchester”. Anyway. Like all the major ghettoes, it was close to a railway station: people were brought there from many other places. The sites were chosen largely for that reason. Had Auschwitz, Oswiecim, not been close to a major railway junction, it’d just be a quiet Polish town which most people would never have heard of.

He travelled through the site of the old ghetto on a local tram, and pointed out the former Gestapo HQ, now a pharmacy. OK, I suppose they have to use the buildings for something, but … imagine going into a shop and knowing that it used to be a Gestapo HQ. Ugh. Once there, he met up with 89-year-old Arek Hersh, from Leeds, who, as an 11-year-old boy, was forced by the Nazis to work on the railways, taking away the bodies of men who’d dropped dead from overwork and starvation, and had later escaped from the Lodz ghetto before ending up back there and being taken to Auschwitz. He accompanied Chris for most of the rest of the programme.

The programme showed the Jewish cemetery in Lodz. In addition to the many graves of people who’d died in the ghetto, there were plaques commemorating those who’d been killed at Chelmno. Confusingly, whilst Terezin is better known by its German name, Chelmno is usually referred to by its Polish name, but the programme used its German name, Kulmhof. Oh well, the name doesn’t really matter that much. It was a kind of stately home and surrounding estate, out in the forest, which the Nazis took over and turned into a death camp. People, mostly from Lodz, were brought by train to the nearest railway station, and then taken to the camp by lorry. And it was the experimental death camp. They had mobile death vans. They probably looked a bit like ice cream vans or delivery vans or mobile libraries or whatever, but people were locked into them and poison gas from the exhausts diverted inside. Another step towards the establishment of the gas chambers.

And from there to Auschwitz, where, as I said, you can still see the railway lines which brought all those people there, most of them to their deaths.   There’s no way that all those people, or the building materials and supplies used there, could have been taken there without the railways. It’s so horrible that the railways, the wonderful, romantic railways which enabled people and goods to travel far and wide, which we associate with everything from The Railway Children to Brief Encounter to Harry Potter, with all those lovely heritage railway lines which you can travel on, with the incredible scenic railway trips which you can go on in Switzerland or Canada or India or the Scottish Highlands or any one of umpteen other places, with those really famous trains like the Trans-Siberian Express and the Orient Express, were used like that.

Arek Hersh showed Chris around Auschwitz, so to speak, and explained what conditions there had been like. Then Chris went alone to see the gas chambers. It was a really lovely sunny day, without a cloud in the clear blue sky. It was like that the day I went to Auschwitz, as well. It felt all wrong, somehow, as if it should have been snowing.

Chris spoke movingly about six million people having been killed in the Holocaust. I don’t like to criticise on a point like this, and it is a very sensitive and difficult subject to address – but no. No-one really knows how many people were killed in the Holocaust, but some estimates put the number as high as seventeen million. Certainly at least eleven million. It’s a difficult area, and it’s something that has unfortunately been exploited by far right elements in Poland, who claim that the killing of non-Jewish Poles is overlooked. Six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis. Many people who were not Jewish were also murdered by the Nazis – Roma and Sinti people (many of whom were killed at Auschwitz or Chelmno), Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Serbs, and people from Germany and elsewhere because of their political or religious convictions, or because they were gay, or because they had physical or mental disabilities. I really don’t like to criticise on such a sensitive subject, but the programme could have made that clear.

Arek Hersh told Chris about how he’d been taken on one of the death marches, in the snow, with temperatures 25 degrees C below freezing, as Red Army approached and the Nazis evacuated the camp. He’d been moved from camp to camp – and then taken on one last railway journey, on a coal train, to Theresienstadt. He was liberated by the Soviets, and was one of the “Windermere Boys”, the 300 young Holocaust survivors brought Windermere to recuperate. Windermere, to where, from the 1840s, where trains have carried so many people from industrial parts of Northern England to spend some time in the most beautiful part of England. Most historical railway programmes are about romance and beauty. It sounds daft, when you think how mucky steam trains can be, but it’s true. This one was anything but.

It was very well put together, and it explained different aspects and different stages of the Nazi atrocities very clearly. Chris was obviously moved by what he saw, and it must have been difficult for the three people he spoke to to discuss their experiences, but it was done sensitively without ever being lecturing or over-emotive.  A good job done on a very difficult subject.

A Dangerous Dynasty: House of Assad – BBC 2

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Syria’s fallen out of the headlines of late, but, with over 350,000 people killed in the civil war, millions displaced, widespread destruction and no sign as yet of an end to it, it really shouldn’t have done. This programme began by informing us that Hafez-al-Assad, Bashar al-Assad’s father and predecessor as president of Syria, used to make male soldiers kill puppies in front of him, and female soldiers bite the heads off snakes.  His own brother tried to overthrow him, whilst he was ill. And his eldest son, Bassel, had someone thrown in prison for beating him in a horse race.  What a lovely family.  This is the dynasty which rules Syria, and has done so for nearly half a century.

It’d be interesting to see some statistics on how many supposed republics are ruled by political dynasties. The al-Assads have been running Syria since Hafez took power in a coup in 1970.  He spent $1 billion building himself a palace – and that’s not including the cost of his separate summer palace.  We saw a lot of pictures of the palace, and of the family, but we didn’t really hear that much about what was actually going on.  No explanation of the historical background, and the complex ethno-religious situation within Syria.  No-one even mentioned the crucial fact of the al-Assads being Alawites, which is pretty fundamental.  And not all that much was said about the conflict between the hardliners and the liberals.  The focus was all on the personalities of the al-Assads and the tensions within the family.

It was quite interesting, though. With Rifaat al-Assad, Hafez’s brother, looking like his chosen heir until the attempted coup in 1984, and then Bassel al-Assad set to succeed his father, until he was killed in a car accident in 1994, Bashar was free to do as he liked.  He qualified as an eye surgeon, and worked in London.  Various people who knew him then spoke about what a jolly nice chap he was, and how he liked listening to Phil Collins.  And that was where he met his future wife, Asma Akras.

Asma al-Assad is intriguing. She was born, to Syrian parents, and brought up in London, speaks like an upper-middle-class woman from South East England – which I suppose is exactly what she is -, has a first class degree from King’s London, worked in investment banking, and had a place on an MBA course in Harvard which she turned down to marry Bashar.  Brilliantly intelligent woman.  Very attractive as well.  And she’s a Sunni, rather than an Alawite.  It was suggested that her matchmaking mum pushed her and Bashar together, but I can’t imagine either of them choosing a marriage partner they didn’t genuinely want.  When Hafez al-Assad died, she, then engaged to Bashar, travelled round Syria incognita, speaking to people about their concerns.  Reportedly doesn’t get on with her mother-in-law.  Nor her sister-in-law.  I’d love to know what she really makes of the way things have turned out.   Does she genuinely have liberal leanings, which she’s forced to repress?  Or is she just as conniving and power-mad as the rest of the family seem to be?  I think it’s telling that she doesn’t say much these days: she probably doesn’t dare.  She’s currently being treated for early stage breast cancer.

It was only when we got to the death of Hafez that the programme stopped seeming like an edition of Hello! magazine and actually started talking about Syria.  Even then, there was no explanation of the issues with the Alawites, the Sunnis, the Druze, the Ismailis, and the various Christian groups.  But we did hear about the cautious reforms during 2000 and early 2001.  And the big question the programme seemed to be asking was what might have happened had it not been for “9/11”, which happened only fourteen months after Bashar became president.

Large numbers of Muslim Brotherhood political prisoners were released. There are different ways of looking at this.  Was it a political amnesty aimed at trying to bring about some sort of reconciliation between the different factions in Syria?  Well, not according to this.  The argument here was that the 2003 Western invasion of Iraq panicked Bashar al-Assad into fearing that Syria might be next, and that he “unleashed” the prisoners so that they’d head off to Iraq and bog Britain and America down.

I’m not getting this argument. Why would anyone have thought the West was about to invade Syria?  The al-Assads and the West were pretty pally in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.  We saw pictures of Bashar and Tony Blair driving around Syria together, and the al-Assads meeting the Queen for tea at Buckingham Palace.  And didn’t we get ourselves into enough of a mess in Iraq without wanting to invade anywhere else as well.  Am I missing something here? OK, I can see that it may have been a good excuse for him to stop any movement towards reform, but the idea of a “next stop Damascus” panic doesn’t really make much sense.  Well, it doesn’t to me, anyway!

And there endeth the first episode. So – no historical background, no explanations about the different ethnic and religious groups in Syria, and some very strange interpretations of the events of the early 2000s.  It’ll be interesting to see what they come up with next.  But we now know that Bashar al-Assad likes listening to Phil Collins.  Just in case anyone didn’t get this message clearly enough, In The Air Tonight was played.  Yep.  Thank you, BBC.   The war in Syria is incredibly complicated.  This programme did very little to explain it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mediterranean with Simon Reeve – BBC 2

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Money laundering in Malta, Mafiosi in Calabria, olive blights in Puglia, cave dwellers in Basilicata and blood feuds in Albania, not to mention pelican hunting and turtles swallowing plastic.  Then, in the second episode, the partition of Cyprus, Christian refugees in Lebanon, Hezbollah’s “terrorist Disneyland”, Israeli desalination plants, and recycled bricks in the Gaza Strip.  Well, this is definitely a different view of the Mediterranean.  It’s been extremely interesting so far, and there are still two episodes to come.  It’s also been rather worrying.

No-one uses the term “Levant” any more, do they?  It used to be a term for the Eastern Mediterranean.  Then it came to mean parts of the Middle East.  It’s quite telling that there aren’t really any words in common usage that refer to both European countries and Middle Eastern/North African countries: it’s as if people can no longer think of them as having anything in common.  The term “Maghreb” is used for the North African Mediterranean countries, and, when we say “Mediterranean countries”, we generally just mean European countries bordering the Mediterranean.  It’s sad, really.  I was made extremely welcome in Egypt (2007), Israel (2008) and Morocco (2010).   Do most of in the West even think of the Middle East and North Africa when we hear the term “Mediterranean”?

And even the image of the European Mediterranean as one big holiday resort, sun, sand and sangria, is well wide of the mark, as this programme set out to show.  It wasn’t exactly cheerful, but it didn’t pretend to be.  Simon Reeve can actually be quite annoying, because he’s so determined to get his personal political views in there.  Obviously he’s entitled to his views, as everyone is, but he’s making travel programmes for the supposedly neutral BBC, not political broadcasts.  Having said which, he’s genuinely enthusiastic and genuinely entertaining, and his programmes are always very watchable.

The series kicked off with Malta.  The George Cross island.  Very popular holiday resort. But now, sadly, a major centre for money laundering.  There’s been quite a bit in the news about this.  Low tax rates have attracted all sorts of businesses there, and some of them are more than a bit shady.  Dodgy goings on with gambling. Sales of passports.  It’s now been two years since investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was murdered, after exposing corruption at the highest levels of government there.  Something’s seriously rotten there.  It didn’t make for pleasant viewing.

The role of the Mafia in Sicily and parts of the southern Italian mainland is far better known.  It’s unfortunately got quite a glamorous image in the West, thanks to Marlon Brando and Al Pacino!  Great film, but it really isn’t glamorous at all.  Simon went for a change from the Sicilian Mafia, and instead told us about the Ndrangheta, the Calabrian Mafia, said to control 3% of the Italian economy, and now the most powerful Mafia group in Italy.  They’re not even just in Italy: they operate all over.  They’re the ones linked with the kidnapping of John Paul Getty II, the subject of another recent TV series.  They are super-powerful.  And they’ve got an incredible underground warren of tunnels, big enough for cars to use as well as people.  It’s like something out of a James Bond film, but it’s real life.  Frightening stuff.

Frightening in a different way were the tales of Xylella, the blight affecting olive groves in the Puglia region of Italy, and of the turtles being affected by all the plastic in the Italian part of the Mediterranean.  People were in tears as they told Simon of the effect that Xylella’s having on olive groves that have been there for centuries.  Parts of Spain and France have also been affected.  It’s very worrying, and, as yet, there’s no effective solution.

Seeing turtles who’ve almost choked on plastic was distressing as well, but at least something can be done about that.  Simon spoke to two people who are running a turtle sanctuary, and it was heartening to see one turtle being released back into the sea after being effectively treated.  Plastic pollution’s big news at the moment.  Maybe something will be done about it.  Efforts are at least being made.  Matera, Basilicata was a symbol of hope as well – as recently as the 1950s, people were living in caves there, in one of Italy’s most deprived areas.  But times have changed, and it’s now enjoying quite a boom.  I gather that there is some concern about Disneyfication, especially as the caves have been used as a film set on several occasions, but the horrific poverty is hopefully a thing of the past.   More positive news came from Albania, where the hunting of pelicans has been banned – although unfortunately it’s still legal elsewhere, notably Egypt and Lebanon – and pelicans are now thriving in huge wetland lagoons.

But the other section on Albania was just horrifying.  I’ve heard about the blood feuds there, but I don’t think I realised before just what the practical effects can be on people’s lives.  These blood feuds between families go on and on for generations.  It sounds like something out of the Middle Ages, but it’s still going on.  We were told the horrendous story of a teenage boy who cannot leave his house for fear that members of a family embroiled in a longstanding blood feud with his family, over something that happened decades ago, might kill him.  Just a young lad – just a kid.   He was sat there, doing his schoolwork – he’s being home-schooled, by a visiting teacher, because he daren’t risk leaving the house to go to school – and talking about how he wants to play football and his favourite player’s Ronaldo, like any young lad might.  He can’t leave the house in case someone murders him.  He’s “in blood”.  And he’s hardly the only one.  Many, many people in northern Albania are in the same position.  In Europe, in 2018.  Bloody hell.

It’s a far cry from the image of “the Mediterranean” as a place of sunny beach resorts … but that’s the whole idea of this series.

The first episode was, whilst troubling, free of controversy.  Hopefully, most people aren’t going to come up with any arguments in favour of organised crime, money laundering, pursuing blood feuds and destroying wildlife.  The second episode was different.  First up, Cyprus.  Simon spoke to both Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, and also to British UN peacekeepers patrolling the buffer zone in the middle of Nicosia, Europe’s last divided city.  There was a barricade literally in the street.

I was expecting to hear Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots calling each other, but what I wasn’t expecting was everything that was said about the tensions within the Turkish zone.  This isn’t something that’s been widely reported here.  Comments were made about the frustration of being cut off from the rest of the world, and of everything having to be routed through Turkey, but more worrying was the “social engineering”, as Simon put it, being carried out by the Turkish government.  I’ve got considerable sympathy with the reasons for the 1974 invasion, but not with this.  Thousands of people from Turkey, mainly from rural areas where the culture is conservative and strictly Islamic, are being offered incentives to settle in Turkish Cyprus, and the government’s funding the building of mosques.  The native culture of Turkish Cyprus is far more secular and liberal.  This is quite frightening, given what we know about Erdogan’s regime in Turkey.  I really hadn’t expected that.

Then on to Lebanon.  I thought this was going to be all about Beirut, but it wasn’t – we got some fascinating shots of an ancient Maronite monastery.  I was fortunate enough to visit a Coptic monastery in Egypt in 2007, and there’s something quite special about Middle Eastern monasteries.  They just … go way back.  But the Coptic Christians of Egypt are being increasingly persecuted, and so are Christians in Syria and Iraq.  It was interesting to hear about the influx of Christians into Lebanon, but also rather upsetting.   This is a huge problem now.  It’s not so long since most of the countries of the Middle East had sizeable Jewish and Christian populations.  Things are very different now.  It’s not good.

Worse came when he headed south, into the area controlled by Hezbollah.  And they really do control it – “a state within a state”.  He visited an extremely strange “tourist attraction” which Hezbollah have spent $20 million building – the “terrorist Disneyland”.  Full of spoils of war from the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel.  Talk about gruesome.  And at least you can cross the border between the two parts of Cyprus.  To get from Lebanon to Israel, he had to travel via Jordan.

The Israeli section of the trip was actually far more positive.  We saw people enjoying themselves on the beaches in Tel Aviv, and we heard about the technologies which Israel’s developed for extracting gas from the Mediterranean and for turning sea water into drinking water.  We hear about desalination plants in the Gulf sometimes, but I hadn’t heard much about those in Israel before.  The Israeli processes are very energy efficient, and don’t use chemicals.  Impressive.

The point was made that Israel, because of the issues with its land borders, is more reliant on the Mediterranean than probably any other country.  99% of its imports arrive by sea.  99%!   It’s obvious when you think about it, because they’re hardly going to arrive via Lebanon, Jordan, Syria or even Egypt; but I’d never really thought about it before.  One of the Israelis interviewed said that Israel felt like an island.  It wasn’t dissimilar to what Turkish Cypriots had said about feeling cut off.  All this conflict, around what we think of as a sea for swimming in and cruising through.

And from Israel to the Gaza Strip.  Going through a very long and strange border crossing, Simon said it felt like being dehumanised and going into a cage.

Since 2007, land border crossings on both the Israeli and Egyptian sides are closed, and a sea and air blockade’s been enforced by the Israeli authorities, with buffer zones existing along the borders with both Israel and Egypt.   The concerns about terrorism are quite understandable – the BBC guys, travelling in an armoured car because Westerners are at risk of kidnap there, were rather perturbed to be told that they’d just passed an Islamic Jihad post – but the blockade’s taking a terrible toll on civilians there.

However, there’s still some hope.  Simon spoke to an engineer – a female engineer, I’m pleased to say! – who’s invented a type of brick made of recycled coal and wood ask, to circumvent the problem of import restrictions.  She’s doing a great job.  And yet she’s hampered by constant shortages of electricity.  And the fishermen to whom he spoke next said that there are no fish within nine miles of the coast, but that they aren’t allowed to sail beyond six miles of the coast.  They didn’t seem to feel that there was much hope.  It’s a horrible mess.

Simon said that he didn’t want to take sides, and that he just feels terribly sad to think of all the opportunities for peace that haven’t been taken.  I think a lot of us would go with that.  It’s a very distressing situation.  So are most of the others covered so far in this series.  Crime.  Blood feuds.  Environment damage.  War, terrorism, dangerous borders.  It’s not really what we associate with the Mediterranean – and that’s the point of this programme, and it really is including some very interesting material – the final two episodes will presumably bring more of the same – and making the viewer think long and hard about it all.  Well done to Simon Reeve and the BBC for drawing attention to all of these situations.  This series is well worth watching.

The Flu That Killed 50 Million – BBC 2

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We all know that Manchester does things better than London, but, in this tragic case, it’s not really a reason to smile. When Spanish flu swept across the country in 1918, the medical authorities in Manchester took steps to try to stop it from spreading.  Whilst still affected, our city therefore suffered considerably less than other cities did.  Meanwhile, the idiots in Westminster did very little, for fear of affecting munitions production and causing a panic that would affect morale.  What, and letting a highly contagious pandemic rage unchecked didn’t cause any problems?!  228,000 people died in the UK alone.  Maybe that number would have been far less had something been done about it.  I expected this programme to make me feel sad.  It did, but it also made me feel angry.

The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 killed an estimated 50 million people. It could have killed as many as 100 million people: no-one really knows.  It’s thought that around 500 million people caught the flu – and, due to the interaction between the virus that caused it and the immune system, healthy young to middle-aged adults were the most likely to die.  It first seems to have broken out in Kansas, in late January 1918, with a second wave then beginning in Massachusetts (Wikipedia says, although the programme didn’t, that the second, even more severe, strain also appeared in Brittany and Sierra Leone at around the same time) in September 1918.  Nobody’s sure where the virus actually originated: there are various theories.  And it spread pretty much right across the world, even to remote areas.  Then it seems to have mutated into normal flu, and the pandemic ended fairly quickly.  But so many people had died, and so many survivors had lost loved ones.

Of course, this coincided with the final year of the Great War. People thought that, finally, it’s over, we’ve survived, we can try to get on with their lives – and then this happened.  Celebrations of the Armistice were breeding grounds for the flu, all those people in close proximity.  And one of the main reasons it spread so quickly was that so many people were on the move because of the war.

Many British (including, at that time, Irish) troops falling ill were brought home to be treated. Did it not occur to anyone just what a bad idea that was?  This was 1918, not 1348: people understood about infection.  Little was known about viruses at that time, so doctors and scientists weren’t able to isolate the cause of the flu and find anything to try to counter it – keeping people warm and giving them Bovril was mentioned, sadly not really much help – but how can it have been considered a good idea to move people around when they had a highly contagious disease?  Healthy troops coming home on leave also carried the virus with them.  A map showed how it spread from the Channel ports across the country.  As with most contagious diseases, densely-populated, overcrowded areas were hit worst.

On 29 September 2018, USS Leviathan, carrying 11,000 people, left New York for France. By the time she reached Brest, around 2,000 people were ill, with the deadly second strain of the flu, and 80 had died. Patients were carried on shore: there are reports of a convoy four miles long.  The programme was done partly as a docu-drama, and the representation of conditions on the ship was just horrific – talk about a plague ship.

Why was the ship allowed to dock? Why wasn’t it put into quarantine?  Why weren’t arrangements made to try to treat people on board?   I don’t know: maybe leaving healthy people on there would have been cruel – but couldn’t some sort of arrangements for isolation have been made?  Maybe it just wasn’t practical.  Or maybe they wanted to get the healthy soldiers off the ship and to the Front – that’s the one explanation that does make some sort of sense, I suppose.  Ships travelling all over the place carried the disease with them.

Going back to the first wave of infection, the flu reached Manchester in June 2018. James Niven, the local Medical Officer of Health, kept detailed records and statistics of the spread of the flu.  It was worse on the north side of the city, my side, more densely populated and more industrialised.  A graphic showed the flu moving from the city centre, where it’d arrived at the railway stations, into the outskirts and suburbs.  It was very strange and frightening seeing it moving across North Manchester, my home turf, right through the areas where most of the older people I knew as a kid would have been living in 1918.

Thanks to Dr Niven, steps were taken in Manchester to try to reduce the spread of the disease. Leaflets were distributed, posters put up, and a film called “Dr Wise” shown at cinemas, advising people how to reduce the risk of infection.  Schools, Sunday schools and some places of entertainment were closed.  OK, there were still many cases and many deaths locally. The programme followed the story of a young girl called Ada Berry.  Her entire family caught the flu.  She survived – and lived to be 99 – but her parents and brother both died.  Many others died too – to the extent that there was a backlog of funerals, because there weren’t enough coffins or enough gravediggers to keep up with the number of deaths.  But the pandemic was definitely much less severe here than it was in other cities.  Had even those steps been taken everywhere, things wouldn’t have been nearly as bad as they were.

But the powers that be in London – and, whilst public health matters were still dealt with at local level at the time, orders from the central government would have applied nationwide – decided that no steps should be taken to try to stop the flu spreading, on the grounds that suspending public transport, closing factories etc would have affected the war effort (and the spread of the flu didn’t??), and wouldn’t even go as far as Niven did, closing schools and places of entertainment, and even just advising people on what precautions might help them, because of concerns about the effect on morale. Apparently (although this wasn’t mentioned in the programme) the Cabinet didn’t even discuss it until Lloyd George himself caught it, in the September, and it wasn’t brought up in Parliament until the end of October.  There had actually been plans in place for dealing with an epidemic, but they weren’t brought into force.  I understand that difficult choices have to be made in wartime, but it’s hard not to think that the authorities got this one very badly wrong indeed.

And it wasn’t just the British authorities. The reason for the name “Spanish flu”, when the pandemic actually started in Kansas and affected many other countries before it reached Spain – killing, amongst others, King Alfonso XIII – was that the press in neutral Spain were able to report in detail on what was going on, whereas the press in combatant countries, on both sides, said very little.  And, when the second, and far more deadly, strain of the flu broke out, in an American army camp, a doctor who wanted to seal the camp off to stop the disease from spreading was shouted down by his superior.  The Australian authorities, by contrast, refused to allow any ships at all to dock in their country until the pandemic was over.  OK, it wasn’t really practical for every country in the world to try to seal itself off, but surely more could have been done.

Sadly Dr Niven’s story didn’t end happily. He did a huge amount to improve public health in Manchester: the death rate per 1,000 population almost halved during his term of office.  And he was recognised for his work, during his lifetime.  But he suffered from depression after he retired, and ended up taking his own life.  What a tragedy.

The Ministry of Health, now the Department of Health and Social Care was set up as a result of the pandemic. It was also mentioned that female doctors came to the fore whilst all this was going on.  We didn’t hear about the long-term effects of the pandemic in other countries, but there’s only so much you can say in an hour.  Quite a bit of that hour, especially at the end, was spent talking about what lessons can be learnt from the events of 1918, and what might happen if a similar virus took hold today.  Without wishing to sound complacent, I’m not quite sure what the point of that was, seeing as medical science today is so much more advanced as to make comparisons with 1918 rather inappropriate.  Having said which, as the programme – which seemed determined to scare the hell out of viewers, telling us that 200,000 people would be killed in the UK if a virus with a similar infection rate and similar fatality rate took hold – pointed out, new viruses do seem to appear from nowhere, and then mutate.

I could really have done without that bit. Those killed by the 1918 pandemic deserve to be remembered, without either scaremongering or trying to make their experience relevant to the present day.  Whilst it’s important to learn from the past, there’s no need to try to make everything about today – like that bizarre programme last year which tried to turn the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 theses into a discussion about the wretched European Union.  As we mark the centenary of the end of the Great War, let’s also spare some thoughts for those killed by the Spanish flu.

There’s a book called Song of Songs, by the late Beverley Hughesdon (also from North Manchester!), about a Great War nurse.  It’s not the best book ever – some of it’s very odd – but there’s a section in it in which the main character says that she feels as if vengeance thinks it’s been cheated by the end of the war, so it’s played its trump card – the flu pandemic.  That’s how it must have felt.  What a horrible, horrible time – and how frustrating to think that the government could have taken steps to ameliorate it, and chose not to do so.