Living in the Shadow of World War II – More4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Queen’s Lost Family – Channel 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit review.

Poldark and Abolitionism – Poldark (series 5), BBC 1

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There seems to be an increasing trend for period dramas to address the social and political issues of the time in which they’re set. OK, Victoria didn’t do it very accurately; but it’s still extremely welcome.  Ballrooms and bedrooms are great to an extent, but getting some big historical talking points in there’s even better. And, in the first episode of the new – and, very sadly, last – series of Poldark, we saw several major characters attending an Abolitionist meeting.

Abolitionism was probably the first great popular movement. “Am I not a man and a brother?” – the famous Wedgwood image might not work today, but the sentiment does: certain people might do well to remind themselves of it. As the 19th century went on, there were so many more reform movements, and most of them did succeed. Some of them centred around just one brave person – think Elizabeth Fry and prison reform, or Josephine Butler and the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts. Some were mass movements, notably the campaigns for universal suffrage. Some were organised by groups of leading figures with particular interests. Workers’ rights, children’s rights, women’s rights, health, education, housing, sanitation, the removal of religion bars …

A lot of the language and images may seem patronising now – the Wedgwood image is very much of its time, don’t get me started on the Earl of Shaftesbury’s attitude towards the industrial north, and I don’t think the temperance advocates understood the real reasons why so many people drank too much – but people tried. To paraphrase Dirty Dancing (rather incongruously, I know), they thought they could make the world better.

Yet the century kicked off with a virtual reign of terror, amid Establishment paranoia about revolution. Trying both to fight this, on behalf of his pal Ned Despard – who did really exist, and was very well-known at the time although he’s largely been forgotten now – and to help to promote the campaign for Abolition, we have, of course, got Ross Poldark. Debbie Horsfield from Eccles has come up with all this, because the books don’t cover this period, and I’m rather enjoying it! Come on, what a hero! Mr Darcy may have been a good landlord, but he never made impassioned speeches in Parliament or saved the king from assassination attempts, did he? Mr Rochester locked up his wife and tried to commit bigamy! Now, Ross – what a hero. Tricorne hat and all!  And, hopefully, he’s making us think.

It looks as if a fair bit of this series is going to revolve around Ross’s friendship with Ned Despard, who, as I’ve said above, was a real life figure. Ned, like Ross, fought in the British army during the American War of Independence. He was then appointed superintendent of the Bay of Honduras (Belize), which was technically under Spanish sovereignty but had come under the control of British settlers – who were cutting and exporting mahogany, using slave labour. Poldark’s nemesis, George Warleggan the baddie, is getting involved in the mahogany trade. Ned clashed with the wealthy landowners, partly because, when new settlers arrived, some of them white and some of them (former slaves) black, he gave equal rights to them all. He also married a black or mixed race woman, possibly a former slave, Catherine (Kitty).

Despard was recalled to London, spent some time in a debtors’ prison, and then got involved in radical politics. Exactly what went on isn’t entirely clear, but he was arrested and imprisoned on suspicion of involvement in the 1798 Irish Rebellion, before eventually being freed without charge, and then, in 1802, accused of leading the “Despard Plot”, an alleged conspiracy to assassinate the king and launch an uprising. Lord Nelson spoke on his behalf. But he was sentenced to death, and hanged and beheaded alongside six others – in front of a huge crowd.

Both he and Kitty, who’d mounted a very determined campaign for his release during his first period in jail and again in 1802, had become very well-known. Kitty had, additionally, spoken out about the appalling conditions in which prisoners were being kept – a cause taken up by the MP Francis Burdett. And this programme also showed her speaking at an Abolitionist meeting.

Was Despard guilty? If so, what exactly was he guilty of? Was he, after being a thorn in the Establishment’s side for years, framed? If he was guilty – and he almost certainly was guilty, of some sort of plotting – then did the way he’d been treated excuse him in any way? We kept getting that trailer with the voiceover about “when your own country betrays you”. What does the fact that he enjoyed a lot of popularity amongst the working-classes say about popular feeling?

Something to remember. Ned’s actions in the Bay of Honduras were correct in law. There was no discrimination on grounds of race in British law in the 1790s, any more than there is now. And there has never been any legal barrier in British(/English/Scottish) law against interracial marriage. That’s just worth remembering.

And something to think about. Reform not revolution, yes … but these were very, very difficult times. I think it’s meant to be 1800, so we’re 19 years before the Peterloo Massacre, which I know I tend to harp on about but which is getting a huge amount of local attention at the moment because we’re so close to the 200th anniversary. If you’ve got a state which will do that, where peaceful protesters will be mown down and stabbed by the cavalry … as the voiceover for the trailer kept saying, “to whom do you then owe loyalty”?

This is great stuff. Period dramas don’t always make you think. They should do! As I’ve said, ballrooms and bedrooms are fine, but let’s get everyone talking about big historical issues – and they don’t come much bigger than Abolitionism. Let’s not make it all about politics, obviously. We want the soapy stuff too. Oh, and if Ross could do the bare-chested scything thing again, it would be much appreciated. But let’s think, as well.

Maybe it was easier in the late 18th and the19th centuries. People, or at least middle-class people, involved in the reform movements had so much more time. However strongly you might feel about something, it’s difficult to do much when you’re stuck in work all day and then you’ve got housework and family responsibilities as well. I wonder about this sometimes. People who go around setting up camp outside fracking sites, or whatever – have they not got jobs? I’m not knocking anyone: I just genuinely don’t get it.

But, that aside, the point is that people like Elizabeth Fry, Josephine Butler and the others saw injustices and they tried to do something about them. At the moment, there just seems to be so much anger and hatred. Some of it’s utter rubbish about the most bizarre things, like claiming that the Wimbledon draw was fixed as part of a conspiracy by the British Establishment to give an advantage to a particular player (I am not making this up!!). Some of it is extremely serious – people yelling and screaming outside primary schools and threatening teachers, because schools have introduced “No Outsiders” programmes which explain to children that everyone deserves to be treated fairly and equally.  Then there are all the people who hurl abuse at you and accuse you of every manner of prejudices just because you happen to disagree with them about something.  And politicians hurl insults at each other instead of trying to get anything sorted.

Less yelling, more contemplating, more “am I not a man and a brother”, more thinking you can make the world better? It’s a nice thought …

Charles I: Downfall of a King – BBC 4

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Apparently, the Civil War was caused by court masques, currants, Henrietta Maria’s make-up, people believing that the Lieutenant of the Tower of London was a cannibal, and the inability of Londoners to hold their drink (especially over the Christmas period). Some interesting theories there. Or else it was all due to a personal feud between Charles I and Pym the Puritan. Honestly, I thought we’d got past all this “revisionist” stuff about it being due to religion and short-term squabbles!  I was impressed that it made it clear that Pym & co were religious extremists, rather than just eulogising them as defenders of rights and liberties, though.  Also, it was history for grown-ups – no dressing up and no racing around – and it improved as it went on.  And Lisa Hilton (who writes “steamy” novels) uses some wonderful flowery language, although I find it rather annoying when Northerners speak in fake posh accents for TV.

However, I wish people wouldn’t keep trying to put a modern spin on historic events, though – talking about “populism”, “radicalisation”, “red lines”, “inclusivity”, “toxic masculinity”, “tabloid stings”, “fake news”, “tabloid sting” and “social media” in relation to the 1640s just sounds silly.   No-one actually used “alt-right” to describe the most extreme Puritans, but they certainly hinted at it … and that was good, because  I can’t stand the way the likes of Pym and Cromwell get idolised.  I also wish someone would write a book discussing how Henrietta Maria, Marie Antoinette and Alexandra Feodorovna all got the blame for their husbands’ stupidity, and was glad to see Henrietta Maria getting some sympathy here.

In summary – and there’s no arguing with this, even if I’d dispute the importance of the masques and the currants – we ended up with a complete mess made by a bunch of idiots and extremists … which is now widely recognised as being a crucial turning point in the spread of democracy across the western world.   History is great.  You couldn’t make it up!

I’m not a great fan of the revisionist theory that the causes of the Civil War were short-term, but, OK, I think we can all agree that it probably wouldn’t have happened if Charles I hadn’t been such an idiot. The focus of this three-part series was all on fifty days in late 1641 and early 1642, though, and there really needed to be more background information. The Personal Rule was barely mentioned, ship money wasn’t mentioned at all, and Scotland wasn’t mentioned until a long way into the first episode. And, without wishing to get too Victorian Whiggish about things, the “seeds of democracy” (Lisa’s expression) were sown well, well before the 1640s, thank you!!

Anyway.  Nice to have a historical docu-drama series with no dressing up or racing about, as I said – although Lisa did quite a bit of posing on staircases and gazing into the camera, not to mention gazing up at nude paintings. Oh, and Earl Spencer needs a haircut. I do wish the BBC would get over this obsession with trying to relate everything historical to the present day, though. But, if you want present day comparisons, then the contents of this programme made a few things very clear. Leaders need to stay in touch with the people and not live in a Westminster bubble. Extremists of any variety are bad news. Religion should be kept out of politics. London is out of step with the rest of the country. And anyone who’s running a country needs to understand that country’s history (let’s not even go there with Donald Trump saying that the Continental Army seized control of the airports).

Whilst I’m really not a fan of the revisionist short term causes theory, this did make everything sound rather dramatic.  You don’t often get such detailed coverage of this period, or indeed any period.  This was three hours of TV covering only fifty days.  And it did quite a convincing job of showing that war wasn’t inevitable – at least at that point. It all came across rather like a five set match at Wimbledon, with the momentum swinging first to one player and then to another! That’s actually quite a good analogy, seeing as they rather bizarrely made it sound as if only two people were involved and all the action took place in London. I don’t do revisionist views of the Civil War. Have I said that enough times now?!

It started off very strangely indeed, making it sound as if the whole country had turned Puritan (er, no) and everyone was narked with Charles I because he put on extravagant masques at court (had they got mixed up with the French Revolution?!). Yes, Charles I was unpopular. Yes, Henrietta Maria was unpopular because she was Catholic. But I think people were rather more concerned about the economic, political and religious issues than about masques at court!

Along came Pym’s Grand Remonstrance … and it was all made to sound like a populist battle, with Charles trying to win hearts and minds by staging grand parades and Pym trying to radicalise disaffected young men. Interesting point about the effect on voting in the Commons of MPs refusing to come to London because of plague. Later on, it was because of bad weather making travel difficult. Maybe that’s the way to deal with the House of Commons – hold votes when MPs can’t or won’t get to London! We didn’t hear that much about everything that was in the Grand Remonstrance, but currants were mentioned. Never mind ship money – apparently the issue with Charles I and his questionable tax-raising was that he was levying taxes on currants.

Then on to the Irish Rebellion – and this was interesting, because, for one reason and another, Cromwell’s massacres of Catholics in Ireland are widely known but the 1641 Portadown Massacre of Protestants in Ireland isn’t known nearly as well. It was horrific. And people were genuinely afraid. Was Pym exploiting people’s fears to his own ends by trying to end the king’s control over the militia? Whatever his reasons, Charles stupidly played right into his hands by turning to the bishops for support.

And, at this point, we got a lot of talk about John Lilburne – which was also interesting, because he’s normally mentioned more in connection with the rise of the Levellers in the mid-1640s, and his role earlier on tends to be overlooked. All so London-centric, though. The programme, I mean, not Lilburne!

Meanwhile, Pym had been banned from publishing the Grand Remonstrance, but he got round this by boring everyone. Seriously. One of his gang made a speech in the Commons that was so long and boring that a load of MPs got fed up and went home … whereupon a vote was held, which, with most of his opponents having left, Pym won. That’s actually a much better way of dealing with things than just keeping MPs away from London.

Henrietta Maria then got blamed for the Portadown Massacre: it was claimed that the rebels had had her authority to stage an uprising. At this point, I’d have really liked some discussion of how often queens get the blame for the stupidity of their husbands. Instead, we were told that her lady-in-waiting had taught her how to apply make-up. What?? Henrietta Maria’s unpopularity was due to the fact that she wore make-up? I don’t think so. Incidentally, who’s the great heroine of English Protestantism. Elizabeth I, who used to keep the Cabinet waiting until she’d got all her make-up on. I think we can discount the argument that the Civil War had anything to do with Henrietta Maria’s make-up.

Charles, getting rather stressed out about all this, decided to replace the incumbent Lieutenant of the Tower of London with an ally of his, one Thomas Lunsford. This was not a great idea, because Lunsford was very unpopular: people thought he was a cannibal. We definitely never heard about currants and cannibals when we “did” the Civil War at school! Then a load of radicalised Londoners had too much to drink over Christmas and started rioting. (Don’t ask me how getting drunk over Christmas was supposed to tie in with the idea that the country had gone really Puritanical.) Charles sacked Lunsford, but the drunken Londoners had got really stuck into the rioting by now. And the bishops were prevented from getting into the House of Lords to vote.

The bishops weren’t very pleased, which wasn’t unreasonable from their point of view, and protested, whereupon Pym’s gang decided that they should be impeached. Several bishops were arrested and locI often find myself wondering just how political leaders can be so bloody stupid. It’s something that doesn’t change from century to century. Lisa Hilton used the word “dim”. Charles had signed a bill which took away his power to dissolve Parliament – although it should be noted that it only applied to that particular Parliament, and that the power to dissolve Parliament in general (before the end of the five year fixed term we’re supposed to have now), or to prorogue Parliament, still lies with the sovereign – and then tried to get Pym on side by offering him the position of Chancellor of the Exchequer. Pym turned him down.

I was really glad, at this point, one of the historians pointed out that Pym was not some great hero.  We joke about Cromwell banning mince pies and all the rest of it, but there really wasn’t anything funny about Puritan extremism.  There still isn’t: it’s played a large part in the development of some very unpleasant attitudes amongst factions in both the United States and South Africa.  Pym even wanted to make Catholics wear distinctive clothing.  He never actually tried that, but he did try ordering the removal of Henrietta Maria’s household Catholic clergymen.  A very interesting point was made, which I must say I’ve never really thought of before, that Henrietta Maria had grown up in a France where Protestants were not persecuted.  I can reel off the dates of the passing and revocation of the Edict of Nantes without even thinking about them, but somehow I’d never really thought much about this being in between the two.

And, as if Henrietta Maria didn’t have enough problems, her friend and lady-in-waiting, Lucy Hay, was spying for Pym.  Was she Pym’s mistress?  The programme didn’t suggest that, but it’s been rumoured.  Nor did it mention that she was the Earl of Essex’s cousin.  Another person Charles and Henrietta Maria mistakenly trusted was George Digby, who at least wasn’t spying but who did make a complete mess of his task of denouncing Pym in the Lords, and just kind of wimped out.

I’m not keen on Henrietta Maria, but I do think she got a raw deal, and I think it’s very typical of how women so often get the blame for their powerful husbands’ stupidity.  And how people will attack a woman by impugning her virtue (very Victorian term there!).  I think she probably got involved with Henry Jermyn later on, when she was a widow, but I certainly don’t think she’d done so at this point –  but Pym was whipping up rumours that she had.  Everyone was turning against her.  She must have been terrified.  Nice to see the historians, especially the female historians, expressing sympathy for her.  And I rather like the tradition that she yelled at Charles and told him to stop being such a bloody wuss and go and do something about it.

We were into the third episode by this point, and this was by far the best of the three. Big drama!  The famous episode in which Charles barged into the House of Commons, only to find that the five MPs he was planning to arrest had done a bunk – tipped off by Lucy Hay, who was shown creeping around in a hooded cloak, looking rather like Madame in the Dogtanian cartoons.  I love the fact that the State Opening of Parliament still includes the door being slammed in Black Rod’s face, al because of this!  And it’s fascinating that Parliament, and also the people at the Guildhall, who refused to hand over Pym & co when Charles went there, had the authority nerve to stand up to him.  As one of the historians said, you can’t imagine that happening in Henry VIII’s time.  Charles believed in the divine right of monarchs … but there he was, calling out names with everyone refusing to tell him where the people he wanted were, like a hapless schoolteacher who couldn’t control the class.

What a prat, and what a mess.  As Earl Spencer said, anyone would have struggled to deal with all the political, social and religious troubles of the day (hooray – someone who wasn’t trying to make out that the causes of the Civil War were all short-term!), but Charles I didn’t have a clue.  Meanwhile, and rather scarily, radicals were joining the militia to get arms and training in how to use them.  And the Royal Family fled to Hampton Court Palace.

This was in early January, though, and the war didn’t actually kick off until August.  I’m not quite getting the idea of making a three-part series about fifty days in late 1641 and early 1642, with so little attention paid to what happened before and none to what happened after.  But it still made for interesting viewing.  Lisa proclaimed that, without the events of 1641/42, there would have been no American Revolution, no French Revolution and no democracy as we know it.  Yes.  I’ll go with that.  No Civil War, no Restoration Settlement, no Glorious Revolution, no Enlightenment  … no American Revolution, no French Revolution and no democracy as we know it.

Lisa finished off by asking the various historians she’d interviewed which side they’d have taken – and this bit was great, because she put it as it must have looked at the time.  We tie ourselves in knots over both the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution.  Social contracts, de facto and de jure, had Charles I betrayed his side of the bargain by refusing to play by the rules, had James II effectively abdicated by running off.  Leviathan was published in 1651 and Two Treatises of Government in 1689: none of this social contract stuff was going in 1642.  We need the Civil War to have happened, and we need Charles to have lost, because there was a danger that, otherwise, we’d have ended up with an absolute monarchy.  But we don’t really do rebellion and revolution.  So we try to justify it by thinking about ancient rights and liberties.  And it works to bad-mouth Henrietta Maria, because she was a foreigner.  But we don’t really do overthrowing the rightful government, any more than we do absolute monarchy.  So we tie ourselves in knots.

But, if you look at things as they’d have looked at the time, no-one could have seen what lay ahead.  There’d been loads of spats between kings and subjects.  Most people must have assumed that there’d be one battle, or maybe even just a confrontation, and it’d all have got sorted.  The rightful king or the defenders of ancient liberties?  Nah.  As Lisa said, it would have been a choice between a useless, unpopular king who wouldn’t play by the rules, or a bunch of radical extremists.  No-one seemed very enthusiastic either way.  And yet it really was one of the great turning points of history.   Sometimes, you just don’t know how things are going to turn out, do you?

 

Arabia with Levison Wood (second episode) – Discovery

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This episode whipped up a bit of storm on social media, but, as far as I’m concerned, anything which draws attention to the war in Yemen, which has resulted in the worst cholera epidemic ever recorded and over 20 million people going short of food, is welcome.  However, as with the episode about Iraq, it was hard not to feel that a war zone was being used to create drama – it felt rather like an Indiana Jones film, with protection being sought from a Sultan and borders being suddenly closed by Saudis.  We heard next to nothing about the horrific effects of the war on the people of Yemen.  Instead, we got a close-up view of a toilet on a boat, which wasn’t really what I wanted to see. The first part of the programme, in Oman, was better, though, even if there was a lot about rocks and sand and not a lot about Bedouins or souks.  Still no falafels, either; but we got to see the “Empty Quarter” desert and dolphins in the Gulf of Oman, and to hear about the frankincense trade.  And there were lots of camels.

Oman looked beautiful, and I’d really like to have seen some of the stunning mosques and palaces in Muscat, and a bit more of the souks (I don’t usually like shopping, but I love souks!), but we saw very little of that before Levison was off climbing rocks, crossing the Empty Quarter desert (which, as the name suggests, was, well, empty!) and complaining about the way his local guide treated the camels.  I get that this is the Discovery channel and not the History channel, but there’s still only so much sand you can look at!

However, we did get to meet some of the local people, and to see the trees from which frankincense was extracted, so that was interesting … but it still felt far more like an action film than a documentary.  I suppose you can see Levison Wood as a Boys’ Own adventurer and think that it’s all very exciting, but I thought the idea of this series was to show viewers that there’s so much more to the Middle East than war and terrorism.  I didn’t really mean sand!

From Oman, he crossed into Yemen, and that was what caused the fuss on social media.  I have no idea how easy or difficult it is to get a visa to enter Yemen, but it didn’t look as if he’d even tried: he just said that it was impossible to get a visa because of the war, and there was then all this drama about how he was going to get across the border with help from a mysterious Somali contact.  Which he duly did. Critics have commented that it’s not appropriate for someone to enter a country illegally in order to make a TV programme, and have pointed out that there’d be an outcry if a Yemeni citizen were found to have entered the UK or another western country illegally.

I can see that point, but I think entering Yemen illegally would have been justified if he’d shown, or at least talked about, the horrors of the war.  The situation in Yemen is not being widely reported in the media here, and I think people need to know what’s going on.

Another criticism has been that he was trying to be a “white saviour”.  There seems to be an increasing trend for someone to scream “neo-colonialist” or “white saviour” every time a white person from a western country reports on or makes any comment about a country in another part of the world.  Donations to Comic Relief dropped right off after David Lammy’s criticism of Stacey Dooley, who has worked hard to draw attention to issues faced by women and children in developing countries.  How does that help anyone?  You even hear criticism of Bob Geldof for raising money for famine relief in Ethiopia in the 1980s – do people think it would have been better if he hadn’t?!  In an ideal world, there wouldn’t be such disparities in wealth between countries, so the issue of charity work in developing countries wouldn’t arise, but this is not an ideal world. And  David Cameron tried to raise the issue of LGBT rights in Commonwealth countries and got a load of grief in response.  Of course no-one’s saying that western countries should be telling other countries what to do, but human rights are human rights.  As far as this series is concerned, the situation in Yemen is very serious, and not getting anything like as much coverage as it should; and I don’t find it at all appropriate for Twitter trolls to be calling Levison Wood an “orientalist” or a “white saviour” for trying to highlight what’s going on there.  End of rant!!

Having had a good rant about all that … I was disappointed to find he didn’t actually say anything very much.  There was one short interview with some people who were being forced to live on the streets because they’d had to leave their home, but that was it.  To be fair, though, he didn’t get chance to see much more of the country, because the Saudis closed the border, the intelligence services were on to him, and he had to get out. There followed a load of Boys’ Own Adventure/Hard Man/Indiana Jones/Romancing the Stone/whatever stuff about going to Saudi Arabia in a flimsy boat through pirate-infested waters.  But this was after he’d got back to Oman, so why not just go from Oman to Saudi Arabia across the land border?!  And, having got back to Oman, he could have explained more about what was going on in Yemen.  It doesn’t all have to be action.  This is not a G A Henty or R M Ballantyne book: this is real life.

Sorry, I feel like I’m doing nothing but moaning, but I’m just finding this really frustrating.  There are very few TV programmes about the Middle East.  99 times out of 100, if the Middle East’s mentioned on TV it’s on the news, and it’s very rarely good news.  And, even then, it’s very rarely anything about Yemen.  There are bits of this programme which give us a tantalising glimpse of just how good it could be, like when he was talking to the Omani desert tribesmen about frankincense … but then it just reverts back to being like an action film.

Oh, and neither G A Henty nor R M Ballantyne would have described a toilet.   It’s not very heroic, is it?!

Oh well.  At least it did a bit to bring the Yemeni situation to public attention … even though I’m not sure how many people are watching the programme or reading about it.  But a bit more focus on the countries being visited and a bit less action film stuff would be extremely welcome.  I want to know about these places, their people, their cultures!    Please  ….