Back in Time for School – BBC 2 (second episode)

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Much of this second episode, covering the inter-war period, felt like “the BBC does Girls’ Own” 🙂 .  Country dancing, the importance of modern foreign languages, compulsory naps, the evils of heedlessness and disobedience, the open air school movement, kids being told that they had to “talk posh”  … yes, this all sounded very familiar to fans of 1920s/30s-era school stories.  We also got women’s football, forest schools, and – bringing back horrible memories! – school medicals.

First up, Esperanto lessons!   The programme made it sound as if Classical Greek and Latin had been the only languages taught in schools before the Great War, which wasn’t quite right, but there was certainly a big shift towards modern foreign languages in the 1920s.  As the pupils perceptively pointed out, this also showed a shift towards internationalism and seeking greater understanding of other cultures.  It just screamed “Chalet School” 🙂 ! Except that, instead of learning French or German, the kids were learning Esperanto.

Esperanto was a brilliant idea. OK, the idea of trying to replace people’s first languages, which are an incredibly important part of history and culture, was terrible;  but the idea of everyone speaking a common second language was brilliant.  Ludwik Zamenhof, its creator, grew up in an area where six languages (Yiddish, Russian, Polish, Belarusian, German and Lithuanian, and thus three language groups and three alphabets) were used.  I read a lot of Eastern European history and I actually find places like that fascinating.  Just so gloriously confusing!!  There are towns in what’s now Ukrainian Galicia which have names in Yiddish, Polish, Ukrainian, Russian, German, Hungarian, Romanian and Slovak!  However, it probably wasn’t quite so fascinating to be living there, under what must have effectively been a system of linguistic apartheid.   Anyway, sadly, Esperanto never caught on.

In between teaching Esperanto, the teacher was reading a book about school discipline, which was teeming with words like “heedlessness” and “disobedience”, all greatly beloved by GO authors. Does anyone still use the word “heedless”?  Great word!  We then moved on to School Certificates, which, whilst they always make me think of Alicia in the (post-war) Malory Towers books, played a big part in improving social mobility by giving working-class children a chance to go to university … if the family finances allowed, which, unfortunately, they usually didn’t.

Then school medicals. Ugh.  I apologise in advance for going off on a rant here, but it seems like, every time I put the TV or radio on at the moment, some patronising person is going on about how kids being fat is the worst problem facing our society.  Never mind the fact that some families are struggling so much that kids are being found scavenging through school bins for food: no-one seems interested in that.  Only in stigmatising overweight kids.

Our school medicals, in the late 1980s, were carried out by the visiting school nurse. She was very nice, but, if you were a fat kid, like I was, she put you on what was known as “The List”.  Capital T, capital L. Then, every so often, you would be sent a nasty little note telling you that you had to go to the medical room to be weighed.  This would be during lesson time, so you’d have to ask to be excused.  It was so humiliating.  Even worse, during the first few years of secondary school, we were weighed at the start of every term by the sadistic PE teacher.  She could easily have written everyone’s weight down herself, but, in order to maximise the humiliation, she would ask one of the kids – invariably someone very slim – to write them down.  And she would bellow out your weight at the top of her voice, so that most of the kids who were waiting could hear.  It was absolutely horrendous.  Kids would skip breakfast, and, if the weigh-in was in the afternoon, sometimes skip dinner as well, in the hope of making themselves a pound or two lighter.

I really hope that all the people who keep harping on about the evils of kids being overweight understand all the mental health problems that they’re storing up for the future by destroying children’s confidence and making them feel that overweight kids are second-class citizens. That feeling never goes away.  Anyway, sorry, rant over!  In the inter-war years, of course, it wasn’t obesity that was the issue, but malnutrition – and so the idea of weighing and measuring children at school was genuinely well-meant.  We were told that the average height of the class in this programme was nine inches taller than the average height of working-class children of the same age in the 1920s.  We also saw the kids having the circumferences of their head measured … but let’s not go there, because it smacks of eugenics.

As I said about the first episode, there was genuine concern about the nation’s health, following the publication of reports into poverty and also, in particular, because of the poor physical condition of many of the young men joining the Armed Forces.   As well as the horrible medicals, children in the inter-war years were dosed with cod liver oil, which famously tastes disgusting but is actually very good for you.  The Open Air School movement, which inspired some of the storylines in the recently-published The Chalet School Annexe, reviewed here, was also discussed.  A much better idea than the horrific school weigh-ins!  So too were compulsory naps, which come up in Monica Turns Up Trumps.  The idea of having a rest in the middle of the day seems quite attractive now 🙂 , but I don’t think it would have done when I was fifteen … and the kids didn’t seem very impressed, saying that they felt as if they were being treated like they were back in the nursery.

Weight-related traumas apart, it was very interesting to see the development of the idea that schools should play a big role in trying to improve children’s health. Unfortunately, it’s gone too far.  There was a report on Sky News this morning about staff at a school in Stoke “monitoring” packed lunches (why, regardless of whether you live in the dinner-eating North or the lunch-eating South, is it always “school dinners” but “packed lunches”) for unhealthy food.  Excuse me?  I don’t think even Stalin made teachers “monitor” packed lunches.

Following that, something much more cheerful – women’s football!   I wrote here about how popular women’s football became, and how it was then banned for years.  The programme is really drawing attention to the gender discrimination in schools throughout much of the twentieth century – not just against pupils but also against teachers, as we saw a female teacher being dismissed because of the marriage bar.  I can remember people of my grandparents’ generation still holding these attitudes when I was a kid – that it was wrong for a married woman, who had a husband to support her, to take a job that could go to a man or to a single woman.  The programme made it seem like out-and-out discrimination, and of course it was, and it seems horrifying now; but unemployment in some areas during the Depression was very high, and people were desperate.  But I think the BBC were scared to risk narking the PC brigade by making that point!

We also saw the girls having to learn domestic science, whilst the boys learnt physics and chemistry – subjects that were really being pushed at this time, with the Great War having shown up how poor science education was in British schools, compared to German schools. Germany still seems to do far better than us in that department!

I wrote about the domestic science debate when I waffled about the first episode, here, so for a different angle on it, how about what Girls’ Own books have to say?  Chalet School girls learn both general science and domestic science.  Hooray!   However, there’s the most appalling speech in which the science teacher tells the girls that they all need to learn domestic science so that they can be good wives and mothers, and, if the Good Lord doesn’t bless them with husbands and kids, they can help those he has so blessed!   The headmistress in the Dimsie books informs the Head Girl that the role of girls is to be the mothers of the future soldiers of the nation, and a young woman in the Abbey books is told that she should abandon her plans to go to university and take a course in childcare instead.  Immediate post-war eras tend not to be good for women …

Sara Cox took the next lesson, which involved listening to a BBC programme on the wireless. My late grandad, bless him, was still referring to the radio as “the wireless” in the 1980s.  We didn’t listen to BBC programmes on the radio, by my day, but I can remember watching BBC “education” programmes on TV, when I was 6 or 7.  There was a series called Zig Zag which was about history.  Evidently being a budding historian even when I was in the infants, I loved Zig Zag!  And there was another programme which did a countdown from 10 to 0 before the actual content came on.  We used to count along with it, and then yell “Blast off” instead of “Zero”.  It seemed very funny at the time 🙂 .  Then there was Me and You.  The theme tune went “You and me, me and you,” … and you could always guarantee that some of the class (usually the boys) would sing “Poo and wee, wee and poo”.  I’m afraid we didn’t always have very good manners at our primary school 🙂 .

However, the inter-war radio programmes seemed more concerned with trying to get kids to use “received pronunciation”. As the BBC pointed out, it really was well-meant, given that class and regional prejudice meant that talking posh would give people a better chance of getting a good job, but it didn’t half seem snobbish, and neither Sara nor the kids took it very seriously.  This again is something that comes up in Girls’ Own books, where regional accents are very much frowned on.

However, Girls’ Own books, especially those by Elsie J Oxenham, and to some extent those by Elinor M Brent-Dyer, are very keen on the folk revival and, in particular, on country dancing!   The BBC explained a bit about the background to this, and we then saw kids learning some country dances.  I’d love to have done that, instead of horrible PE lessons with the aforementioned sadistic PE teacher.  She was probably very nice when she was with her family and friends, but she absolutely had it in for fat kids who were useless at PE!  It looked like really good fun – and it’s keeping old traditions alive.  OK, a lot of the “folk” stuff was actually a Victorian invention, but even so!

This was followed by a brief flirtation with the forest schools movement, with kids being let loose in the woods and left to their own devices. Then there was just a very brief section about schooling during the Second World War.  The First World War was pretty much skipped over, and the Second World War was only given a few minutes – gas masks being given out, and some talk about the Dig For Victory campaign.  That was a shame, but I suppose there are a lot of programmes about life in wartime, and the makers of this series decided to focus more on other things instead.

The message that’s coming out through every topic that’s been covered is just how close the tie is between schooldays and social attitudes. It’s quite frightening, really.  OK, kids aren’t getting brainwashed like they are under some regimes, but the education system is constantly being adjusted to reflect the prevailing attitudes of the times, whether that’s about the curriculum or whether it’s about accents or weight or gender roles.  Most of that’s done with genuinely good intentions, but it can be quite problematic in the long-term if you’re made to feel that you’re inferior because you’re overweight or because you speak with a regional accent, or that you can’t study certain subjects because you’re a girl.  And, whilst the introduction of School Certificates was a positive move, how often has the exam system been mucked around with since then?  The debates never end!!

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The Matriarch by G B Stern

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Gladys B Stern, born in London in 1890, changed her middle name from Bertha to Bronwyn because it sounded more romantic, converted from Judaism to Catholicism, studied in Switzerland, was introduced to her future husband by Noel Coward, frightened off umpteen different secretaries, and liked to be addressed as Peter. I’m not entirely sure how you get “Peter” from “Gladys”, but, hey, in the inter-war years, Anything Went.  As for the actual book, it’s supposed to be a feminist novel written before its time (although that’s actually mainly because the men are all presented as being useless), and it’s also a Jewish novel in a way that I really don’t think you could write now.  So … yes, something a bit different.

It’s essentially a family saga, set mainly in the last two decades of the 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th century, and mainly in London.  The main theme is fairly universal – an older generation who want to control things, and younger generations who are either desperate for their elders’ approval, want to rebel and go their own way, or feel bound by guilt and duty to do as their elders want.  The matriarch of the title is Anastasia Rakonitz, who’s born in the Austrian Empire (the Hungarian part, but pre Ausgleich!) but spends most of her life in London, and the other main character is her granddaughter Toni.  There are absolute hordes of other characters, though.  It’s rather confusing trying to remember who’s who, and it’s quite frustrating that there are a lot of bit part characters whose stories are never fully developed, but the author explains that she created a huge array of characters because she wanted to give the sense of an extensive family network, stretching across many countries.

There isn’t actually that much history in it. It starts off in Anastasia’s grandmother’s girlhood, during the Napoleonic Wars, when we’re reminded of the crucial role, often overlooked, that Napoleon played in the granting of civil rights to religious minorities and the reduction of the power of the religious authorities.  The man might have done a lot of damage in other ways, but he deserves a lot of credit for that.  It soon leaps forward in time, but the events of 1848 don’t really get a look-in, the Ausgleich isn’t mentioned, and the Franco-Prussian War, although it’s the reason that Anastasia (having previously moved to Paris) ends up in London, is only mentioned in passing.  The Great War does play more of a part, but only in terms of who is and isn’t involved in the fighting: it seems to have strangely little impact on the Home Front.  So it doesn’t actually say that much about the period during which it’s set, but it says a lot about the 1920s, when it was written.

It’s been described as a feminist novel written before its time. Now, having grown up in the age of Barbara Taylor Bradford, Jackie Collins et al (don’t you just love an ’80s blockbuster?!), a family saga in which the female characters dominate seems quite normal to me 🙂 , but this book was published in 1924, when a lot of women in Britain still didn’t even have the vote.  Anastasia is the one pulling the strings.  Then, when the family loses its money following a bad investment in a fraudulent ruby mine, it’s her granddaughters who pick up the pieces.  However, the women only really dominate because the men are so utterly useless in times of trouble.  And, whilst Anastasia might be a strong female lead, it’s made clear that she’s only really interested in her sons and grandsons, not in the young women of the family.

Is that feminism?   It’s not equality.  I suppose it depends on what you class as feminism. Anastasia really isn’t very appealing: she’s controlling, demanding, self-obsessed and doesn’t treat other people well.  Is the idea that women have to be bossy and controlling in order to impose their authority?  She walks all over her daughters and daughters-in-law.  I don’t know that I’d call this a feminist novel, but then we are talking about nearly a century ago … ugh, how on earth can the 1920s be nearly a century ago?!

“Rags to riches” is another common theme in novels – riches to rags rather less so. Jewish novels set in Britain (or America) usually start with rags.  This one starts with riches.  By the time Anastasia and her family arrive in London, the family has a well-established diamond business stretching across Europe – the Austro-Hungarian Empire, France, Italy … and I feel as if I should be saying Belgium or the Netherlands, seeing as diamonds are involved, but they don’t really come into it!   They live a life of luxury in London.  Then the money goes, and Anastasia cannot adopt: it’s her granddaughters who take charge.  This was published five years before the Wall Street Crash, so it’s quite prescient in a way, but the author’s own family had lost their money thanks to an investment in jewels going wrong.

Nobody actually struggles that much. It’s hardly Helen Forrester: no-one’s living hand to mouth.  But there’s this idea of lost luxury, of faded grandeur.  We don’t sympathise with that, do we?  We sympathise with the middle income people reduced to poverty, but we don’t sympathise with the wealthy family reduced to circumstances that for most people class as normal.  Or even with middle income people who are struggling, but not that much.  That’s quite an interesting thought.  It’s very mean-spirited, really, especially as people can be quite sneery about it.   It can be quite problematic, as well – look at all the huffing and puffing over well-dressed Syrian refugees carrying fancy mobile phones, as if you can’t be a proper refugee unless you’ve got nothing but the clothes you stand up in.  But we clearly are meant to sympathise with the Rakonitzes, just as we’re meant to sympathise with all those characters in children’s books in the period who lose their private incomes because of dodgy solicitors or guardians.  And we should do, really.  I just don’t think we do.  Is that some sort of really nasty Schadenfreude?!

There are also struggles over health. Anastasia suffers from some sort of mental health problem – it’s not clear what, but it comes and goes – in later life.  And Toni is “delicate” – and it’s made clear that this is because her grandparents, Anastasia and her husband Paul, were first cousins.  Now there’s a subject you don’t hear mentioned much.  I’m feeling quite uncomfortable just writing about it – even though it’s something that comes up over and over again in history books, because of royal marriages, and because marriage between first cousins is/has been banned by civil or religious law in many places.  Is this a post-Nazi thing?  Does it come too close to sounding like eugenics, and is that why I’m feeling uncomfortable mentioning it? Would someone include a storyline like that in a book written now?   And how much of a divider is the Second World War, or, more specifically, how much of a divider are the Nazi atrocities, in terms of what authors might or might not include in books?

That’s particularly relevant because this is the saga of a Jewish family. I said “a Jewish novel”, but maybe it isn’t a Jewish novel.  Like Csardas, which I read a few months ago, religious practice doesn’t really come into it – there’s very little about religious festivals, or religious services, and no-one seems very bothered about things like eating kosher food – and many of the Jewish characters marry people who aren’t Jewish.  The idea of the multinational clan … the best-known example is the Rothschild family, but there are others too.  The Rakonitzes certainly aren’t in their league, but apparently they are based on the author’s own family, i.e. a real family.  Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes, featuring a similar clan, is also based on his own family.   The Sassoons also spring to mind (I went to China last year and did a lot of reading up on Shanghai beforehand).  The Oppenheims.  The Goldsmiths.

I’m just feeling incredibly uncomfortable writing this, especially in the current climate, I got this book because it was going free on Kindle, and because I actually had the impression that it was set in Austria-Hungary and I always struggle to find books set there: I wasn’t expecting to be writing all this multinational financial dynasty stuff.  As I said, the Rakonitzes are hardly the Rothschilds, but still.

There shouldn’t be anything to feel uncomfortable about. Religious minorities do tend to dominate finance and business, having traditionally been excluded from the professions.  Look at some of the big name British banks.  Lloyds, founded by Quakers.  Barclays, founded by Quakers.  Look at the big High Street names: Methodist and Jewish founders abound.   But you get all these vicious conspiracy theories.  There are some very odd and clearly preposterous stories about the Rothschilds, and have been for a good 200 years.

Obviously it happens with other groups as well. It doesn’t happen so much now, but it certainly used to happen with Catholics, at least in Britain and America.  Freemasons.  Muslims, at the moment.  And the Rakonitzes, as I’ve said, don’t have that much financial influence: the multinational aspect of their family is more of a cultural thing than anything else, with children who don’t toe the line being packed off to stay with relatives abroad, and a lot of talk about everyone eating Central European food.  But still … it’s not the easiest of topics to write about.

Maybe it’s the idea of “The Other”. That expression’s come up a lot recently, following some of the ill-judged comments made by certain prominent politicians. And yet it’s all meant to be so positive in this book.  London is described as “Cosmopolis”.  OK, it was the name of a crap film with Robert Pattinson, but, other than that, I’ve never heard the term used before.  The author clearly means it as a compliment.  And she wants us to see the Rakonitzes as being glamorous and colourful and exciting, and she clearly means that in a very positive way … but it all kind of comes across as being “The Other”.

Two of the grandsons, Richard and Daniel, and especially Richard, can’t handle that. They don’t want to be colourful or different.  In 2018, I don’t think most people do.  There are always going to be some people who do, but I think most people are way past wanting to be seen as exotic or flamboyant or whatever because of their religion, ethnicity, sexuality, gender identity or anything else: people just want to be seen as themselves.

But the 1920s were all about flamboyance. This book doesn’t tell us that much about the 1880s, 1890s or 1910s, when most of it’s set, but it tells us a hell of a lot about the 1920s!   It probably couldn’t have been written at any other time.  I really don’t think anyone would write anything like this now.  Not a criticism, just an observation 🙂 .