Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day by Winifred Watson (Facebook group reading challenge)

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  Hmm.  This book, for a Facebook group reading challenge, came highly recommended, and I really liked the idea of it, but I just didn’t quite get on with it.

Miss Pettigrew is a strait-laced, rather dowdy, down on her luck 40-year-old spinster governess in 1930s London (the book was written when it was set).  An employment agency muddles up two addresses and sends her to work for a glamorous nightclub singer, Miss LaFosse, who’s got several boyfriends, one of whom has just stayed the night, does drugs, and is generally everything that Miss Pettigrew isn’t.   The book’s set across a 24 hour period which sees Miss Pettigrew swept up into Miss LaFosse’s world, given a makeover, go dancing, be kissed by a man, and advise Miss LaFosse and her friends on their love lives.

I should have loved this, but somehow I didn’t.  I think it was some of the attitudes in it.

I am really, really not one of these annoying people who shriek and have hysterics about how practically every book ever written contains remarks which would probably not be considered acceptable now.  One would not realistically expect Ma and Pa Ingalls to be critical of white settlers taking over Native American land, the O’Haras and their fellow plantation owners to be advocates of black civil rights, or Julian Kirrin to be best chums with a working-class lad (whom I doubt would want to be friends with him anyway).   But anti-Semitic remarks on page 6 of a book don’t make for the best of starts.  The word “othering” was being used a lot over the Anne Boleyn programme: well, Miss Pettigrew was definitely guilty of “othering”.  One of her comments, in particular, sounded just like something Jeremy Corbyn would say.   Not to mention the references to oily Dagos … although, somehow, similar remarks don’t bother me in The Thorn Birds, because they’re in the context of tensions between different groups in a small town.

Miss Pettigrew’s a fair reflection of her time and background, and, as I’ve said, I’m really not the sort of person who expects people in different times not to hold views typical of their time and background.  But I just found it rather off-putting, and that’s probably why I didn’t get on with the book.  But I should have enjoyed it, because it was a cracking idea.  Oh well.  Some books work for you, some books don’t!

They Wanted To Live by Cecil Roberts

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This is the sequel to Victoria Four Thirty, and it contains a really strange admixture of themes.  And, as Hungary is much in the news today, due to the row over UEFA refusing to let Bayern Munich’s stadium be lit up in rainbow colours as a protest against the new Hungarian anti-LGBT laws, it seemed like a good time to be writing about it.

It’s 1938, and our porter friend Jim has a win on the pools, enabling him and his Hyacinth Bucket-esque girlfriend Lizzie to get married and set off on a Continental honeymoon tour.  However, when they reach Vienna, expecting to find glamour and culture, they find a Nazi-dominated hell.  Horrified by what they see, they agree to smuggle a Jewish refugee’s baby to Budapest … to what, in a book published in 1939, both the author and the characters sadly assumed would be safety.

However, in Hungary, we move away from the harshness of political reality and into a load of folksy peasant stuff, national costumes and dancing and galloping across the steppe, along with caddish counts, which all seems to belong more to the 1920s than the 1930s.  We also see Jim and Lizzie, who’s renamed herself Betty, taken up by a crowd of aristocrats, who either believe or pretend to believe that waitress Betty is a former debutante and porter Jim is an Old Etonian.  After several glamorous nights partying in Budapest, we head off to the country pile of a count … where we hear a lot about the multinational nature of the grand families of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, and numerous references to the Treaty of Trianon – which was a mess, and is still causing issues today.  The author wasn’t to know what lay ahead, but it will be hard for the reader not to reflect on the fact that Hungary will soon be throwing its lot in with the Nazis.

A twist in the tale then takes us to Prague, just as the Munich Agreement is being signed, so we get to see that from a Czechoslovak (as it was at the time) viewpoint.  And then Jim returns to his mundane but very real life in London.  The book was published in 1939, so presumably it was written before war was declared, but most people, even early readers, will have read it knowing that war lay ahead.

It really is a strange mixture of very unpleasant realities, with this young, naive couple, abroad for the first time, seeing just what is going on in Austria, and other characters even being driven to suicide by Nazi persecution, and a fairytale in which they get mixed up with the glamorous life of the Hungarian nobility.

Several characters from the first book reappear, but most of them don’t.  The descriptions of Hungary, and also of Vienna, are superb.  I’m not sure how realistic the whole storyline with the Hungarian nobles is, but, OK, I suppose it could have happened.  And the contrast between down-to-earth Jim and aspirational Lizzie is rather funny, until it all ends in tears.

It’s a very readable book, but I can’t remember the last time I read anything with such a complete mixture of different themes.   One minute you’re witnessing Nazi thugs beating up innocent people in a Viennese cafe, the next you’re being taken off to swim in Lake Balaton by a rakish count.  This is certainly different.  And, oh, what a contrast to the first book.  In that book, we saw characters thinking that they could escape their mundane lives and start anew somewhere else.  In this book, we feel all along that danger is lurking, and that Jim is very wise to want to return home, even if working at Victoria Station isn’t very exciting.

Not that I’m comparing the pandemic to the war, obviously, but I went to Vienna in December 2019.  I’ve got photos of myself in the Cafe Sacher, with a piece of Sachertorte, a Viennese coffee and a big grin on my face, and at the Hofburg and the Schonbrunn and the Prater.  When I came home, I thought I’d be back on my travels very soon.  Little do we ever know what lies around the corner, eh?

 

The Pursuit of Love – BBC 1

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I feel as if I should have some very strong opinions about this, seeing as it’s in the sacred Sunday 9pm slot; but I haven’t.  It wasn’t particularly good.  It wasn’t particularly bad.  I haven’t read the book, so I can’t comment on how faithful it was to that.  Most of the characters were intensely irritating, and some of them were so OTT that it was difficult to take them seriously; but I assume that they were meant to be like that.   And not an awful lot actually happened.

Having names popping up and pinging noises was silly and infantilising; it would have been better to have used pop music from the appropriate era; and I really didn’t get that bizarre fantasy scene with Lord Merlin prancing around.  And what was going on with two cousins in their late teens sharing a bath?  Sharing a bath with a sibling or cousin when you’re 7 is one thing, but, when you’re 17, it’s extremely weird.

However, the costumes were great, and the shots of various glorious stately homes were lovely.  But Pride and Prejudice, or even Downton Abbey, this ain’t.  We’re not going to be talking about it in 26 years’ time.  We aren’t even going to be talking about it in 26 weeks’ time.  But there’s nothing else on on Sunday nights, and it was entertaining enough, so I’ll be sticking with it.

It’s based on the book by Nancy Mitford.  I will read it at some point, but I’ve never understood all the fuss about the Mitfords and I don’t think that this is going to change my mind about that.

We’ve got two upper-class cousins, Linda and Fanny, in the 1930s.  Fanny’s mother, known as “the Bolter”, ran off when Fanny was a baby, leaving her with an auntie, and she (Fanny) has somehow ended up living with another auntie and uncle, plus their numerous offspring, who include Linda.  Linda’s dad is a pantomimish type who thinks that women shouldn’t be educated and all foreigners are baddies, and rides around yelling that he hates children.  The children spend a lot of time hiding in cupboards.  They have a neighbour called Lord Merlin.  Linda marries a banker who has a bit of German ancestry.

Er, and that seemed to be about it.

Maybe it gets more interesting later on …

 

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

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

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

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

But to get back to the point …

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

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

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

Great British Railway Journeys (series 12) – BBC 2

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

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

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

Victoria Four-Thirty by Cecil Roberts (Facebook group reading challenge)

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I’m amazed that Cecil Roberts actually found time to write.  As well as having a wife, he had affairs with the Duke of Kent (the Queen’s uncle), tennis player Gottfried von Cramm, Laurence Olivier and Somerset Maugham.  Anyway, in between chasing after, or being chased by, famous blokes, he was a journalist, and also wrote several books.  They included this one, published in 1937, about a number of very different passengers on the 4:30pm train from London Victoria, the boat train which travelled through France and Switzerland to Austria, and then connected with the Arlberg-Orient Express and went on to Hungary, Romania and Greece.  You’d think that a journalist would have known that a) Salzburg was not in Tyrol and b) Russians had patronymics rather than middle names, but apparently not.  But, despite that, it’s really very entertaining.

It’s a strange mixture.  We’ve got a Ruritanian prince, but we’ve also got very harsh reality with a German actor who’s being persecuted by the Nazis because of his Jewish connections, and a number of passengers who lost loved ones in the First World War.  And, perhaps more in the spirit of the 1920s than the 1930s, we’ve got the romantic ideal of leaving the world behind and going off to live amongst “simple peasants” in little villages.  One lady has left London to become a nun in Transylvania.  As you do.  And one man is on the hunt for his errant nephew, who’s dropped out of his studies and is eventually found shacked up with a hunky cowherd in Alpine Austria.  It should be noted that the cowherd is actually from a well-to-do middle-class family, as otherwise they’d have had no money, and that would obviously never have done.  Oh, and there’s a bit of Orientalism as well – it turns out that a Turkish man with a French wife has a mini-harem hidden away in Istanbul.

It really is a very good read.  I know I’ve just been a bit sarcastic, but most of the stories are genuinely moving and serious, with the shadows of the First World War and the Russian Revolution, and the menace of Nazism, hanging over many of the characters.  It’s generally very well-written, and, as someone who much prefers lakes and mountains to beaches and swimming pools, I love the fact that the dream holiday destinations of the day are Tyrol and Ticino.

Obviously, this only applied to people with a lot of time and a lot of money: the comments about “everyone” heading off to the Alps in August are countered by a young porter who can only dream of taking his future wife on honeymoon to Lugano.  But, if you did have the time and money, how lovely to travel on this luxury train … and to wonder about all the other passengers.  Oh, and most of them are travelling alone.  Even better.

So, who have we got?  A young couple going for a Tyrolean honeymoon before taking up a posting in Burma.  An author who’s lost the plot and is looking for a new one, and finds inspiration from a woman with a complicated story about her husband being thrown in prison.  A single man who’s somehow ended up as a cash cow for his married siblings and their children, and has decided to leave them all behind and go and see the Pyramids – good for you, mate!   The man looking for his nephew.  The French-based Turkish man with the various wives.

Then there’s the elderly lady who’s a nun in Romania: this is a very moving story, because she’s come home to London to consult a doctor, who’s told her that she’s dying, and she knows she’ll never see her children, grandchildren or home city again.  And a very dignified man who was once a senior officer in the Tsarist army, but, following the Russian Revolution, now works as a tour guide driving rich American ladies round Austria.

It’s all very bitty.  I thought that, as with Love Actually, it would turn out that everyone was somehow connected, but they aren’t.  And, given that they’re all from very different backgrounds, it wouldn’t make much sense if they were.  There’s one chapter about each of them, and then we see them all briefly when they reach their destinations.  Some of the stories are very sad.  The German actor with the Jewish connections tries to gas himself.  A Greek waiter who’s been working in London arrives back in Athens to find that his sweetheart’s been hit by a car and will never walk again.

And then there’s the Swiss maid who’s been working in France and has been seduced by her mistress’s nephew, who was then killed in an accident (keep up!) and gives birth to an illegitimate child, with the elderly nun acting as midwife.  The baby is adopted by a widowed conductor who’s involved with the Salzburg Festival and decides that he’d like to have a child.  The poor maid doesn’t have much choice other than to give the baby up.

Last but not least, there’s young Prince Paul of Slavonia, who’s been at school in England but is having to return home because he’s now King Paul of Slavonia, his father having been assassinated.  If this is 1937 and he’s in his early teens, could he be the father of Leopold, Fazia and co in the Sadlers Wells books?  Principal Role was published in 1957, and Leopold must be at least 20 then … er, no, that doesn’t work.  Must be a different Slavonia!  Bizarrely, this Slavonia – and bear in mind that there is a real place called Slavonia, in Croatia – is actually set in a real part of the Balkans, in Serbia, with its capital at Nis.  That’s totally mad.  Having a Ruritanian prince in the middle of all the reality is also totally mad, but the story of the grieving, frightened young boy is very touchingly told.

There are a lot of different characters and different stories, and so it’s very bitty and there’s no proper ending.  There are that many characters that, by the time I’d got to the end of the first bit, I’d have been struggling to make a list of them.  But, if you can handle the fact that the book’s episodic and there’s no story running right through it, this is well worth reading.

I was about to say “Oh, what wouldn’t I give to head off on a train to Tyrol or Ticino?”, but the answer is probably actually not much, because Austria’s in lockdown and, with trains not running between Switzerland and Italy due to virus issues, it’s probably a bit manic at stations in Ticino at the moment.  But we can dream …

 

 

 

Back in Time for the Corner Shop (second episode) – BBC 2

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This series really is excellent.  As we went through the ups and downs of the 1920s, the 1930s and the Second World War (my one criticism was that too much was packed into one episode), we were reminded what a crucial role shopkeepers played, operating the rationing system in wartime, and having to make tough decisions about offering credit during the Depression, when meat scraps and cake crumbs were sold off to those who couldn’t afford much more.

There was plenty of fun stuff too, from Bird’s custard powder ice-cream to fruit machines to the females of the family trying on 1930s-style make-up.  I love the idea of the Institute of Chartered Grocers training people to give advice on tea.  Priorities, folks, priorities!  I also love the idea of the lads of the family going round workplaces with barrels of beer on yokes.  Would someone like to try this with vodka, please?!  And, yes, we made it through the Blitz, the threat of Nazi invasion and, before that, unemployment rates of over 40%, without anyone stressing about toilet rolls. A lot of people wouldn’t even have had any!  Keep calm and carry on …

This episode started off in 1920, with things on the up, and shopkeeping becoming increasingly professionalised.  Guidebooks were published, and, as was mentioned later, the Institute of Chartered Grocers trained people in the crucial subject of giving advice about different types of tea, and expected quite a detailed knowledge of food laws and where different foodstuffs came from. A lot of emphasis was placed on the importance of shop windows. I do like a well-dressed shop window! A lot of places don’t bother these days, and it’s so nice when they do, especially if it’s a cake shop.

More brands and pre-packaged foods, including a lot of names that are still familiar today, appeared, as did more cleaning supplies – the decline in numbers of household servants after the First World War meant an increase in production of labour-saving products and equipment, which benefited everyone. And a beer pump in the shop. The mum and daughter were still stuck in the kitchen for most of the time, but they did get to have fun making Bird’s Eye custard powder flavoured ice-cream. We learnt a lot from the ice-cream!  For one thing, we learnt that firms like Bird’s sent out recipe cards with their stuff, to encourage people to use it. For another, we learnt that, until the development of better freezer technology, ice had to be brought in from Norway!  I never knew that.

Then recession struck. Why is there this idea that the ’20s were a great time for everyone? Surely the General Strike’s pretty well-known? Anyway, economic decline hit Sheffield, and our shopkeepers had to try to diversify by sending the youngest son out to make deliveries by bike further afield, sending both sons to the steelworks with buckets of beer, offering budget stock, and getting a fruit machine in the shop. We were reminded what a big thing gambling was amongst the working-classes during the inter-war years: I don’t remember any stories about fruit machines, but I’ve heard quite a few tales about members of our family being very keen on betting on the horses!

And a lot of attention was paid to people buying things on tick. This was fascinating, because I’d never thought about it that much from the point of view of the shopkeeper. These were community shops, which had been serving the same people for years. If you knew that some of your loyal customers genuinely couldn’t afford to pay you that day, because their breadwinners were out of work, but you knew that there was a very real chance that you’d never get the money, and you’d got suppliers to pay and your own mouths to feed, what did you do?  It was all so much more complicated than just buying and selling.  Plenty of food for thought there.

On into the 1930s, with things getting worse.  It was very interesting to see how shopkeepers continued to try to find new sources of income – “outside catering”, as we’d now call it, such as selling food at brass band concerts.  Back in the shop, as well as selling off crumbs and scraps, they were seeing customers coming in with food tickets – and having to tell them that the tickets only covered certain things.  It really was a fascinating reminder about the social history aspects of the inter-war years.  And I’m so glad that it was filmed in a northern city, because I don’t think it would have worked as well in the south, where the Depression didn’t hit as hard.

It was all seeming rather gloomy by this point, but we moved on to the economic recovery in the late 1930s, and the mum and daughter, who’d been rather put-upon until this point, got to try on face powder and lipstick and nail varnish, as the popularity of the cinema helped to make it acceptable, and even de rigeur, for respectable women and girls to wear make-up, which was something else that corner shops could sell. More new foodstuffs, as well.

But all good things must come to an end, especially in the 1930s, and soon it was 1939, and the elder son was taping up the windows, to try to reduce the risk of bomb damage, before being called up by the Army. As the mum said, we all knew that he wasn’t really going anywhere, but it was quite upsetting to think what it must have been like at the time. The BBC had traced the grandson of the people who’d actually owned the shop during the war, and he, now in his late ’80s, spoke about his memories of the horrors of the Sheffield Blitz.

As far as the shop went, what a vital part shopkeepers played in winning the war. We all know about rationing, but it’s easy to forget just how complicated it was – registering your customers, dealing with different types of ration books, trying to cope when there wasn’t enough stock in to fulfil the rations allowed, and knowing that slipping someone a bit too much could lead to a prison sentence. We don’t tend to think of shopkeepers as war heroes, but maybe we should. It had its lighter side too, though, as we saw the younger son and young customers being singularly unimpressed by the “carrot lollies” that were sold as rather poor replacements for sweets when the Dig For Victory campaign produced a huge carrot surplus!

Then the war was over, the elder son was coming home, and celebrations were being held.  It’d all been very quick, considering how much happened in the space of 25 years, but this episode, like the first one, really was good.  If you’re reading my wafflings, and you’ve not been watching this series and are in a country where it’s available, I strongly recommend giving it a go.

Great British Railway Journeys, the Battle of Cable Street – BBC 2

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I really want Michael Portillo’s job. As well as the current series of Great British Railway Journeys, we’ve got Great Asian Railway Journeys and another series of Great American Railroad Journeys coming up, and we’ve not long since had Great Australian Railway Journeys.   And, as well as seeing some fascinating places, he also gets to meet some fascinating people, like Beatty, 102-year-old East End matriarch and veteran of the Battle of Cable Street.

Like the Jarrow Crusade, which took place the same month, and the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass, four years earlier, the Battle of Cable Street showed how ordinary people, many of them living in extreme poverty, and labelled as troublemakers by the authorities, came together to stand up for themselves. In this case, especially with the use of the “No Pasaran” slogan famously used during the Siege of Madrid (I’ve recently acquired a book about British volunteers in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War, but haven’t had time to read it yet), it also showed how well aware people were of what was going on in Germany, Spain, Italy and elsewhere, and how determined they were to prevent it from happening here. What a wonderful lady – 102 years old, broad Cockney accent, so very eloquent. We need so much to listen to the stories of people like her whilst they’re still here to tell them.

The Jarrow Crusade’s already been covered during this series, and it’s an interesting take on the 1930s, talking about that and the Battle of Cable Street, and also about seaside resorts, the development of television, the growth of car production and the popularity of the cinema, as well as the horrific poverty caused by the Depression.  I’m in the middle of reading a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and every single thing it says about the 1930s is doom and gloom.  Awareness of the Battle of Cable Street was raised about a year ago by, of all things, an episode of EastEnders, in which Dr Legg talked about how he met his future wife there. Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists planned to march through the East End. Locals protested to the Home Office, to no avail, and the marchers were given a police escort. Demonstrators built barricades to block their way, all sorts of things from stones to rotten vegetables to the contents of chamber pots were thrown, and the marchers were forced to turn back.

The police then clashed with the demonstrators, and around 150 people were arrested … but it’s the demonstrators who are remembered as heroes. Let all those who claim that the working-classes don’t understand anything about politics watch this, and learn … and, hey, also learn that there was a time when left-wing groups, which were heavily involved in organising the resistance to the march, actually opposed anti-Semitism.  And how wonderful was Beatty, talking about her experiences that day – how horrified she was actually to see Oswald Mosley in the flesh, how many people turned out to resist the march, how determined she was to play her part.

Many different sections of the community came together to organise the resistance to the march. People can do a lot when they pull together – whereas, now, too many people seem interested only in hurling abuse at others, making nasty generalisations about anyone who doesn’t agree with them, or turning everything into party politics and point-scoring.

We could really do with getting back to the more community-minded culture of the 1930s.

Michael said that it’d been a privilege to meet Beatty.  It was also a privilege for viewers to hear what she had to say.  I love these programmes so much!   You wouldn’t think that watching an ex-politician going around on trains could be so interesting, but it really, really is!

 

Great British Railway Journeys (series 11!!) – BBC 2

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The North has spoken: hear the voice of the North! We’re in the 1930s in this latest series of Michael Portillo’s wonderful railway programme, which I am always so pleased to see in the TV schedules, and we’re in the beautiful North East. We got, packed into the space of half an hour, Newcastle’s bridges, Durham cathedral, greyhound racing, fish and chips and artwork – but the most important part was the first stop, the visit to Jarrow, best-known (with all due respect to the Venerable Bede) for the Jarrow Crusade of 1936. There were a number of hunger marches during the inter-war years, but the Jarrow Crusade – led by a woman from Manchester (had to get that bit in!) – is the one that’s really gone down in history. Strangely, this is the first time that I’ve actually seen one of the famous Jarrow Crusade banners in the flesh, so to speak. Like the banners carried at Peterloo, and on the suffragette marches, it was hand-made, and a lot of work went into it. There’s something fascinating about those banners. The ones carried during the Jarrow Crusade are such iconic images of the Depression.

The banners were in neutral colours, because none of this was partisan.  No-one was trying to score political points, to oppose anyone else.  Everyone was trying to work together.  I wish we saw more of that now.  People seem to want to politicise everything now, even something like the Australian wildfire crisis.  We so badly need to get back to working together.

The Jarrow Crusaders were refused support by the London-based leadership of all the main political parties, and by the trade unions.  There’d been some trouble at some previous hunger marches, and there were concerns about infiltration by communist agitators about whom everyone was paranoid about the time … and the authorities were more concerned about that than about the plight of Jarrow, where, following the closure of the shipyard which had been the town’s main employer, unemployment stood at 80% and child mortality at 11%.  There’d been hopes that a steelworks could be opened in the area, but it hadn’t happened – not least because British iron and steel bosses objected to the American investment that was on offer.  The BBC mentioned that the Bishop of Jarrow blessed the crusade, but didn’t mention that the Bishop of Durham denounced it.

However, there was heartwarming support at most of the places where the marchers stopped along the way.  They were given accommodation, food and clothing, and cobblers worked through the night to repair their shoes.  That included local branches of all the political parties, despite what the leadership said, as well as other local organisations.   People can be wonderful.  Sadly, the Crusade didn’t really bring about any action at the time, and it was, as the local historian whom Michael spoke to said, the war which rescued Jarrow’s economy; but it did do a lot to raise awareness of the issues faced by communities left behind by deindustrialisation.  Unfortunately, 84 years later, we’re still not dealing with these issues, and the dismissive attitude of many in the London bubble towards areas affected has got worse rather than better.  Long live the spirit of the Jarrow Crusaders, and well done to BBC 2 for highlighting it in this opening episode.

What else?  Greyhound racing in Byker.  No reference to Byker Grove!  A lot of talk about fish and chips – a very important subject!  Artwork in Spennymoor – and I’m going to show my age and say that, whilst I associate Byker with Byker Grove, I associate Spennymoor with George Courtney 🙂 .  And we saw Michael staying at a lovely railway hotel.  So many of the best hotels in the country started off as railway hotels.

There are a lot of railway programmes around at the moment.  Michael Buerk’s been talking about Victorian railways.  Chris Tarrant’s been talking about the importance of railways during the First World War.  There’s something fascinating and romantic about railways.  Well, past railways, anyway!  I’m so glad to see this back for yet another series, and this was a great start to it.

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!!