The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent

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Martha Carrier was one of the nineteen people hanged during the Salem Witch Trials.  She was also (born Martha Ingalls Allen) the first cousin seven times removed of Laura Ingalls Wilder, which is apparently mentioned in Prairie Fires … which I might finally buy now that it’s down to £7.99 on Amazon.   And she was a direct ancestor of Kathleen Kent, the author of this book, who’s focused her writing on the effect of the trials on the families of the accused.  The Salem Witch Trials have been called the rock upon which theocracy in America was shattered (some people could possibly do with reminding about this).  But they also shattered the lives of the twenty people (one, an elderly man, was crushed to death for refusing to plead) who were killed, the many others who were also accused, and their families and friends.

The book’s told from the viewpoint of Martha’s daughter Sarah – who was also imprisoned, and forced to testify against her own mother – looking back as an adult on her childhood experiences. Sarah was actually only 7 at the time of the trials, but, for the purposes of the story, has been shown as being a few years older than that. Kathleen Kent hasn’t tried to eulogise her ancestors in any way: none of them actually come across as being particularly pleasant, and the book shows that Sarah only really came to appreciate her parents at the time of the trials, when she saw her mother’s great courage and her father’s love and loyalty; but I don’t think anyone could have been all sweetness and light in the harsh conditions of late 17th century Massachusetts (the family lived in Andover, near Salem). And the reader might not like the characters, but they’ll come to admire them – especially Martha, who refused to try to save herself by pleading guilty to witchcraft, but urged her children to say whatever would save their own lives.

It’s very hard to try to make sense of what happened. Witch hunts often happened when someone had fallen ill, or livestock had died, and crops had failed, and people were looking for someone to blame, and or an excuse to take revenge on someone they had a grudge against. But, in the Salem area, the accusations started after some young girls in the area started having fits. What caused that? Was it mass hysteria? It’s difficult to try to understand, but it does happen. The film “The Falling” is based on an episode of mass hysteria in Blackburn in 1965, and that’s just one example of many. It’s also been suggested that some sort of hallucinogenic fungus might have got into the food supply. No-one really knows.

And the book doesn’t really focus on that – it focuses more on the way in which bad feeling could spread in a small community, and the interaction between that and the mood of the religious or political authorities – pretty much the same thing, in Salem in 1692. The Carriers had never been popular, having been blamed for a smallpox epidemic which affected the area. They’d also fallen out with family members over an inheritance dispute, a neighbour in an argument over a trespassing cow, and a former servant whom they’d dismissed for misconduct. Being unpopular anyway, they were vulnerable to accusation at a time when hysteria was spreading through the area and allegations were flying about right, left and centre.

And how it all spiralled!  Over 200 people were accused.  Sarah and many other children were amongst those imprisoned.  The book chillingly and brilliantly describes what the conditions in the prisons must have been like – and shows how, even under those conditions, women like Martha tried desperately to preserve their dignity by keeping as clean as they could.  It also shows the struggles of the rest of the Carrier family – and there’s a strange sub-plot in which it turns out that Martha’s husband, Thomas Carrier, was the man who executed Charles I.  I don’t know whether that’s a legend in Kathleen Kent’s family or whether it’s something she came up with for the sake of the book.  Thomas and his children eventually got an apology and compensation for the execution of Martha.  Much good that would have done them.

The book does focus entirely on the times. Whereas The Crucible famously drew parallels between the Salem Witch Hunts and McCarthyism, Kathleen Kent has written a true historical novel, about historical events, with no attempt to make veiled comments about modern-day attitudes. I like that. History teaches us many lessons which are relevant to the present day – the dangers of religious extremism, especially given the issues with Christian fundamentalism in the US, are particularly relevant to our own times – but it’s incredibly annoying when people only use history to make a point about modern-day events. I don’t particularly like the word “weaponise” because it’s an artificial word, but there is a tendency for people to “weaponise” history, and Kathleen Kent’s avoided that. Oh, and she never mentions Laura Ingalls Wilder, despite the publicity it would have brought her, which is also admirable.  It’s not an enjoyable book as such, and it’s not something that you’ll want to read over and over again, but it’s a good one, and I’m glad that I’ve read it.

 

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Jamestown season 3 – Sky 1

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Inviting someone round for tea and then chopping their head off at the table’s a bit anti-social, really, although displaying severed heads on spikes was a tradition for centuries: London and York were particularly into it. This is one of those so-bad-it’s-good series – it’s certainly never going to win any awards for historical accuracy, but it’s entertaining; and I love the fact that most of the settlers have northern accents 🙂 . It’s also the perfect antidote to the “culture wars”. No demi-religious myths about founding fathers, no cringeworthy romanticised stuff about Pocahontas, no snowflakey suggestions that all male white settlers are bad.  Instead, we get diversity, with strong white, black and Native American characters, strong male and female characters, and, in this series, a disabled character (with a Lancashire accent) but without anyone (other than the troubled gay Puritan bloke who sadly lost his head whilst he was having his tea) being preachy. There should be Polish builders, though! The real Jamestown colonists brought in Polish artisans … who then launched the first ever labour strike in the New World. And without anyone getting their head chopped off.

The programme’s moved away from the original storyline of the three young women making new lives for themselves – and Alice has now departed … so that Sophie Rundle can marry Suranne Jones in this new historical drama series set in Halifax. I wish the BBC’d get a move on with showing that: it’s started in the US, but not here, which is rather strange. She (Alice, not Sophie) decided to leave because her husband Silas has run off to join the Pamunkey. Verity hasn’t had much to do yet in this series, but Jocelyn, the other member of the original trio, continues to play all the blokes off against each other and get her own way – go Jocelyn!  Although she’s being very nasty to poor little Mercy the maid, who, as if being bossed about by Jocelyn wasn’t bad enough, got clouted with a scythe-thing by the nasty Puritan Virginia Company secretary (before he lost his head) for snogging Silas’s brother. That’s the little brother, who used to be Sean in Emmerdale. Not the big brother, who’s Max Beesley.

OK, the whole thing’s a bit daft, but it does cover the serious issues of the positions of slaves, and of female settlers, in Jamestown society, and this series is going to tell us more about the clashes between the settlers and the Pamunkey. And, as I’ve said, it’s good to have a series which covers the arrival of settlers in what was to become the United States without making it look like either some sort of religious destiny thing, some sort of romanticised thing, or some sort of white supremacist thing. We’ve just got a variety of characters – some white, some black, some Native American, some nicer than others but that’s because of their individual personalities and not because of their ethnicity – trying to make lives for themselves.

It’s hardly the most historically accurate series ever, but it deserves credit for that. And it is very watchable! Oh, and the scenery’s lovely – it’s actually filmed in Budapest, not Virginia, and, having just been to Budapest and been on a nice boat trip up and down the Danube, I’m having great fun spotting bits of Margaret Island and the shores!  This is the last series, so enjoy it whilst it lasts.  I’ll kind of miss it once it’s gone, but not many programmes seem to last beyond a few series any more …

 

Green Book

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This wasn’t what I expected – and, whilst it wasn’t the best film ever, it asked some very interesting questions.  I thought, given the title, that it was all going to be about someone’s experiences of racism, but it went beyond that, and also explored the issues of not fitting the expectations, both external and internal, of a particular demographic group, and trying to cope when you end up feeling that you don’t fit in anywhere.  Even now, never mind in the 1960s, society isn’t set up for individuals.   That all sounds very deep and meaningful, but the story’s told by way of an old-fashioned, “buddy movie”, two totally different people thrown together and bonding type stuff, not very subtle and sometimes more than a bit cringeworthy, but good for plenty of laughs. It veers from the complex to the crude within seconds, at some points. Incidentally, since when was “dramedy”, which I saw on one website the other week, a word?  It sounds like some sort of camel.  “Comedy-drama” will do nicely, thank you.

Also, I was stupidly chuffed to discover that Mahershala Ali’s full first name is Mahershalalhashbaz.  I’ve never come across that name in real life before.  I assume that his parents got it from the Bible, and not from Clover Carr’s poem in What Katy Did At School!

Anyway.  This is based on the true story of African-American classical pianist Don Shirley and his Italian-American driver/bodyguard Tony Vallelonga, on an early 1960s concert tour through various states including parts of the racially segregated South.  The script was written partly by Nick Vallelonga, Tony’s son, but some people who knew Don Shirley well have apparently questioned its accuracy, especially in terms of the way it shows the two men bonding and becoming friends rather than just being employer and employee.  That’s quite complex, because the racial issues of the time make the fact of a black man employing a white man to be his driver/minder a very big thing, but the “buddy movie” light entertainment comedy element of the film relies on them developing a close personal relationship.

I’d love to know how accurate the depictions of the two men, as well as their relationship with each other are, because they both sometimes seem a bit … what’s the word?  Overblown?  I wouldn’t say pantomime-ish, but certainly a little OTT.  Tony is quite a caricature of a working-class NooYoik Italian-American.  He never stops talking, works as a bouncer at a nightclub where most of the punters seem to be Mafiosi, and spends the rest of his time with his large and very noisy family.  Women in the kitchen, men in front of the telly, but everyone is devoted to each other.  They do not mix with anyone who is not Italian-American.  He’s also a caricature of a certain type of working-class bloke, commonly found in soap operas and comedies in the 1970s and 1980s, generally.  He hits out with his fists before he thinks, swears all the time, eats with his fingers, and, whilst driving the car, smokes, eats, drinks and then throws the rubbish out of the window.

He also throws two glasses in the bin after two black plumbers working at his house drink out of them.

Don, Dr Shirley, is the complete opposite.  He’s elegant, cultured and refined.  He lives in the most beautiful apartment, full of antiques.  He dresses impeccably, his manners are perfect, and his grammar is perfect.  However, he’s so uptight and snooty that you want to yell at him to loosen up a bit, especially when he’s lecturing Tony about his speech and his behaviour.  Both of them would fit very well into a sitcom, but sitcom characters are supposed to be a bit OTT.  Superb performances from both actors, with the scripts they were given, but I think we could have done with a bit more subtlety in the way both men were written.

The rest of the people in this film aren’t exactly subtly portrayed, either.  Every white character in the South is a racist.  The very first time Dr Shirley sets foot in a bar south of the Mason-Dixon line, he gets beaten up.  When he and Tony go into a posh menswear shop, the sales assistant assumes that it’s Tony who wants to try on an expensive suit.  Every single person they see, black or white, gawps at the sight of a white guy driving whilst a black guy is sitting in the back.  At one point, the car breaks down in a rural area where several black people are working in a field.  More like a scene from a cartoon than a scene from a film, every single person stops, tools in hand, to stare when Tony gets out and lifts up the car bonnet.  And, everywhere they go, the police are just waiting to arrest them.  I’m not saying that this inaccurate, just that it’s a bit heavy-handed to generalise about entire populations of entire regions like that.

However, whilst the film is a bit heavy-handed, the fact of racism in the South in the 1960s is just that – a fact.  The title of the film comes from a guidebook, produced annually from 1936 to 1966, for African-American motorists, because of the very common problems of being refused accommodation, or service at restaurants, or even being told that they couldn’t fill up their vehicles at petrol stations.   This was going on all the time.  A century after emancipation, this was going on all the time.

We don’t actually hear that much about the book, though.  We do occasionally see Tony referring to it for suggestions of places to stay, but, otherwise, the impression given is that he and Dr Shirley didn’t bother to read it – which, for the purposes of the film, is a good thing, because it means that the viewer gets to see just how bad things were, because they don’t avoid trouble.  They haven’t been going long before they take a wrong turn whilst driving at night, get lost, and are pulled over by two policemen – because a black man is in an area which black people are not allowed to be in after sundown.

A brief historical note here.  “Sundown towns” were not particularly a Southern phenomenon.  There were many in other parts of the United States too.  Nor was it always, or only, black people who were excluded.  Some places excluded Jews, Native Americans, Chinese people or Hispanic people.  Welcome to the land of the free.  In the 1960s.  Not the Middle Ages.  The 1960s.

Tony punches one of the policemen.  Again, this all seems a bit overboard.  Maybe it did actually happen, but … would anyone actually do that?  But, for the purposes of the film, it has to happen.  He and Dr Shirley both end up locked in the only cell at a very small police station.  Eventually, the police acknowledge that they’ve got the right to a phone call, so Dr Shirley makes a call … and, the next thing you know, Bobby Kennedy, in his capacity as Attorney General, is ringing this two bit police station to say that the police have got to let them go.  Tony thinks that he’s going to be dining out on this story for the rest of his life.  Dr Shirley finds the whole thing utterly humiliating.  It’s taken away his dignity.

That’s probably the biggest point that the film makes about racism – that it strips Dr Shirley of his dignity.  For all his talent, his education, the way he speaks, the way he behaves, the racist attitudes with which he’s confronted keep challenging his dignity.  He may have the class to appreciate an elegant suit, and the money to afford it, but the manager of the shop won’t even let him try it on.  He’s denied admission to hotels, restaurants and even toilets.  Maybe the title “Green Book” doesn’t really work, because the idea of the Green Book is to enable people to avoid situations where they’re likely to face awkwardness and trouble.  Obviously no-one should have to think like that, and people should be able to go where they want, but, even now, you see comments in guidebooks saying that, for example, women travelling alone would be well advised to avoid a particular place.  Tony and Dr Shirley keep running into trouble.

The next time Dr Shirley ends up being arrested isn’t actually about race: it’s because he’s been caught in a sexual encounter with another man.  Tony bribes the police to let him go.  Again, Dr Shirley is upset at having had to resort to underhand tactics to get out of the situation, but, as Tony points out, it would be very awkward for him, in the climate of the 1960s, if this arrest became known publicly.  It’s already been mentioned that Dr Shirley had been married to a woman, although he’s now divorced, so we’ve previously got the impression that he’s heterosexual.  In an emotional conversation with Tony afterwards, he says that he doesn’t feel as if he’s accepted anywhere.  It seems that he’s referring to sexuality, as well as race, but the subject of sexuality’s never mentioned again, so we don’t really know exactly what’s going on.  I don’t really know why the scriptwriters put that in if they weren’t going to develop it properly.

Tony, on the other hand, is happy and secure within his world.  He hasn’t got much money, and he’s got no qualifications, and his manners are appalling, but he knows exactly who he is and where he belongs.  He’s part of a big working-class Italian American New York extended family, within a working-class Italian American New York community.  He’s happily married.  Part of the “bonding process” is that he writes terrible letters to his wife, Dr Shirley dictates romantic letters for him to write instead, and his wife is thrilled – even though she knows very well that someone must have helped him with them.  But he and his wife and their children are all very happy together.  And they’re part of a big network of relatives and friends, all of whom are working-class Italian-American New Yorkers.  He’s fine with that.  He doesn’t particularly want to learn about different things, and he certainly doesn’t aspire to what might be considered a more cultured lifestyle, or a more multicultural lifestyle.

Do you ever think that it might be easier to be like that?  Maybe by the 1960s, things were starting to change, but, before that, a lot of people never moved out of the communities in which they grew up, and never mixed with different people.  Whilst doing some family history research, I found that, on one side, my great-great-grandparents had lived next-door-but-two to each other.  Not quite marrying the boy/girl next door, but as near as makes no difference.  There are still people whose lives aren’t too far removed from that.  Is it tragic, that their lives are so narrow?  Or is it easier to be like that?  And, once you’re out of that sort of set-up, you can’t really go back.

We know very little about Dr Shirley’s background, so it does feel as if some of the pieces of the jigsaw are missing.  He’s very far removed from the stereotype of what a black man in the US in the 1960s should be, but what we don’t know is whether he was brought up like that or whether he’s distanced himself from that.  There’s a mention of a brother whom he doesn’t speak to – although apparently that isn’t true, and he got on perfectly well with his brother.  We don’t meet any of his relatives, and he doesn’t seem to have any friends who aren’t connected with his work.   Whether it was the way he was brought up or whether it was his own choice, or just the way his life panned out, he’s completely detached from “black culture”.

He’s barely even heard of Little Richard and Aretha Franklin, and doesn’t recognise their music when it comes on over the car radio.  He doesn’t eat fried chicken – which is quite a motif of the film: people keep going on about fried chicken.  Food is such a big part of culture.  People who’ve become detached from a cultural group, or even people whose parents or grandparents became detached from a cultural group, will often still eat the food associated with it.  And, in 1960s America, it’s still expected that part of the experience of being black is to grow up in poverty.  At one point, Tony says that he’s blacker than Dr Shirley is, because he does live in a working-class neighbourhood.  Dr Shirley doesn’t disagree.

And, for all his success, he’s deeply unhappy.  And, because of that, he drinks.  And it’s because he feels that he doesn’t belong.

It all sounds so ridiculous, this idea that, in order to belong, you have to conform to cultural norms.  Surely that’s the most prejudiced thing of all.  And yet that’s how it is, even now.   And it’s coming as much from people inside a particular community as from people outside it.  More, if anything.  There are so many films and TV programmes and comedy acts which play on stereotypes of particular groups, and most of that is coming from people within those groups.  Fair enough, as long as no-one’s getting offended by it?  But doesn’t it just make harder and harder for the people within those communities who don’t fit those stereotypes?

That word “community” – it gets used in so many ways, these days.  People talk about “the black community” or “the Islamic community” or “the LGBT community” as if everyone who fits that particular demographic is somehow supposed to have the same beliefs and outlook and interests.  You’re talking about millions of completely different people, living different lives, in different areas.  And yet, all the time, you get political commentators saying that a particular party’s trying to appeal to the X community, or has lost support amongst the Y community.  Or else it’s retailers trying to appeal to the A community or the B community.  As if you’re supposed to vote the same way, and have the same likes and dislikes, as everyone who’s from the same ethnic group or religion or part of the country as you, or is of the same sexuality, or even the same gender.  And then you get people claiming to be spokesmen/women for that community, as if they can somehow represent all these millions of different people.

It’s actually getting worse.  We’ve now got this “cultural appropriation” thing going on, as if you aren’t even allowed to sing particular music or make particular food or wear particular clothing unless you’ve got a personal connection to the demographic group from which it originates.  What is that about?  And people are accused of betrayal if they have a partner from a different demographic group, or express views which aren’t those which people from their ethnic or religious background are “supposed” to have.

Everyone wants to belong.

Or do they?

Dr Shirley doesn’t want not to be seen as black.  He’s not trying to get away from being black, just from the idea that black people have to be a certain way.  He’s actually one of the people who sees himself as being a standard bearer for a particular group, because the reason he’s touring the South is to try to change people’s attitudes, to overcome the stereotypes of what a black person is like.  One of the other musicians explains this to Tony, who’s struggling to understand why this very talented man, who can get as many well-paid gigs as he likes in places where he’s treated with the respect he deserves, is putting himself through all this unpleasantness.  He thinks he can take on the attitudes of racists in the South, and change their minds.  And it would have been great if that was the way things had gone, but it wasn’t.

At one concert, which was meant to be in North Carolina but was actually filmed at the beautiful Houmas House plantation in Louisiana, which I’ve visited, he’s welcomed by the host and hostess and their guests, and sits down at the dinner table with them – even though they do serve up friend chicken – but, when he asks to use the toilet, he’s told that he’ll have to use a grotty outhouse: the proper gents’ toilets are only for white men.  He says that he’s not using the outhouse and, if they won’t let him use the other toilets, the second half of the concert will have to be delayed whilst he goes all the way back to his hotel, uses the toilet there, and comes all the way back.  The host agrees.  We’re left thinking how absolutely ridiculous the host’s attitude is, but we’re also left wondering why Dr Shirley doesn’t just tell him exactly where he can shove both his piano and his toilets.  Tony says that, if anyone treated him like that, he’d use their luxury carpet as a toilet.

Dr Shirley says that what matters is to be dignified.

However, in order for the film to work, either someone’s going to have to give in and accept that they’re in the wrong, or he’s going to have to snap and say that he’s had enough.  Attitudes are, sadly, not going to be changed by a concert tour, so Dr Shirley has to decide that he’s not taking any more –  and, of course, this happens at the last concert of the tour.

It’s in a posh club, on Christmas Eve.  Tony, Dr Shirley and the other musicians want to have a meal at the club’s restaurant before the concert, but the restaurant is whites-only and, despite the fact that all the white people in the restaurant are only at the club because they’ve come to hear him play, Dr Shirley is not allowed in.  He’s told that either he should eat somewhere else, or that some food can be brought out to him in the miniscule dressing room.  Enough’s enough, and he walks out.  He and Tony go to a bar where Tony is the only white person in the place.  And he plays the piano there.  Mostly jazz music.

And then, after this grand denouement, after he’s finally had enough, after he’s accepted that what he’s tried to do hasn’t worked, after he’s stood up for himself – and done it in an immeasurably dignified way, rather than walloping someone as Tony would have done – the film suddenly turns into one of those warm fuzzy Christmas films that get repeated on the Sky Christmas channel all the way through December.

Will Tony make it home in time to have Christmas dinner with his wife, his kids, and their enormous extended family?  As head north, it starts snowing heavily.  They can hardly see for more than a few inches in front of them.  And then they’re pulled over by a policeman.  Oh no!  Are our heroes going to spend Christmas Day in the cells?  Fear not.  This policeman just wants to tell them that they’ve got a flat tyre.  Tony changes it.  They drive on.  But Tony’s tired.  He really can’t drive any further.  So Dr Shirley takes over.  And they make it back to New York City just as Tony’s lovely wife Dolores is dishing up.  Hooray!   And Dr Shirley is invited into join them.  Bless!  Everyone hugs and kisses.  Merry Christmas!

I suppose they wanted a happy ending, and that was the only way of doing it.  The tour didn’t change people’s attitudes.  Dr Shirley didn’t find inner peace and a sense of belonging.  But we got our happy Christmas dinner scene.  A bit of a non sequitur, but, hey, why not?  We don’t have to fit films into pigeon holes as being comedies or dramas, or being buddy movies or films about racism or films about angst or anything else.  This film doesn’t really fit into any one standard category.  It’s just itself.  And people should be able to be just themselves, but the world doesn’t work like that, and it can be very hard if you don’t fit in.  There are better films than this about the evils of racism, but this one’s a bit different, and, whilst it’s got its faults, it’s got plenty to say, and all of that is well worth listening to.

 

American History’s Biggest Fibs with Lucy Worsley (third episode) – BBC 4

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UFOs apparently merit more attention than the McCarthy witch hunts, and Ronald Reagan was only elected president because American radio stations were banned from playing songs in the top 40 (why??) and played music from the 1950s instead.  So, if they took to playing songs from my era, the late 1980s, who would be the next President of the United States?  Tom Hanks, maybe?  Jodie Foster?  Answers on a postcard, please!  And it doesn’t half annoy me when people insist on referring to the Soviet Union as “Russia”.  There were fifteen Soviet republics, OK – fifteen, not one.  Finally, just to prove that the BBC really does intend to wind people up with this programme, Martin Luther King was accused of being a male chauvinist pig.

Lucy Worsley can be great sometimes, but she was incredibly annoying in this.  The smirking.  The excessively bright red lipstick.  The failure to wear a seatbelt.  And just the general feeling that she was mocking everything.  Is there any need to be like that? Most of what she said was genuinely interesting, but I just found her manner extremely irritating.  I think she was enjoying doing something different, though – it felt as if the jolly hockey sticks head girl had been transformed into the school bully.

We were informed that everyone loves 1950s America, because of Happy Days.  I’d have said more because of Grease, which wasn’t mentioned until later on; but you get the idea.   There is an awful lot of nostalgia about the 1950s.  We then jumped back – there was a lot of jumping around in this programme – jumped back to 1945, and the idea that America won the war.  I have to say that I do find it very annoying when people say that America won the war.  Er, what about Britain, and the other nations of the Empire and the Commonwealth?  What about the Soviet Union?  Lucy didn’t mention Britain, presumably because it might have upset all the avocado-eating Britain-bashers whom the BBC loves to please, but she did suggest that Japan’s surrender had more to do with, or at least as much to do with, the Soviet Union’s declaration of war on her than with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  It’s certainly something that Western histories of the Second World War pay very little attention to.

I’d got the impression that this was going to be about the Cold War, so I was expecting it to focus on all the myths peddled by both sides about the other.  I never “did” the Cold War anti-Soviert thing.  OK, I was a bit young for it anyway, only ten when Gorbachev came to power, but I was always too keen on Eastern European history to be negative about Eastern Europe.  I remember being rather upset when most of the other kids in my GCSE history group were astounded to find that Britain had fought on the same side as Russia in the First World War (not to mention on the same side as the Soviet Union in the Second World War).  Even those of us born in the mid-1970s were fed all that anti-“Russian” stuff.  But this programme wasn’t about that after all – only on America’s own ideas about America, the land of peace and prosperity and supremacy.

So we got lots of shots of housing estates built in the 1950s, and pictures of smiling moms and dads and kids.  All white.  We heard the story of a black family who moved into one of these housing estates, and not even in Mississippi or Alabama but in Pennsylvania, and received death threats.  The legal documents for a lot of these properties even included “racial covenants” – and that wasn’t made illegal until 1968.  None of that was surprising, but things like that never stop being shocking.  When Barack Obama was elected president, it felt as if those days might finally be over.  Now, things seem to be going backwards.

The programme then jumped backwards again – to 1950, when the National Security Council warned Harry S Truman (What is it with American presidents and their middle initials?  No-one goes around talking about Theresa M Mary or Angela D Merkel, do they?!) that there was a threat from the Soviet Union, and so America whacked up its defence spending.  It’s horrifying to think of how much money’s spent on defence, when it’s so urgently needed for other things, because we can’t get to a point where all countries are able to trust each other enough to reduce it.  And that never changes.  Again, it seems to be getting worse, with America pulling out of this nuclear arms treaty.

Testing atomic bombs.  This was all told in a very sarcastic tone.  And, OK, it was utterly bizarre.  Day trips were run from Las Vegas to viewing points for the main atomic testing site in Nevada.  People drank “atomic cocktails” and watched “atomic ballets”, and “Miss Atomic Bomb” contests were held.

Meanwhile, rates of cancer amongst those living downwind of the site soared – resulting in around 11,000 deaths.  The authorities knew of the danger, but felt that developing missiles to match those of the Soviet Union was more important than people’s health.  This was nothing we didn’t already know, but, as with racism, knowing something doesn’t mean that hearing it again isn’t shocking.   And the “Happy Days” of the 1950s were overshadowed by the fear of “the bomb”.

Then, from all this incredibly serious and distressing talk about cancer and fear, we were suddenly on to UFOs.  Roswell was 1947, not in the 1950s, but never mind.  Lucy went on at length about UFOs, and even interviewed a man who was clearly entirely convinced that the truth was out there and either didn’t realise or didn’t care that she was making fun of him.  Everything she was saying did make sense, though!   Yes, there does seem to be a conviction in America that, if aliens were going to land on Planet Earth, they would land in America.  Linking this to Manifest Destiny sounds like a complete piss-take, but it’s actually very hard to say that it isn’t true!

Finally, nearly halfway into the programme, we got to McCarthyism.  I was expecting a whole load of spiel about this.  The Red Scare.  Reds Under The Bed.  Everything that it says about repression and victimisation in what’s supposed to be The Land of the Free, and how easily a politician can whip up fear.  But it barely got a mention.  UFOs were apparently more important.

On to Eisenhower and the “military-industrial complex” – arms companies whipping up fear of the communist threat, and pressuring the American government into upping its defence spending again.  The term doesn’t really get used any more – but I honestly hadn’t realised just how much America does still spend on defence.  According to Wikipedia, “In 2011, the United States spent more (in absolute numbers) on its military than the next thirteen nations combined”.  And, from what Lucy said, the Soviets never really had that many missiles … and what’s quite that much defence spending about now?  This episode was quite disjointed, going from bombs to UFOs to Red Scares to military-industrial complexes without any real thread running through it all, but the points were certainly all valid.

Well, I suppose the thread was meant to be myths and fibs, but it just didn’t flow very well.  From B52s to Camelot, and the idea that JFK was fit and healthy and had a perfect marriage.  Hmm.  And that he saved the world at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis – whereas, in fact, the deal was two-way, with the Americans agreeing to remove their missiles from Turkey at the same time as the Soviets agreed to remove their missiles from Cuba.

No-one ever mentions that, in the West.  Very true.  It would have been interesting to have heard the take on it in Warsaw Pact countries, though.  I know that the programme was meant to be about the USA’s image of itself, but it would have been good to have heard the alternative view.

Then another complete change of topic, from the Bay of Pigs to the 1963 March on Washington.  This bit was fascinating – not so much about what it said, as about the fact that it was said at all.  I’m not that keen on either Abraham Lincoln or John F Kennedy, and find the hero worship of both of them rather odd.  But it’s very unusual to hear anyone criticise Martin Luther King, especially in today’s political climate when people are so quick to label anyone a racist.  People are also increasingly quick to label anyone a sexist – and that’s what Lucy Worsley did with Martin Luther King.  No women spoke on that famous day in 1963.  Why didn’t Rosa Parks, for example, make a speech?  And, apparently, Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King were both invited to the White House, but Coretta was left outside whilst her husband went in for a boys’ only get together.

Fair point.  And a brave point, as well.  I think people are becoming nervous of saying what they think, because of the fear of being wrongly labelled as a racist or a sexist.   Or being accused of “cultural appropriation” – it appears that some people are up in arms over a Marks & Spencer vegan biryani wrap.  I felt quite uncomfortable hearing Lucy saying negative things about such an iconic and admired figure as Martin Luther King, and I was annoyed with myself for that.  She wasn’t taking away from everything he achieved and stood for in terms of civil rights for African-Americans.  She was just saying, quite truthfully, that women were not fairly represented within that movement.  But it was still surprising to hear outspoken criticism of someone whom no-one would usually say a word against.

1963 also saw the publication of The Feminine Mystique.  Finally, a section of the programme that followed on logically from the previous section … but, rather than an insight into the changing role of women in the 1960s, we were left with the impression that the entire female population of the USA spent the 1950s and 1960s taking Valium.

And finally, the radio stations.  I must admit that I never knew this, but, in 1967, AM and FM stations in the US were banned from playing “identical content to” the top 40, in an attempt to encourage musical diversity.  I can’t quite get my head round that!   What a weird idea.  So they played music from the 1950s, and everyone got obsessed with the 1950s, and even more so when Grease and Back To The Future came out. Back To The Future was 1985, by which time Ronald Reagan was into his second term of office, but never mind.  So everyone was really into 1950s nostalgia, and that’s why Ronald Reagan became president.  Well, OK, it wasn’t put exactly like that, but that was the general idea.

And I was expecting McCarthyism and the space race …

I think I actually prefer Lucy when she’s being the jolly hockey sticks head girl.   There was something about this series that smacked of … well, to go back to the subject of Grease, it was a bit like the “too cool for school” Pink Ladies and T-Birds making fun of the all-American kids like Patty Simcox and Tom Chisum for helping to organise the school dance and being on the school sports teams.  But, hey, didn’t you always really want to be one of the cool kids who swaggered around with their cool gang jacket slung over their shoulder?  And I’m just proving that, yep, I do 1950s America nostalgia as well!  It’s a powerful myth.  So many historical myths are.

American History’s Biggest Fibs with Lucy Worsley (second episode) – BBC 4

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It’s extremely annoying when people claim that the American Civil War was about Abraham Lincoln leading an anti-slavery crusade.  It wasn’t. So I was really looking forward to seeing some of those myths debunked, but this second episode of Lucy Worsley’s series just didn’t work as well as the first one did, because most of the  “fibs” being addressed just weren’t things that most people actually believe.  Does anyone genuinely believe that true racial equality in the United States exists even now, never mind that it was brought about in the 1860s?  And, much as I love Gone With The Wind, surely nobody today actually buys that frighteningly romanticised view of slavery?  Those “fibs” just can’t be compared with Paul Revere’s Ride and the ringing of the Liberty Bell, stories that actually do form part of American culture.  However, that’s not to say that the programme wasn’t interesting.  It was.  In particular, it showed just how dangerous the distortion of Civil War history has become in our own time.

As with the first episode, it had several barely-concealed digs at Donald Trump.  It began with a crack about “alternative facts”, and ended with a discussion of racism being immediately followed by a shot of a “Make America Great Again” baseball cap.  I don’t disagree, but the BBC is supposed to be neutral.  I’m so sick of all the bias in the media!  It’s getting worse and worse: it’s becoming almost impossible to find anything that just tells you what’s going on and leaves you to make up your own mind about it, rather than trying to force one viewpoint or another down your throat.  OK, rant over!

The programme started off with the Union myth of the Civil War, which, history being written by the victors and all that, is the official version.  Slavery and reunification.  Abraham Lincoln, the man who freed the slaves and saved the Union.  Incidentally, the programme utterly failed to point out that the biggest fib about the Civil War is that it was … er, a civil war.  It wasn’t.  USA versus CSA, not Northern USA versus Southern USA.  Having said which, the same happened with Yugoslavia in the 1990s.  It also reminded us that the war killed 600,000 people, more Americans than were killed in the First and Second World Wars combined.

There’s only so much you can fit into an hour, and, OK, there really wasn’t time to go into the Wilmot Proviso, Bleeding Kansas, popular sovereignty, the Compromise of 1850, Dred Scott, John Brown and so on and so forth, and so we just got a brief mention of the fact that there’d been disputes over whether or not slavery should be extended into the new states being organised in the West.  Then a historian saying that slavery in the southern states would have been worth trillions of dollars in today’s money.

The point being made was that concerns about slavery were economic rather than ideological.  I’m not sure how well that actually worked.  The northern and southern economies were developing along different lines, so it wasn’t really a question of competition; and a lot of the opposition to extending slavery west actually was ideological.  A lot of it was also due to the belief that slavery was actually bad for the economy, which didn’t tie in with what the programme was saying.  Slavery was, obviously hugely economically important for the South, but I’m not at all convinced that opposition to slavery in the North was also about economics.  I think all that talk about economics actually over-complicated things.  Debunking the myth?  Many people believed that slavery was wrong.  That didn’t mean that they wanted, or wanted their husbands and sons and brothers, to go off to fight in a war about it.  Myth debunked!

When we actually got to the war, it was oversimplified.  Yes, OK, there were time constraints, but that was no excuse for factual inaccuracies!  No, it was not a case of nineteen free states versus eleven slave states: Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky and Missouri, all slave states, remained in the Union.  And, if you want to be thorough, West Virginia seceded from Virginia!  And there were not eleven states in the Confederacy at the time of Fort Sumter!  Having said which, the issue of the slave states which didn’t secede was mentioned when talking about the Confederate battle flag, which has thirteen stars because it includes Kentucky and Missouri.  And it was a fair point that what everyone thinks of as the Confederate flag is actually the Confederate battle flag.

Oversimplication’s one thing, but blatant errors are another.  The Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was issued after three years of fighting, apparently.  Ahem … Fort Sumter, April 1861, Manassas/Bull Run, July 1861, Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, September 1862, to take effect in January, 1863.  How do you make that into three years of fighting?!

I rather bizarrely started thinking about The King and I, at this point.  I know that sounds daft, but international perceptions of the American South had been very deeply affected by Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and a lot of people today say that the first time they heard of that book was when they first saw The King and I.  We also get Deborah Kerr proclaiming that Mr Lincoln is “fighting a great war to free the slaves”.  Yes, all right, all right, The King and I is hardly an accurate reflection of anything; but was that how the rest of the world saw it even at the time?  Quite possibly, yes. There’s a statue of Abraham Lincoln in Manchester city centre.  A letter was sent to him from the working men of Manchester (er, what about the working women?!) saying that they supported his war, his anti-slavery war.  Despite the terrible effects of the Cotton Famine.  By the way, why weren’t blockade runners mentioned in this programme?  If you want to talk about romanticising the Lost Cause, you need blockade runners!  Anyway.  Lincoln wrote back … and, whilst his letter mentioned slavery, he said that his main responsibility was the preservation of the Union.

So who’s inventing the myth?  The whole argument of this programme was that America was telling fibs about its own history, but I think there’s an argument that the myth of the war being an anti-slavery crusade existed outside America well before it existed within America.  It is definitely a myth, though.  Who’s the myth about, Lincoln or the Union?  That all got a bit confused, as well, but Lincoln has very much become the personification of the Union – which is daft in itself, because he wasn’t really that popular.

Lucy made two crucial points here.  Lincoln never seems to have been that keen on immediate emancipation, and certainly not in favour of equal rights for African Americans.  And the proclamation only declared the slaves free in the states of the Confederacy, not in the slave states which remained within the Union.  Battle Hymn of the Republic – “as he died to make men holy let us die to make men free”.  Was the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation supposed to make the war about slavery, even if not for ideological reasons on Lincoln’s own part than to boost morale and support in the North?  Or was it in the hope that the slaves of the South would all run off, knacker the Southern economy even more than it was knackered already and destroy Southern morale?

This is the crux of the matter … but, just as things were getting really interesting, the programme dropped the subject and started talking about Sherman’s march through Georgia.  It didn’t play Marching Through Georgia – you know, the one that gets used as a football song in England – for some reason, although it did play the Battle Hymn of the Republic, with Lucy dressed up as a Union soldier.  And it didn’t mention the infamous quote about presenting the city of Savannah to Abraham Lincoln as a Christmas present.  Was the march a great act of heroism or was it a war crime?  Well, read Gone With The Wind.  It may be biased, but it doesn’t say anything about Sherman’s march that wasn’t true.  But this all seemed to have got a bit waffly.

However, it got back to the point, with the events at Ebenezer Creek in December 1864, shortly before Savannah fell.  Many fleeing slaves were following the Union Army.  The Army looked on them as more of a nuisance than anything else.  Having crossed the creek, the Union XIV Corps destroyed the pontoon bridges which it had built.  The refugees tried to swim across.  Many of them drowned.  So much for “let us die to make men free”.

Back to Lincoln.  Why did the Gettysburg Address not get a mention in this?  That’s fascinating, because it talks about all men being created equal, but it means the question of whether or not the United States can survive, not whether or not black and white people are created equal.  It never got a mention.   However, we did hear a lot about Lincoln’s assassination.  Dying a violent death can often make someone into a saint and a martyr, whatever they’ve done during their lifetime – look at Tsar Nicholas II of Russia.  We were shown postcards showing pictures of Lincoln as a semi-divine figure – and Lucy commented on how the fact that he was assassinated on Good Friday seemed to add to that.  The great Frederick Douglass stated at the time that Lincoln wasn’t the great anti-slavery hero that he was made out to be, but the myth grew.

And, because he was dead, no-one could blame Lincoln for how badly wrong things went once the war was over.  The programme discussed sharecropping, and convict leasing.  Yes, it was appalling.  Yes, it makes a mockery of the idea that the war had anything to do with what we’d now call civil rights.  But it’s not a “fib”.  Everyone knows about it.

So that was the Union.  Well, it was Lincoln.  On to the Confederacy.  Various issues.  The romantic idea of the Lost Cause.  The distortion of Confederate history to try to justify horrifying violent racism.  And the argument that the war was about states’ rights.

Lucy said that it wasn’t about states’ rights – that it was about slavery.  I actually think that it was about states’ rights.  There’d been issues over tariffs going back to Calhoun and Nullification and all that.  But states’ rights were inevitably bound up with slavery, because the disputes between the states were inevitably about economics, and disputes about economics were inevitably about slavery.  So you can’t separate the two things.  However, what is indisputable is that Lincoln’s election brought matters to a head, and led to secession, because he was seen as being anti-slavery.  There’s not really much arguing with that.

But what the programme didn’t say was that the states’ rights argument goes hand-in-hand with the idea that the war was about Northern aggression.  More about that later.

Fast forward to 1915, and The Birth of a Nation.  It was controversial even at the time – and yet it got huge viewing figures.  Although it’s a Civil War film, its significance is in relation to the Ku Klux Klan – which, as Lucy said, had long since died out at this point, but now made a comeback, complete with white robes and burning crosses … which had nothing to do with the Reconstruction-era Klan.  Reconstruction era, OK.  The Klan did not exist during the Civil War itself.  It was more akin to the Spanish Inquisition than anything else, which was quite ironic as the new-look Klan targeted not only African Americans but anyone else who wasn’t a “WASP” – white Jews and Catholics.  That was more Know-Nothing than Civil War – and the Know Nothings were in the North!

So what’s the issue here?  Well, it’s the distortion of the Southern myth, by people in the South.  The myth was supposed to be that the war was about states’ rights.  Suddenly, the myth became that it was about the persecution of white Southerners.  Incredibly dangerous – and the activities of the Ku Klux Klan in the inter-war years, and on into the 1960s, were beyond sickening.  And it’s misusing Southern history.  The Klan didn’t even exist during the war.

And then from violence to romance – with Lucy Worsley trying to dress up as Scarlett O’Hara, and talking about the idea of the Lost Cause.

About Gone With The Wind.  It romanticises slavery.  Ashley Wilkes does say that he’d have freed all his family’s slaves when his father died, but Ashley is supposed to be out of step with everyone else.  It also presents some horrible stereotypes of African American characters such as Big Sam and Prissy.  And it romanticises plantation life in the antebellum South, although a) the book doesn’t do that as much as the film does and b) someone needs to tell Lucy that Scarlett was not the mistress of Tara (well, except very briefly).  What it does not do is romanticise the Glorious Cause, later the Lost Cause.  Throughout the book, Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler are very cynical about “the Cause”, and contemptuous of those who do romanticise it.

Going back to what it does do – yes, it shows how “the Cause” was romanticised, especially by women.  Margaret Mitchell said that she grew up hearing these stories.  She wasn’t born until 1900.  The United Daughters of the Confederacy had been founded only six years earlier, and the Sons of Confederate Veterans almost four years later, almost thirty years after the end of the war.   In this programme, we were told how, in the 1930s, the United Daughters of the Confederacy had people checking the textbooks used in the South, trying to ensure that they didn’t say anything negative about the Confederacy!   Seventy years after the war, two completely different versions of events, The Lost Cause and the Anti-Slavery Crusade, both completely one-sided, neither accurate, were being peddled.  That’s not unusual, after a war, but when it’s in what’s supposed to be one country … how do you move on?

And the descendants of the freed slaves weren’t really getting a look-in in putting forward either version, never mind getting equal rights.  Martin Luther King, as the programme pointed out, made a very powerful comment about the end of the war having offered black Americans a promissory note, which had never been redeemed.

There still isn’t really a … a take on the Civil War, for lack of a better way of putting it, from the viewpoint of slaves.  People argue about the extent to which the war was about slavery, but the views of those who were enslaved, and the impact on those who were enslaved, never really comes into those arguments.

Back to Gone With The Wind.  Yes, it’s a Civil War novel, but a lot of it is about life in wartime generally. One of the most powerful scenes in is when the casualty lists reach Atlanta, after the Battle of Gettysburg.  Scarlett, reading through the lists, finds name after name of young men she’d grown up with, known all her life.  She becomes so distressed that she can’t read on any further.  Rhett, normally so cynical, is upset and angry at the waste of life.  Mrs Meade learns that her son Darcy has been killed: Melanie tries to comfort her, but there’s little she can say.  The Misses McLure learn that their brother Dallas, their own relative in the world apart from each other, is dead.  Dallas’s sweetheart, Fanny Elsing, collapses in her mother’s arms.  That’s not about slavery, or secession, or any of it: that’s just about war and its devastating consquences.

Also, I’ve just said that it’s a Civil War novel, and that’s how everyone thinks of it, but much of it is actually set during Reconstruction.  Reconstruction was an absolute screw-up, and that’s partly why the “Lost Cause” got so romanticised.  It’s a big part of the myth of Lincoln as well.  If you’re succeeded by an idiot, history will remember you as one of the greats, because you look so good by comparison.  Barack Obama’s place in history is already secured!   It’s hard not to think that everything would have been different had Lincoln been in charge of Reconstruction, because he could hardly have done a worse job than Andrew Johnson’s useless government did.

And, after the war, Suellen O’Hara, one of Scarlett’s sisters, marries a Confederate veteran called Will Benteen.  Will typifies the South far more than the likes of Ashley Wilkes and the other men in the book do.  He comes from a relatively poor family.  It’s unlikely that he ever owned slaves: he wouldn’t have been able to afford to.  He had no political influence before the war: the decision about secession had nothing to do with him.  But he fought for his home state.  And, in doing so, he lost his health (he lost a leg) and his home.

None of this got a mention, and I thought that that was a bit unfair.  I don’t particularly mean in terms of characters in a novel, obviously!  I mean in general.

Lucy said that Gone With The Wind reunified the country!  I suppose it did, in a way.  It was so popular.  That’s a bit mad, really.  I mean, Melanie Wilkes, the sweet, mild-mannered Melanie, who couldn’t believe any ill of anyone, said that she’d teach her children and her grandchildren to hate the Yankees.  Should Northerners have hated  Gone With The Wind?  No.  It’s too good.  And its themes are universal, as typified by that scene with the Gettysburg casualty lists.  That’s the real tragedy of all this.  This war killed 600,000 Americans, and destroyed the lives of many others.   There’s nothing glorious about any war.  Yet this one’s been made to seem glorious in different ways, by different people, for different reasons.

And then on to the present day.  Charlottesville. We all know what happened at Charlottesville in 2017.  This is painful to write about, because it’s so horrible.  2017.  The twenty-first century.  I’m not a great fan of pulling statues down.  For one thing, it provides a flashpoint for trouble.  One man Lucy interviewed said that it’d make more sense to put up educational literature and use Confederate statues as a discussion point. However, what’s happening is that Confederate imagery – flags, statues – has become a modern-day battleground, between people who view it as a symbol of racism and people who use it as a symbol of racism, waving Confederate battle flags alongside Nazi flags, talking about Southern culture in the same breath as they shout anti-Jewish and anti-Islamic slogans.  It’s horrible: there aren’t words strong enough to say how horrible it is.

This is how history gets misused.  A primary school word like “fib” doesn’t exactly cover it.  And it makes it very hard to talk about the Civil War, because it’s got all tangled up with the “alt-right”, with anti-Islamism, with anti-Semitism, with misogyny, with homophobia, with transphobia … none of which have got anything to do with the Civil War.   It’s a long way from Will Benteen.  It’s a long way from Abraham Lincoln.

I once read a book which said that Britain still hadn’t got past all the issues of the Civil War of the 1640s.  America certainly hasn’t got past all the issues of the Civil War of the 1860s.  And the distortion of history is getting worse.  This was a very disturbing programme.  Did Gone With The Wind unify America, as Lucy suggested?  I only wish someone could come up with any sort of book or any sort of film that could bring about unity today!  Oh dear.  I started studying the American Civil War in the 1980s.  It really wasn’t like this, then.  Someone pour me a mint julep with extra whisky.  I think I need one!

 

American History’s Biggest Fibs with Lucy Worsley – BBC 4

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This certainly didn’t pull any punches. It was actually quite malicious; and I’d love to know what an American audience would make of it.  Remember the days when Auntie Beeb was actually neutral?!  Anyway.  I’ve been studying American history since 1986.  It’s one of the things I go back to if I’m having a bad spell with anxiety, because it reminds that me that I’m still me.  My specialist period’s the Civil War, and I’m rather looking forward to seeing Dr Lucy debunking some of the myths about that; but I do tend to get a bit soppy and romantic over the Revolution.  I’ve got my own little model of the Liberty Bell.  And I’ve even got a copy of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution (which I last night located behind my copy of the National Trust Book of Scones, for some reason).  But I do know very well that most of it is more romance than fact, and there was nothing factual in this programme that I found surprising or that I’d even really argue with.  It was still quite “interesting” to see the BBC absolutely lay into the United States like this, though.  I don’t think they’d have shown a programme like this before The Donald (he who thinks that it was the Canadians who burnt down the White House in 1812) got himself elected president.

Is it really weird for a British historian to get soppy over the American Revolution? Or is it a Mancunian rebel thing 😉 ?  I got genuinely emotional at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, and even more so at the National Archives in Washington, seeing original copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.  (Maybe a bit less so at Boston Harbour, because the thought of all that tea being wasted was rather upsetting.  I’m very fond of tea.)   It’s all that “land of the free” stuff.  It really does get to you … even when you’re a Civil War specialist and can talk about the history of slavery in the US until the cows come home.

So, we started off with the basic point that the Declaration of Independence was actually made on July 2nd, 1776.  I remind people about that every Fourth of July – and probably really annoy them, sorry! Then we jumped back to 1773.  Lucy Worsley did surprisingly little dressing up in this: Michael Portillo dressed up when he covered the Boston Tea Party, but Lucy didn’t.  I did wonder if maybe she was trying to get herself taken more seriously, but there was some dressing up later on.  Incidentally, if someone is trying to get themselves taken more seriously, maybe they should avoid using the word “fibs” in the title of their programme.  It sounds like something you say to a naughty five-year-old who’s insisting that they weren’t the one who left toys out all over the floor.

It was pointed out that Washington, Franklin et al weren’t very amused by the Boston Tea Party – not so much because it was a waste of good tea as because it involved the destruction of private property. As we all know, the British and American well-to-do classes in Georgian times were obsessed with private property.  And it meant that those who’d been arguing against no taxation without representation were made to look like criminals.  Big black mark.  A bit of a dig was also made about the modern use of the name “Tea Party” by people who are … shall we say, not exactly associated with liberty and equality.  I nearly added “and fraternity” there – oops, wrong revolution.

Next up for debunking was Paul Revere’s ride. No, Paul Revere did not make a daring solo ride to warn the people of Lexington and Concord that the British were coming.  There were two other blokes involved, and Revere himself was captured at Lexington and never even got to Concord.  Paul Revere’s always annoyed me, for some reason.  I don’t know why, given that I do get soppy over the Revolution.  Lucy, quite rightly, put the blame for the Paul Revere myth on Longfellow.  That’s twice in a week that I’ve had a go at Longfellow (who also wrote Evangeline).   I much prefer Longfella.  Sorry – couldn’t resist that.

And then there was the idea of the American army as being made up of gallant farmers. Er, yep, I think we’re all a bit past that, and know very well that it was, or at least became, a professional army, but the myth persists.  I actually blame Oliver Cromwell for this.  He’s the main reason (Louis XIV is the runner-up, but a long way behind) that people in Britain got so paranoid about the idea of professional armies, and that idea crossed the Atlantic.  It took the Duke of Wellington to change people’s minds here, but he, obviously, didn’t have any influence in the US, and so the idea of the army of gallant farmers remained a romantic ideal.  It just isn’t actually true.   And, of course, the Second Amendment had to get a mention there.  Whilst I think practically everyone in the UK wishes that America would tighten up its gun controls, the BBC is supposed to be politically neutral.  Between that, the digs about immigration and the digs about fake news … well, as I said, I don’t think they’d have shown a programme like this before Mr Trump took up residence in the White House.

Ah yes, presidents. The great George Washington … slaveowner.  I’ve recently read Monticello, by Sally Cabot Gunning, and a lot of that revolves around the paradox of Thomas Jefferson owning slaves.  I didn’t get soppy at Monticello, nor at Mount Vernon.  It’s worth noting that Revolutionary France did abolish slavery (although Napoleon restored it a few years later).  As we all know, the new United States did not, and many of the Founding Fathers, including Washington and Jefferson, were slaveowners.  You can’t call that a myth, or indeed a fib, because no-one pretends otherwise, but … well, you can tie yourself in knots trying to reconcile the idea of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness with another nine decades of slavery.  Not to mention with the lack of rights for women.  The treatment of Native Americans.  Discrimination against non-Protestants. I love the United States and am not criticising her any more than I’d criticise any other country, but … it just doesn’t sit very well with the idea of the “land of the free”.

And poor old George III. Dear old Farmer George, with his fifteen kids and his health problems, cast as some sort of tyrant.  This really does annoy me.  Have a go at Parliament, by all means.  Either in the 1770s or today!   But it’s extremely unfair that the myths of the American Revolution cast George III as a tyrant.  In fact, it’s not even fair to class Parliament as tyrannical.  Look at what was going on in most Continental countries at the time!   But the specific point being made was that the colonists originally saw George III as an ally against Parliament, and that that changed – with Thomas Paine, who didn’t even move to the colonies until 1774, being the one who called for independence.  John Adams apparently said that American independence wouldn’t have happened without Paine.  In the wonderful North and South trilogy by John Jakes, Cooper Main idolises Paine … and I think that was where I first came across Paine.  But no-one talks about him very much in connection with the American Revolution, more about the Rights of Man.  And poor old George III got labelled as a tyrant.  He was nothing of the sort!

This was tied in with the myth of Who Started It. Well, you get that with all wars.  It’s always the other side’s fault.  But, with a civil war, which the American War of Independence was, there’s always a build-up beforehand.  The British blamed the colonials.  The colonials blamed the British.  And I’m not happy with the terminology there, because most of the colonials would have regarded themselves as British.  Interestingly, that was one road Lucy never went down … that of the American Tories, who remained loyal to the British Crown.  I suppose you can only fit so much into an hour, but I would have thought that that was quite a big issue.  American history tends conveniently to forget how many Americans actually fought for the British!  The role of Native Americans wasn’t really covered, either.  I suppose that doesn’t class as a “fib”, because American history doesn’t pretend that most Native Americans didn’t support the British (apologies for appalling sentence construction there!).  It just rather ignores the subject.

The Spanish got ignored, as well. It’s Aussie Open fortnight, OK: my brain’s running along rather Spanish lines ATM!  And, whilst I’m having a moan, I’d have liked a mention of the fact that the great Bostonian supporters of liberty were hitting the roof over Catholics in Quebec being allowed civil rights.  But the programme pretty much made out that the French were responsible for the Americans winning the War of Independence.  I think that’s a bit of an exaggeration.  It’s a reasonable point … but it’s an exaggeration.  But, yes, it was definitely all part of the … well, the so-called “Second Hundred Years’ War” that began with England fighting Louis XIV and ended with the United Kingdom defeating Napoleon.  It most certainly wasn’t just about the Thirteen Colonies.

They couldn’t even let the actual Declaration of Independence alone. I really do think some Americans would get very upset by this programme!   As a kid, I remember getting terribly confused by the fact that the battles of Lexington and Concord took place in 1775.  It didn’t make sense.  The whole thing didn’t kick off until 1776, so how could there have been battles in 1775? Why was the “shot that was heard around the world” fired a year before independence was declared?  Well, ahem, the fighting actually kicked off well before the Declaration of Independence – so presenting the said Declaration of Independence as something peaceful and heroic and idealistic is seriously misleading.  Well … OK, but I do wish the programme hadn’t clearly taken so much delight in knocking all those ideals.  There really was something quite nasty and vindictive about it … and, only an hour earlier, I’d been watching another BBC programme which had been pretty nasty and vindictive about the idea of grammar schools.  The BBC is supposed to try to present a balanced view of things, but it doesn’t do that with anything any more.

After that, it felt as if they were just looking for stories to tear apart. The idea of Molly Pitcher at the Battle of Monmouth is probably rubbish.  Well, like a lot of stories, it’s probably an amalgamation of various different stories about various different people.  That’s hardly uncommon, in history.  And the idea of the Liberty Bell ringing to proclaim the Declaration of Independence is untrue as well, we were told, not least because the steeple of the Pennsylvania State House was under repair at the time.  I don’t know.  OK, there wasn’t any big proclamation on the actual day of the declaration, but there are certainly accounts of bells being rung a few days later.  And no-one’s entirely sure what sort of condition the steeple was in at the time: there’s a lot of confusion about that. The Liberty Bell idea partly belongs to the 1830s, when it got tied in with the Abolitionist movement, but it was certainly a “thing” during the War of Independence, when it was hidden to prevent it from being melted down for use as munitions, and that does suggest that it was associated with July 1776.  I think Lucy was a bit too dismissive there.

After the Liberty Bell, we moved on to the Statue of Liberty. Hang on.  What’s the Statue of Liberty got to do with the American Revolution?!    It wasn’t built (do you “build” statues?) until a century later, and it wasn’t dedicated until 1886!  This was basically a dig at Donald Trump.  I’ve got a little model of the Statue of Liberty as well, incidentally, and I had as copy of part of Emma Lazarus’s poem stuck up next to it at one time!   We were told that everyone was getting rather cynical about the idea of liberty by the 1880s, and that the Emma Lazarus poem changed the meaning of the Statue of Liberty into being a symbol of the USA opening its arms to immigrants.  Oh come on, BBC!   I won’t repeat what I think of Donald Trump’s ridiculous idea about building a wall on the US-Mexican border, but what on earth has that got to do with the Revolution?  This was supposed to be a history programme!

It finished up with the Alexander Hamilton musical. That at least was relevant to the Revolution, but most of what was said seemed more of a comment on the current state of race relations in the US than on “fibs” about the Revolution.   It was all getting a bit silly by this point.

There was some interesting stuff in this, and it’s been a while since we’ve had any sort of new programme about American history, but I’m getting rather sick of the BBC shoehorning political opinions into everything. EastEnders. Holby City.  When I want to watch someone putting forward their views on the current political situation, I’ll watch a political programme.  This was supposed to be a history programme!  But, as I said, I get soppy over the Revolution.  If next week’s programme debunks the ridiculous idea that the Civil War (and it wasn’t a Civil War, but unfortunately you can’t say “War Between The States”, the more accurate term, without someone thinking you’re a racist) was about ending slavery rather than about preserving the Union, and if the following week’s episode debunks the myth that “the Russians” (why can’t people say “Soviets” instead of “Russians?!) were the big bad guys of the Cold War, then I’ll stop moaning and start praising!

 

Great Alaskan Railroad Journeys – BBC 2

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Russian Orthodox churches, stunning scenery, and cute furry sea otters.  All in one thirty-minute episode.  Hooray!  Sadly, as Michael Portillo, resplendent in a burnt orange jacket and royal blue trousers, and his guides made clear, the history of Alaska is nothing like as beautiful as the views – an all-too-familiar story of native peoples and native wildlife populations decimated by the effects of outside involvement.  Lots of history in this first episode, along with lots of gorgeous scenery – in what is by far the biggest of the United States, seven times the size of the United Kingdom, but with a population of under 750,000.

First up, Ninilchik, with its glorious Russian Orthodox church.  I like Russian Orthodox churches 🙂 .  Founded by Russian settlers in the 1840s, it’s now an officially-designated Alaska Native village, and most of the people there, including the gentleman who showed Michael round, are of mixed Alaska Native and Russian heritage.  The man explained that many of the Russian men who came to Alaska – the first settlers arriving in the 1780s – married Alaska Native women, and a joint culture developed.

Sadly, whilst this talk of intermarriage and a mixed culture sounded all very nice, it was explained that the Russian period was actually disastrous for the indigenous population.  As happened when Spanish conquistadors and settlers arrived in Central and South America, and in so many other cases, the native peoples, with no immunity to European diseases, was devastated by disease.  They were also treated appallingly by the Russians – first forced labour, then actual enslavement, especially in the Aleutian Islands where disease, conflict and slavery killed up to 85% of the population.

From there, we got a bit of light relief, as he visited another area with Russian heritage, where there was a Russian tearoom.  There used to be a Russian tearoom in Bacup.  Then it moved to Skipton.  Then it closed down, and I was very put out.  Anyway, this one’s still going – and we got the obligatory dressing up bit which Michael seems to like to include in most episodes.  More interesting than the dressing up were the samovars.  I love samovars.  And even more interesting than the samovars was the fact that the owner of the tearoom was an Old Believer.  Sadly, the programme failed to mention, presumably largely because it would have been totally irrelevant, the fact that some Old Believers back in Russia became involved with the textile industry and therefore established links with Lancashire; but I’m mentioning it because I like telling people that.  Yes, I do know that I’m about the only person on the planet who finds that interesting, but Old Believers in general are very interesting.

Moving swiftly on, before I start going on about the Schism of 1653, the current goings-on over the new Ukrainian Orthodox Church, or anything else.  On to Seward, where, whilst sailing round Resurrection Bay amid the most spectacular views of snow-covered mountains, Michael and his guide discussed the Alaska Purchase – made by the United States from the Russian Empire for $7.2 million, in 1867.

Russian explorers first made landfall in Alaska in 1741, with the first Russian settlement there being established in 1784, and the Russian-American Company getting stuck into the incredibly lucrative fur trade.  I always think of the most valuable furs as having come from Canadian beavers, and was interested to hear that those from Alaskan sea otters were considered better.  Obviously wearing fur is not acceptable now, but it was such a huge trade at the time … but things didn’t go as well as the Russians had hoped.  Conflict with the native peoples, who bravely resisted Russian settlement, competition from British-Canadian and American companies, and, above all, the stupid, thoughtless, over-hunting of fur-bearing animals, with no thought for what was going to happen in the future.

So.  1867.  Two years after the end of the American Civil War.  Eleven years after Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War, six years after the sort-of-emancipation of the serfs, four years after the outbreak of the Polish-Lithuanian rebellion.  And a year after the attempted assassination that, along with the rebellion, probably frightened Alexander II off continuing along a liberal, reformist path – and he, the Tsar-Liberator did so much, with the military, the judiciary, and the administration.  Not to mention the fact that the Russian government was skint after the Crimean War, and needed money to pay off landowners (after emancipation) and build railways.  And in the middle of the Great Game, with Russia stressing that Britain might try to take Alaska … which I think was very unlikely to happen, because Britain was far more worried about Russia trying to barge into India, and had already made it clear that we didn’t want Alaska.  Anyway.  Russia decided to sell.

And America decided to buy.  William Seward, who negotiated the Alaska Purchase with the Russians, was an interesting character.  I think of him primarily in terms of his role in Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet, but he was involved in anti-slavery activities long before the Civil War, and, whilst some early Republicans had Know-Nothing backgrounds, he’d always spoken out in support of immigrants and backed the rights of non-Protestants.

As was pointed out, Seward said that the Alaska Purchase was his greatest achievement.  It certainly turned out to be a brilliant deal for the Americans.  Seal fisheries, to start with.  Poor seals  😦 .  And then all that gold.  Not to mention all the other minerals there.  And, of course, the oil fields.  The Russians found some gold in the 1840s, but, bizarrely, didn’t do anything about it.  Barely three years after the American takeover, gold mining began in earnest, and, come the 1890s, it all just went wild.

That was years later, though.  At the time, it seems to have been far more about the infamous concept of Manifest Destiny.  And the Americans seem to have been as concerned as the Russians about keeping the British out.  Those were the days, when Britain had a strong government and a strong opposition!  Canada – and the Alaska Purchase took place in the same year as Canadian Confederation – was already part of the British Empire, so I’m not sure why the Americans thought it would make that much difference if Britain were to take Alaska.  Well, the idea seems to have been to weaken British Columbia by sandwiching it between two parts of American territory, but I’m not sure what they thought was actually going to happen … but anyway.  Anglo-American relations were pretty bad at that time, Britain having the needle about US agents having illegally captured two Confederate diplomats from a British ship in 1861 (I remember once writing about that in my rough book whilst not paying attention during a maths lesson when I was about 15.  I was a very weird teenager!) and the US having the needle about Confederate warships having been built in Birkenhead.

The deal wasn’t entirely popular in America at the time, with some people feeling that the money would have been better spent on Reconstruction.  Having seen, on my travels through some of the southern states, how places like Natchez and Memphis have never really recovered from the Civil War, there’s certainly a very strong argument in favour of that … but, from a wider economic viewpoint, Seward made the right choice.

Well, he did from an American viewpoint.  Oh, and Michael didn’t go into nearly all this much detail, in last night’s thirty minute episode, but I’m just indulging myself because I love writing about both Imperial Russia and 1860s America 🙂 .   From a Russian viewpoint, with the benefit of hindsight, it was a pretty bad move.  As Michael remarked, imagine how different the Cold War might have been if Alaska had been part of the Soviet Union.  For that matter, imagine the effect on today’s geopolitical situation of Alaska being part of Putin’s Russian Federation rather than Trump’s United States.

All of which rather ignores the fact that the land wasn’t Russia’s to sell – and Michael, who was being shown around Seward and its environs by an Alaska Native gentleman, did make that quite clear.  There were only a few hundred Russians there at the time, and yet Russia sold, and America bought, land on which around 50,000 indigenous people were living, and neither side seems to have given two hoots about the rights or views of those indigenous people.

This was only the first episode, and I would like to think that future episodes will explain that the American treatment of the Alaska Natives was also pretty shocking.  The territory (for lack of a better expression – it wasn’t even an official “territory” until 1912, and only became a state in 1959) was initially put under military control, and, as was done elsewhere in America, attempts were made to convert the native peoples to Christianity and to Americanise their way of life, and Alaska Natives were not granted US citizenship until 1921.  I’m not having a go at either the United States or Russia, any more than at Britain or many other countries, but these issues need to be raised, and raising them in popular TV programmes is far more helpful than pulling down statues or

And the over-hunting also continued under American control.  It was also interesting to hear that concerns were raised in Michael’s guidebook published in 1899, about rising temperatures and the retreat of the glaciers.  I grew up in the 1980s, when we kept hearing all about acid rain and the hole in the ozone layer, and we tended to think of concern about climate change as being a fairly new thing.  Evidently not.

One thing that wasn’t mentioned (I wonder if it might come up in a later episode?), which was incredibly controversial, was that, after Kristallnacht, there was a proposal by the US Department of the Interior to settle refugees from Nazi Germany in Alaska – which, as Alaska wasn’t a state at that time, could have been done without causing issues with the very unpleasant US immigration quota system.   The idea, which was intended more to boost the American presence in Alaska than to help refugees, didn’t go down very well and nothing ever came of it, but I just thought that that, and the German settlements set up along the Volga at the same time as Russia was first getting involved in Alaska, were worth a thought … at a time when there are so many people living in refugee camps around the world.  /irrelevant point that just occurred to me.

Anyway – from 19th century history to the aforementioned cute furry sea otters.  Michael visited a wildlife centre, where he got to feed an extremely cute rescued sea otter pup.  It’s good to know that sea otter numbers are now making a comeback.  It’s causing some issues with fishermen (that should probably be “fisherpeople”, but even so.

From Seward, he (Michael, not the sea otter) took a wonderfully scenic railway journey towards the Spencer Glacier.  I would so love to do that!   The Alaska Railroad was built in the early 20th century, and Michael was told that, rather than being to transport gold, it was more a case of needing a way of transporting coal.   Gorgeous views.  And, hey, this is technically supposed to be a programme about railway journeys, not a historical documentary series!   Fascinating though the history of late 18th and 19th century Alaska is, it was all fairly gloomy, and it was good that the programme ended on a more cheerful note, with these spectacular views.

I have to admit that I wasn’t sure how a journey through Alaska was going to fill a whole week’s worth of episodes.  That’s quite a bit of screen time.  But, on the basis of last night’s episode, Alaska’s got more than enough to fill all that time and more.  And keep up the good work with including lots of history in there :-).  History and scenery together – excellent combination!