Paris Police 1900 – BBC 4

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Four episodes in, I still can’t quite decide what to make of this – but I think that we are now getting somewhere.  Bearing in mind that I’m a historian, not a crime series person, I was expecting a historical drama showing the effects of the Dreyfus Affair on Parisian society – the nasty side of the Belle Epoque.   It does do that, to some extent, but we’ve also had the police trying to contact the deceased president in a seance to ask whether or not the Dreyfusards murdered him by tampering with his Viagra equivalent, an extremist drugging the police commissioner’s wife in an attempt to take photos of his friend abusing her (fortunately, he was foiled when the dead president’s mistress recovered from a heroin-induced coma and stopped him), policemen being stabbed to death through doors, someone being murdered when his chimney was blocked up so that he was asphyxiated, a man trying to have his wife imprisoned for adultery but changing his mind when he realised that the story’d get into the papers, and an awful lot of dismembered bodies.

However, in the fourth episode, we have finally got more into the nitty-gritty of the Dreyfus Affair and everything surrounding it, and away from some of the crazier stuff.  Although we tend to associate the Belle Epoque with people doing the can-can in the Moulin Rouge, this was a troubled time in French history, with politics deeply polarised, feelings still running high about the defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, and, of course, the Dreyfus Affair and the associated riots in France and Algeria – which caused such strong feelings internationally that there were anti-French demonstrations in many countries, the entire British press united to condemn the French authorities, the Lord Chief Justice of England criticised the French courts, and Edvard Grieg cancelled a proposed tour of France.  It casts such a long shadow that it’s being dragged up in the current French election race, and a museum dedicated to it was opened only a couple of weeks ago.

Alfred Dreyfus, a French Jewish officer, was controversially convicted of passing state secrets to Germany, and exiled to Devil’s Island.  It then emerged that the real culprit was someone else, there were demands  that Dreyfus be released, and, in early 1898, the writer Emile Zola famously published the “J’Accuse letter”, addressed to President Felix Faure, pointing out that the case against Zola was full of holes and accusing the authorities of anti-Semitism and violating justice.  Zola was then convicted of libel.  Anti-Semitic riots broke out across France and Algeria.  Dreyfus was retried, with journalists and photographers all over the world crowding into the court, but again found guilty.  There was such an uproar that he was pardoned, but he wasn’t officially cleared until several years later.

In the middle of all this, President Faure died suddenly, apparently whilst enjoying the “company” of his mistress, Marguerite Steinheil.  And there was an attempted coup at his funeral.

Tangled up in all this was the Anti-Semitic League, which had begun life as a nationalistic league wanting revenge on Prussia but had then turned nasty.

In this series, Marguerite Steinheil is employed by the police to spy on the Guerins, the leaders of the Anti-Semitic League.  Running alongside this is a series of mysterious murders of women, thought to have been carried out by a butcher – hence all the dismembered bodies.

The sets are brilliant – the turn of the century Parisian streets in working-class areas, the gorgeous costumes of well-to-do women, and the Guerins’ frighteningly impressive rabble-rousing.  And there’s an awful lot going on, and a lot of interesting characters.  But some of it really is very strange!   However, what is never is is boring!    Let’s see what the next four episodes bring …

Write Around The World – BBC 4

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This second episode in Richard E Grant’s exploration of three areas of Europe and the books associated with them (lucky Richard E Grant – I always spend ages reading books about anywhere to which I’m travelling, but it’s now 20 months since I’ve been outside Britain) saw Richard travelling around the South of France.   The first book on his list was one of Robert Louis Stevenson’s less well-known books, “Travels with a donkey in the Cevennes”, about his own journeys.  Stevenson’s donkey had been called Modestine.  Hey, that rang a bell!  Yes, I’d definitely heard of that book.  Gosh, was I cultured and well-educated or what?  Then it dawned on me that the only reason I’d heard of it was that, in “Exploits of the Chalet Girls”, the Chalet School borrows a donkey to star in its Nativity Play, and Head Girl Jo Bettany nicknames it “Modestine” after the one in Stevenson’s book.  I hadn’t the first clue what the actual book was about, other than what it said in the title.  So much for being cultured and well-educated.  Oh well.

This sort of thing has happened a few times recently.  Another example was when an book from the 1860s, “Mopsa the Fairy”, was mentioned, and I thought I’d heard of it … until I realised that I only knew the name because it was given to one of Amy Ashe’s dolls in “What Katy Did Next”.  I always thought that Amy had just made it up.  Another of Amy’s dolls was called Effie Deans, and, whilst I do now know that Effie is a central character in Walter Scott’s “Heart of Midlothian”, I certainly didn’t when I first read the “Katy” books, and, TBH, I think I was into my teens before I realised that “Heart of Midlothian” was a book as well as a football team.  Oh, and yet another of Amy’s dolls was called Peg of Linkinvaddy, and I still don’t know where that name came from.  I’ve just tried doing a Google search on it, but, for some very strange reason, I got a load of answers about, er, male medical issues.

Then there was Ellen Tree, the name given by the March girls in “Little Women” to a fallen branch which they use as a pretend horse.  Ellen Tree was the name of a 19th century British actress.  Did you know that?  No, nor did I until recently.  I’m making myself sound ridiculously ignorant, aren’t I?  I may not have read the donkey book, but I read both “Kidnapped” and “Treasure Island” as a kid, and I can still recite most of “From A Railway Carriage” after being forced to learn it off by heart by an old-fashioned primary school teacher who thought that making kids learn poetry off by heart was still appropriate in the 1980s.

Anyway, we learnt a bit about the Cevennes, and how the Presbyterian-raised Stevenson got stressed out about having to kip in a Catholic monastery because there was nowhere else to stay.   Then we moved on to Marseille, and the prison which inspired Dumas to write “The Count of Monte Cristo”.  I know all about Dumas.  “One for all and all for one, Muskehounds are always ready” … er, OK, I did actually know the story of the Count of Monte Cristo!   Blue sky, blue sea.  Lucky Richard.

Next up, “Tender is the Night” by F Scott Fitzgerald.  Er, I’m afraid that I didn’t know this one.  I did once get a good mark for an essay about F Scott Fitzgerald, although I’m not sure why because I got completely off the point and started waffling about the American Civil War in the middle of it. I don’t really get Fitzgerald. I didn’t get that Leonardo di Caprio film adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” either.  Anyway, this gave Richard an excuse to swan about at very posh hotels on the French Riviera, so it made for rather good viewing.

And then on to Carol Drinkwater, who used to be in “All Creatures Great and Small”, and her books about growing olives in Provence, where she now lives with her French husband.  This was lovely.  I don’t actually like olives, but I love olive groves.  Not quite as much as I love lemon groves and orange groves, but even so.  Gosh, I do miss Southern Europe.  I would give a great deal to be in a Tuscan olive grove just now.  Please, please, let’s get these travel restrictions lifted soon.

And finally, Grasse, the perfume capital of the world.  Ah, lovely!  I love Grasse.  The book concerned was “Perfume”, by Patrick Suskind.  I didn’t know this one, but it sounded very sunny and romantic.  Er, no.  Apparently it was about a man who went around murdering young girls.  Why would you write about so nice a place as Grasse and make it so horrible a story?!   Oh well, we still got to see the parfumeries.

It was a very aesthetically-pleasing programme, and I love the idea of combining books and travel – it’s something I like to do myself.  I just feel sad that I’ve lost two years’ travel opportunities because of this horrible virus.  We only get the legal minimum number of days off work, so it’s not as if I’ll be able to make up for that at such time as, hopefully, overseas travel gets back to some sort of normality.  But it was nice to watch!

Meet the Romans with Mary Beard – BBC 4

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According to Mary Beard, who’s always so infectiously enthusiastic about Ancient Rome, the reason that the city, the centre and capital of a great Empire, flourished in the first century AD was that people bonded during visits to the Colosseum and the public toilets.  I’m not quite getting the toilet thing, but I can’t wait until I can bond with 78,000 other people at Old Trafford again.  And watching enslaved prisoners of war being paraded through the city in chains was a great time to try to pick up a new girlfriend or boyfriend.  Also, it was a brilliant time to be a baker.  This was far more interesting than Caesar’s Gallic Wars, which I was forced to read when I was in the Sixth Form … although, being minus Caecilius & co, it wasn’t as good as the Cambridge Latin Course 😉 .

This was originally shown in 2012, but I can’t remember whether or not I watched it the first time round.  The general idea was that Rome was “the great blender”.  People came there from all over, either by force as captives from newly-conquered territories or by choice in the hope that the streets of the city were paved with gold.  Mary didn’t seem too bothered by the fact that they’d been slaves, and kept pointing out what great opportunities they had, and showing us a lot of tombstones of people who’d been brought from other parts of the Empire as slaves but had then been freed and done well for themselves.  As she said, they all seemed very keen on having their jobs mentioned on their tombstones – and Rome was one of very few places at that time where people actually had specialist jobs.

We also heard a lot about all the food brought in from different parts of the Empire … a bit like Britain in late Victorian and Edwardian times.  A lot of it came from other parts of Italy rather than from far and wide, though, especially olive oil and grain.  It’s a favourite point of hers, and an extremely good one – that Rome needed the Empire to keep going, so it was all kind of self-perpetuating.

Another favourite point of hers is ethnic diversity, but, as she kept saying, there were no “quarters” in Ancient Rome, where particular groups lived.  It was all about becoming Roman – and, preferably, eventually being able to say “Civis Romanus sum”.

And, once you were a Roman citizen, you could go to the Colosseum.  Yay!  Although, if you were female, you could only sit in a certain area.  And, if you were a bottom of the pecking order type citizen, you could only sit up in the gods, whilst the Roman equivalent of the prawn sandwich brigade got the seats with the best views.  But, as long as you were there, you could watch the gladiators, and bask in the feeling that you were a civilised Roman and they weren’t.  And so all the Romans bonded.  Alternatively, you could bond by gossiping in the public toilets.  Well, men could, anyway.  I’m not sure when gossiping in toilets became a female thing rather than a male thing, but never mind.

I can’t say that this was the greatest historical documentary I’ve ever seen, people’s job titles being engraved on their tombstones not actually being all that fascinating, but it wasn’t bad, and I’ll be watching the two other episodes in this series.  Mary Beard reminds me of one of those teachers who are so into their subject that they just can’t even conceive of the fact that someone else might not find it interesting: she just looks so fascinated by all of it!  And, this not being school, if someone’s watching a programme on Ancient Rome then the chances are that they do find it interesting.  So go Mary.  And what a great lockdown mate she’d be, because she’d tell you that having long grey hair was actually the way to go!

 

 

 

 

 

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

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When it stuck to telling the story, this was a fairly interesting run-through of the basics of the English Reformation, although it would have been nice if Lucy Worsley had remembered that she was supposed to be appealing to an adult audience and spent a bit less time putting on fake warts, dressing up and sniggering about constipation.  However, I’m not sure that any of the myths it claimed to be dispelling actually exist.  Anne Boleyn’s seen as nothing more than a tart?  No, she isn’t.  That’s Catherine Howard.  Everyone thinks that the Reformation was universally welcomed.  Seriously?  Was it just my school where we had to learn all about the Pilgrimage of Grace, even in the second year?   No-one realises that Catholics were persecuted during Elizabeth’s reign?  Yes, they do.  Loads of stately homes still have priest holes.

If anyone was creating myths, it was the BBC, yet again pushing its own political agenda into what was supposed to be a historical documentary.  Please tell me that we’re not going to get this all through “Back in Time for the Corner Shop”, which starts next week. Cromwell was trying to create a mythical national history?   No.  He was just a clever lawyer manipulating archaic texts in a way that worked for him and Henry.  Clever lawyers do things like that.  The Reformation was about England withdrawing from European affairs?  Well, that quite explains why Henry wasted a load of the money from the Dissolution of the Monasteries on invading France, and Elizabeth got involved in the Dutch war against the Spanish.  Perhaps the BBC thinks that the Mary Rose was on a booze cruise when it sank.  The Dissolution of the Monasteries is to blame for the concentration of power in London?  Tell that to the Percys and the Stanleys!

The parts of the programme which just stuck to the facts, instead of claiming to be trying to dispel non-existent myths and making out that British politics in 2020 revolve around the works of Geoffrey of Monmouth, were very good, though.  It was a shame that they didn’t just stick to that, because, considering it was only an hour, it was an impressively comprehensive run-through of over half a century of very eventful history.

It started with Lucy dressing up as Martin Luther and saying that he didn’t really nail the 95 theses to a church door because he was too busy writing about being constipated. I’m not sure what that had to do with Royal history. We then moved on to Henry VIII wanting to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn, which is probably the best-known episode in English history.  And, at this point, we did, to be fair, get some genuine myth-busting.  We had the term “Henrician Catholicism” hammered into us at A-level, but, yes, there is inevitably an idea that Henry was a Protestant.  Which he wasn’t.

And there are a lot of myths about Catherine and Anne – and it’s very interesting, because, given how negative the view of Catholicism in England was during the late 16th, 17th, 18th and even 19th centuries, you’d think Anne would be seen as the heroine and Catherine as the villain, but it’s the other way round. Catherine wasn’t as saintly as she’s made out to be, and Anne is unfairly vilified – it wasn’t her fault that Henry took a shine to her and scuppered her chances of marrying anyone else – but the programme didn’t go into that. Instead, it talked about how Anne was a very intelligent woman and a genuine Protestant. That was all true, and it’s not often mentioned, but the point Lucy seemed to be trying to make was that Anne’s just seen as a “sexpot”. Is she?

Then it moved on to Thomas Cromwell, and this really was nonsense. Yes, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th century chronicles did go on about the idea of the realm of England being an empire, and, yes, Cromwell did use that to make up an argument about how the Pope had no authority over English affairs, but he wasn’t trying to create some sort of national myth, just get round the problem of Henry not being able to get out of his marriage to Catherine whilst the Pope was being held captive by Catherine’s nephew.  Geoffrey of Monmouth also said that King Arthur was descended from Aeneas, of Virgil’s Aeneid fame, and I’m fairly sure that no-one thinks that that’s part of any sort of national myth.  If anyone created myths of English history, it was Shakespeare, not Cromwell.  And apparently Henry was pulling out of Europe.  When he wasn’t invading France, presumably.  Or maybe the BBC thinks France is on Mars or something.

We then got a load of utter bullshit about how this was all connected with Brexit.  Right, and presumably Spain staying out of the Second World War was because St James is supposed to have appeared in the middle of the Battle of Clavijo, and the Napoleonic Wars were all about the Song of Roland.  Give it a rest, BBC.  It’s getting very tiresome.  This was supposed to be a history programme.

When Lucy actually shut up about all this rubbish and talked about Cromwell also being a Protestant and the other reasons for the Reformation, what she had to say was interesting, but there just wasn’t enough of it. And the “political earthquake” wasn’t about relations with Europe, it was about the role of Parliament. A lot of kings and their advisors wouldn’t even have bothered with legalities and legislation, but Henry and Cromwell did: that was the political earthquake. Parliament even abolished purgatory! It was a very important moment on the road to democracy. Not a mention of that. It’d have been too positive.

On to the Dissolution of the Monasteries. This part of the programme was genuinely very good, explaining that the Dissolution was about destroying the power of the Church, not just about money-grabbing, and also talking about the problems caused by the loss of the monasteries, which had provided shelter and healthcare for people with nowhere else to go, and how Cromwell had introduced legislation aiming to protect vulnerable people now that the monasteries were gone.   I’m not sure that I get the argument that there’s a myth that the Dissolution was a good thing and was welcomed, though.  But I suppose you can argue that there was in Victorian times, when there were all sorts of strange ideas about what went on in … well, convents more than monasteries.

Anyway, this was all pretty good stuff, until out came a lot of waffle about the Dissolution concentrating power in the hands of the metropolitan elite.  Annoying as the BBC’s insistence on spoiling historical programmes by going on about current political issues is, it was quite refreshing to see them having a dig at the metropolitan elite, instead of having a dig at everyone else!   I’m not sure that the argument worked, though.  I suppose you can argue that the monasteries were important centres of learning, but their destruction didn’t affect the power of great Northern families such as the Percys and the Stanleys.  And saying that it concentrated power in the hands of elites made no sense at all – plenty of people who hadn’t previously been part of elites got a boost because they got the monastic land.  Anyone know how far the Earl of Grantham’s title dates back 😉 ?

I was getting rather exasperated by this point, but we then moved on all the to-ing and fro-ing during the reigns of Edward, Mary and Elizabeth, and thankfully the BBC managed to keep its political agenda pushing out of this.  Lady Jane Grey didn’t get mentioned at all, and Edward’s reign only got a few seconds.  On to “Bloody Mary”.  Now, we did the Reformation twice at school, first in the second year and then for A-level.  In the second year, we had some rather ancient text books in which the chapter on Mary’s reign was entitled “Turn or Burn” – which made it sound as if half the country met a nasty end in the bonfires of Smithfield.  Which was rather an exaggeration. But that’s how Mary’s remembered – and, as Lucy pointed out, a lot of that is to do with Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.

Hooray!  This was more like it!  This was a proper history programme!  It also talked about how plenty of “heretics” were executed in Elizabeth’s reign too – although, to be fair, I think people are aware of that.  No-one thinks that life for Catholics was easy under Elizabeth.  Given how much the BBC hates to say anything positive about England/Britain, I wondered if Lucy might have a go at Gloriana, but she was very fair and explained that the Pope’s attitude towards Elizabeth pushed her into taking action against Catholics.

It them all got rather bizarre, jumping back to Anne Boleyn’s time, messing about with fake warts, and interviewing one of the producers of Six The Musical .  But parts of this programme really were very good, and it was just a shame that, as with American History’s Biggest Fibs, as with The Rise of the Nazis and as with Downfall of a King, and, in particular, as with Back in Time for School, the BBC had to spoil it by trying to push its own agenda about modern political issues.  I’m hoping that they’ll have given it a rest with Back in Time for the Corner Shop, but I’m not holding my breath.  It’s such a shame, because these programmes would be very good otherwise.

 

 

 

Charles I: Killing a King – BBC 4

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Can you put a head of state on trial?  When deciding whether to do so, bear in mind that you may end up with a religious extremist running the country.  I’m referring, of course, to the events of December 1648 and January 1649.  The trial and execution of Charles I (neither of which should ever have happened) are such a huge turning point in English/British history, so this should have been absolutely fascinating … but it didn’t half drag on.

Lisa Hilton’s quite interesting to listen to, but it could all have been fitted into one hour, never mind three. She must have spent over five minutes talking about how Charles had lost a diamond out of his watch, and his servant was looking for it. And I didn’t really need to know that Charles wondered if you could grow melons in Wimbledon, although it was more interesting than hearing in quite so much detail about how Parliament couldn’t get the wording of the charges against him right, so the paperwork kept going backwards and forwards. Enough!!

The key lesson from it all was that religion, red tape and the refusal of silly men to compromise cause more trouble between them than anything else.  Some things never change.  But it really needn’t have taken quite so long to say so.

It didn’t really get interesting until we actually got to the trial, and that was right at the end of the second hour. Until then, it was … well, religion, red tape, and the refusal of silly men to compromise. Cromwell & co thought God was on their side – complete with visions from some woman who thought she was some sort of visionary. Charles thought he was an anointed monarch with a divine right to rule. Well, to be fair, he was an anointed monarch.  (Not just a common or garden head of state, like … er, a certain other person who may shortly be going on trial.)  And the court had no authority: he was quite right about that. But I thought the divine right stuff was overplayed. OK, it was what Charles thought … but this is England. I’m saying “England” because the Scots weren’t consulted about all this, and were justifiably very narked about it. Monarchs had been overthrown before.

But there hadn’t been all this legal stuff before. And that was really the point of what the BBC 4 were saying. It’s terribly English, isn’t it? Everything has to be done legally. I mean, this is England, where Parliament abolished purgatory! It’s very interesting in its way, and you can argue about it until the cows come home, both over Charles I’s execution and over the Glorious Revolution. I tie myself in knots about it: I still can’t reconcile it all in my head, even after all these years of thinking about it. Rightful kings, social contracts … you go round in circles with it all. But it’s best in small doses. I’m sure someone enjoys reading books like Leviathan and Two Treatises of Government, but they really are horribly boring!   Small doses, BBC 4.  Small doses.

If Charles I had agreed to some sort of compromise, then maybe it could all have been different.  Executing a king was such a huge step to take, and I don’t think it was one that anyone set out to bring about.  Elizabeth I would never in a million years have got into that sort of mess.  But the Stuarts were pretty good at getting into messes.  There were a few bits about Charles’s personal life, and they broke up the legalistics a bit, but not much.  I appreciate that the legal issues were very important, and continue to affect Britain, and indeed the rest of the English-speaking world, today.  But it just went on a bit – and it is not like me to say that a history series “went on”!

A bit less legal stuff and a bit more human interest, though, and this could have been far more watchable. Early on, Lisa was talking about the terrible human cost of the war. All those families who’d lost breadwinners, men who’d been left permanently disabled, women who’d been sexually assaulted by soldiers, people who’d lost their homes. There was a fascinating petition from a man in Leicester, saying how his son had been killed and his wife had lost her mind through grief. Very sad, but interesting to hear. And there was also a brief reference to the miserable old Puritans wanting to do away with Christmas. No dancing. No singing. No exchanging presents. The risk of a 55 shilling fine – 55 shillings, in 1648!! – if you broke their rules. All those stories about Cromwell banning football and mince pies get people talking every time!

All in all – I’m glad that the BBC are giving this attention (this is a follow-up to Downfall of a King, which was shown in July) to such an important period in our history, but it just moved too slowly.  And it didn’t even mention mince pies!

 

Lucy Worsley’s Christmas Carol Odyssey – BBC 4

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I was expecting this to be just a bit of festive fun, but it was actually surprisingly moving. Lucy Worsley really can do moving, when she’s not dressing up and being irritating. We love to sing. Even when you’re me, and you were told to mouth the words at the school Christmas concert because your voice was so bad that you were putting the other girls off. We feel a need to sing together, whether we’re cheering our team on at football matches or singing Don’t Look Back In Anger when we’re trying to come to terms with a devastating terrorist attack.

Christmas carols go back to the days of wassailing, long before the winter festivities were taken over by the Church. The Puritans wanted rid of them, and any religious-themed music not actually using words from the Bible was frowned on for decades after that, well into the mid-18th century. But people wanted to sing, and, as Lucy said, carols were “the people’s music” – and the religious authorities had to give in. During the famous Christmas truce of 1914, carols were sung, and “Just for a little while, they brought comfort and comradeship, and a little bit of peace”. I think we could all do with some of that. Let the midwinter festivities, regardless of whatever form of religion, if any, they’re associated with for you, be about coming together. Singing’s a really good way of doing that. Even when you’re me, and you were banned from singing out loud during the school concert!

The programme started off with wassailing, and a reminder that midwinter celebrations go back long before they became associated with the Nativity story. We then got some Tudor jollification, complete with a picture of a Tudor Father Christmas. I’ve always rather fancied the Tudor court idea of stuffing yourself for twelve days, but I’m fat enough already – not that that seemed to bother Henry VIII, in his later years. Then the Reformation, and the infamous Commonwealth period – which I prefer to call the Interregnum, but no-one else seems to use that term these days! – when the Puritans were calling the shots and, as we all know, a lot of the Christmas traditions were banned. Out went any form of singing in church other than psalms set to melodies.  Even long after that, the Church of England wasn’t keen on carols –  and the Methodists deserve a big festive gold star for promoting them.  Eventually, the Established Church gave in – the first non-Biblical one it OKd being Hark the Herald Angels sing.

It was quite hard to get it all to fit in with the history of carols, because we don’t actually know how or where most of them came from, and that’s complicated by the fact that, in most cases, the words and the music originated separately! And we honestly don’t know if there are hidden meanings behind, say, The Twelve Days of Christmas. But we did hear quite a bit about the history of some individual carols. Is O Come All Ye Faithful actually a Jacobite song, referring to Bonnie Prince Charlie rather than having anything to do with Christmas? Yes, probably! How far does In The Bleak Midwinter reflect Christina Rosetti’s struggles with mental and physical health problems? I didn’t know that O Little Town of Bethlehem was written by an American minister who’d gone on a pilgrimage to Bethlehem to get away from the Civil War – why did I not know that?!

And, whilst the story of the Silent Night music and the flooded church organ is well-known, something that’s never really mentioned is the fact that the actual words date from slightly earlier, 1816, the year after the end of the Napoleonic Wars which brought such upheaval to the Salzburg area, passed around like a parcel from ruler to ruler. It was the first year of “heavenly peace” for a long time. And that’s the carol most closely associated with the Christmas truce of 1914. Lucy seemed quite emotional whilst she was talking about it. I really hadn’t expected this programme to be quite so moving. It was lovely.

This isn’t a carol (nor was it in the programme, but I’m sticking it in anyway) but it is a Christmas song – Queen’s Thank God It’s Christmas, sung by the late, great, Freddie Mercury.

Oh my love
We live in troubled days
Oh my friend
We have the strangest ways
All my friends
On this one day of days
Thank God it’s Christmas
Yes it’s Christmas
Thank God it’s Christmas
For
One
Day

Could we have some peace and goodwill to all men (and women), please?  Some tidings of comfort and joy?  And some heavenly peace?   Waes Hael (good health)!!   Well done, Lucy.  I really enjoyed this.

Lost Films of WWII (second episode) – BBC 4

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This nearly had me in tears – the interviews, more than the videos. One man who spoke about, as a 6-year-old boy, being very excited when his grandad came to meet him as he walked home from school … only for his grandad to have to break the news that his dad’s plane had been shot down over Germany. After decades of trying to find out exactly how their dad had died, in 2016 he and his brother were contacted by a German researcher, and they were able to visit the site where the plane came down, meet an elderly German man who, as a 12-year-old boy, had seen it happen, and visit the grave in which the crew had been buried. They’d brought back some bits and pieces from the plane: they said it was all they had of their dad. The brother didn’t even remember him: he’d only been a baby at the start of the war. Some of the film was incredible – that people had actually filmed parts of the Battle of the Mediterranean, the North Africa Campaign and the D-Day Landings. And how brave of people living in occupied Jersey to film what was going on, after filming had been banned, knowing what the Nazis might do to them if they were caught. There was also coverage of the war at home, including children Digging for Victory at a school in Sandbach.  And German POW camps.  To this day, I don’t know whether the story that our school home economics block was built by German POWs is true or not!

There was a lot of actual war coverage in this, and also coverage of British ships in the Far East before war with Japan actually broke out. It’s amazing that people did actually film it – even though they weren’t always supposed to. I suppose the worst that could have happened was that they’d have had their film confiscated and been disciplined, but people living in the occupied Channel Islands could have faced imprisonment and even death for recording what was going on. The personal stories were so touching. One man remembered how his family had become friendly with a Soviet POW, one of the men being used by the Nazis as slave labour, and how, when the man had stopped coming to their farm, they’d sadly had to assume that he’d died. Then, when Jersey was liberated, the man appeared at the celebrations: he’d escaped, and been in hiding. Back on the British mainland, people were being encouraged to put money into National Savings and fundraise for the war effort: that’s an aspect of the war that isn’t talked about much, and it was interesting to see films of fundraising drives.

Towards the end, we got film of the VE celebrations, but then, on a more sombre note, the focus switched to how people in the defeated nations were affected. We saw something of the devastation after the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, and the bomb damage in German cities. There was also quite a bit of film of German POW camps in Britain … which reminded me that I’d missed “The Keeper” when it was on at the pictures (it wasn’t on for long, and I just hadn’t got time to see it), and must keep an eye out for it being shown on Sky. There was always a story at my school that the home economics block had been built by German POWs. The school was destroyed during the Christmas Blitz of 1940, and rebuilt after the war, and it’s certainly quite possible that German POWs were sent to work on the rebuilding, but why the story attached to the home ec block rather than any other part of the school is a mystery!

Continuing with the Second World War theme, eighty years after war was declared, next Thursday there’s a programme on BBC 2 about whether or not the Allies should have bombed Auschwitz.  It’s a very difficult subject, and I hope the BBC do it justice.  The TV channels really are going all out for Second World War programmes this month, and some of them have been excellent.

Lost Films of WWII – BBC 4

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Apart from the text-speak title – seriously, BBC, “WWII”?! – this was a fascinating hour’s television showing “home movies” from the Second World War and the years immediately preceding it, including coverage of the Sheffield Blitz, the Dunkirk evacuations, the work of the Home Guard, munitions factories and even German preparations for war filmed during holidays in Central Europe in 1937-39. It also showed film of the Yealand Manor Evacuation School in North Lancashire, where Elfrida Vipont, children’s author and fellow Old Girl of my old school 🙂 , was headmistress.

People probably thought that they’d be using their exciting new cine cameras to film days out and celebrations with family and friends … and then ended up with all this instead. Personal history is very “in” at the moment, especially with interest in genealogy growing all the time, and relatives and friends of the people who’d shot the films were interviewed and gave additional insights into what’d been going on. Most poignant was the film of members of the RAF Coastal Command, which had been lost for years because the film maker hadn’t been able to watch it, because it featured so many friends who hadn’t survived. Official films are interesting, but there’s an additional element to those made by ordinary people, with no agenda.  So much information about the Second World War has been lost, because those who lived through it didn’t feel able to talk about.  These films are still here, and they’re very precious.

Chillingly, early on we were shown a recording of a British Union of Fascists march through London. Then it moved on to film shot by a dentist from Middlesbrough during a series of holidays on the Continent in 1937 and 1939 … charming shots of stunning views, pretty buildings and people in traditional dress, but, in amongst that, signs of the danger ahead. His son told about how he’d had some of his film confiscated after filming at a railway station in 1937, because it was considered a sensitive zone. He’d also filmed some of the anti-Jewish notices in public places, horribly shocked by them. As the son said, we’re used to seeing everything on film and photos now, but that’s pretty new. I remember, during the Gulf War of 1990, finding it quite a novelty to be pretty much seeing live TV coverage of what was going on. After seeing all that in 1937, I don’t think I’d have been going any further than Blackpool for my next holiday, but this man and his family went to Belgium in 1939, and were actually able to film the building of the Siegfried Line. How frightening – but how interesting to have witnessed that, and recorded it.

It then moved on to films of evacuees. Pictures of children saying goodbye to their parents at railway stations are quite common, but this also included film of the school for evacuees opened at a Quaker Meeting House near Lancaster. I was slightly uneasy when they started talking about testing out new social and educational ideas, but the children all seem to have been very happy there, and to have received a good education as well. I was surprised that it didn’t explain that Elfrida Foulds was the author Elfrida Vipont, but I suppose her books aren’t that mainstream. She went to my old school for a while, before moving to a Quaker boarding school. Most of the kids were so young, and it must have been such a shock to be in such a different environment from what they were used to. A lot’s been written about the positives and negatives of evacuation, but, at the time it seemed like the right thing to do. As well as evacuees from Manchester and Liverpool, most from Quaker families but not all, the school took in a number of Jewish refugee children from Nazi-occupied countries, and the film shows one of these children playing in a tree. There were a lot of flowers there. It looked like a happy place.

But then it was on to actual war coverage – one man had even been able to film the Dunkirk evacuations, and planes flying overhead during the Battle of Britain. People who were interviewed spoke about being quite convinced that an invasion was imminent. The Home Guard recordings were shot in the Yorkshire town of Thornton, which I pass through if I’m heading over to Skipton or Ilkley or Bolton Abbey. It’s nowhere near the cost, but people feared invasion by parachutists. There was a story about how people thought they’d seen a parachutist landing, but it turned out to be a pilot dropping some fish and chip wrapping from Harry Ramsden’s out of his plane! That was amusing, but the superb films of Sheffield during the Blitz were just distressing. I’ll never forget the upset of seeing the mess in Manchester city centre after the IRA bombing in 1996. That was just one area, with thankfully no lives lost, few injuries, and the damage confined to business rather than homes, and that was bad enough. How horrific to see your city centre just reduced to rubble – and, worse, the damage to residential areas. And, above all, the deaths – all those lives gone, just like that. A man who’d been 9 at the time recalled how his father and brother-in-law had helped to dig people out. And how a 200lb bomb had dropped on his house, but, miraculously, had failed to explode. Strangely, he said that he wasn’t scared, and it all seemed quite exciting … until his brother-in-law, to whom he’d been very close, was lost at sea.

Next up came film of women at war – in the Armed Forces and a munitions factory. That was rather rushed through, but I suppose you can only fit so much into an hour. Then a film, shot in Belfast, of young men in the RAF coastal command. The niece of one of the film makers explained that he’d found it too distressing to watch it later years, because so many of the friends who featured in it had been killed. He’d told his commanding officer that he didn’t think some of the planes they were using was safe … and, for his pains, had been taken off active service.

These are ordinary people’s recordings of extraordinary times.  There aren’t many of those, going further back into history.  OK, obviously cine film didn’t exist until the late 19th century, and was way too expensive even for the middle-classes until the 1930s, but, even in terms of written records, there’s very little to tell us what the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker actually witnessed during the Norman Conquest, the Peasants’ Revolt, the Hundred Years’ War, the Reformation, the Civil War or the Glorious Revolution, and not that much even from the 18th and 19th centuries.  Now, we record everything – although I’m not sure how future historians are going to go on, seeing as they won’t be able to access decades’ worth of people’s social media timelines or e-mails!   Films, photos, diaries, letters … they’re all so important.  It’s wonderful that this film coverage is now being made available on national TV.  Thank you, BBC 4.  This was great viewing.

 

Charles I: Downfall of a King – BBC 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

For Folk’s Sake: Morris Dancing and Me – BBC 4

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Passing through town on the Metrolink on Saturday, I was intrigued to see a group of Morris dancers performing outside Manchester Central (G-Mex). Cecil “the Prophet” Sharp would have been over the moon about that! It turned out that it was part of the Joint Morris Organisations National Day of Dance, launching the 2019 Manchester Folk Festival Programme. Those involved included the Stretford-based Manchester Morris Men, who featured prominently this BBC 4 documentary. Morris dancing in North West England, and in some other parts of the country, traditionally included women, but the “Morris Ring”, founded in 1934, only admitted all-male sides … until last year. With numbers dwindling, it agreed to admit mixed-gender and all-female teams … and a lot of the blokes are not happy about this.

We’re not talking a storm in a teacup here. In one village, a woman who’d joined the local Morris side – not even as a dancer, but as a musician – had been given such grief that she and her husband had moved to another part of the country!  Feelings on this matter run very high. There’s the “adapt or die” issue – new blood is urgently needed. And some men, especially the younger element, feel that society has changed and people now prefer to socialise in mixed gender groups. However, others feel strongly that admitting women to their sides would destroy Morris dancing’s traditions. It’s partly about the actual art of Morris dancing – one man compared it to admitting women to a male voice choir – and partly about heritage.

It’s hard to know how much of the Morris dancing traditions are genuinely historical and how much were the invention of folk revivalists looking for ideas of a mythical Merrie Englande, but the general idea of Morris dancing is thought to go back to the 16th century. The revival of Morris dancing, after it had largely died out amid the social and economic changes of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, is considered to have dated from 1899, and is closely associated with Cecil Sharp – founder of the English Folk Dance Society and known to me and other readers of “Girls’ Own” books as “The Prophet” in Elsie J Oxenham’s Abbey books.

As Richard Macer, the presenter of the programme, explained, Cecil Sharp at one time worked closely with a woman called Mary Neal – who sounds absolutely fascinating, but that’s another story. However, they fell out, and, one way and another, the idea that male Morris dancing was superior to female Morris dancing took hold. It was also explained that Morris dancing had experienced a heyday in the 1970s, but had been declining since then. With a lot of Morris dancers now ageing and approaching a point where they’ll probably have to consider retirement, what does the future hold? Part of the programme involved Richard himself learning Morris dancing, with the Manchester Morris Men, and, at fifty-odd, he was about twenty years younger than the average age of the side.
It would be very sad to see the tradition die out – and traditions, in cultures all around the world, die out frighteningly easily.

So what’s going wrong? I love to watch traditional dancing, in any country or region. And Morris dancing’s linked with other traditions, too. The programme started off by showing Morris dancers escorting a May queen at a procession through a Norfolk village. And, towards the end, it showed the wonderful Saddleworth Rushcart ceremony. At one time, there were rushcart ceremonies all over the area, usually during local wakes weeks, but they’ve pretty much died out. The one at Saddleworth, though, is a really big event, and that’s largely due to Morris dancers.

But … well, the dancers themselves admitted that Morris dancing doesn’t exactly have the coolest of images. Flowers on hats, bells on knickerbockers, brightly-coloured socks and ribbons, waving hankies … it’s often seen as a bit naff. Yet no-one would ever think of Spanish flamenco, Scottish reels, Russian kazatskies or Bavarian schuhplattler dancing as being naff, would they? As one of the men said, maybe we just get embarrassed very easily in England!

Another issue is that, in many rural areas, Morris dancing is a big local “thing” and young lads would traditionally follow their dad, grandads, uncles et al into the local Morris side, and that was how the sides kept going. With more and more people moving away from where they grew up, that’s becoming a problem. And, in towns and cities, that idea of Morris dancing as a community thing doesn’t really exist anyway. I must say that I had no idea that there was a Morris dancing side in Stretford! They train in a church hall which is about a mile and a half from the two Old Traffords. It’s not exactly somewhere I’d particularly associate with folk dancing.

But will women join, given the option? We hear about a lot of arguments over male-only or female-only organisations, most famously the row over admitting women to The Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews. It’s usually a case of members of the excluded gender demanding admission. That doesn’t seem to be the case here. The Morris Federation and Open Morris both admit male-only, female-only or mixed-gender teams, and there was no suggestion that female Morris dancers were all that fussed about being excluded from the Morris Ring, and certainly not that they were lobbying for admission.

The suggestion came from an all-male side, in Leicester – and even that particular side hasn’t actually admitted any women! Whilst the vote on the issue resulted in a landslide majority in favour of admitting women, it was left to each individual side to decide whether they wanted to do that or not. And most of them, so far, have decided not to.

Do women even want to join sides that are currently men-only? Richard spoke to some members of a women-only side – all considerably younger than our Manchester Morris pals – and they said that they preferred to operate as an all-female group. No-one (I hope!) wants to see anyone suffering discrimination, but most of us do like to spend some time socialising in an all-male or all-female environment. There’s an issue with arrogance here, as well. There’s long been this attitude that male-only Morris dancing is better than female-only or mixed-gender Morris dancing. And the Morris Ring, which has been a bastion of that attitude, is only prepared to admit women now because it thinks that its sides aren’t going to survive otherwise, and hasn’t made any secret of the fact.

But I didn’t get the impression that any of the men Richard was talking to were male chauvinists. They just wanted to keep their traditions, and they also wanted to have some male-only time and activities. Richard pointed out that it’s usually male-only organisations which are coming under pressure to admit women, not the other way round. It has to be said that that’s a fair point. You don’t hear of campaigns for men to be allowed to join the WI, do you? And we weren’t talking about the days of the FA banning women’s football, or women being denied access to top level golfing facilities or the best seats at cricket grounds. There are women-only and mixed-gender Morris sides. By the end of the programme, I found myself hoping that the male-only sides would be able to continue, and – hey, I’m the person who’s always reminding everyone that I went to the same school as Christabel Pankhurst! – I hadn’t expected to feel like that.

And Richard had clearly ended up feeling like that as well. He’d got really into it, especially after discovering that his granny and grandad had met through Morris dancing and his great-aunt had corresponded with Cecil Sharp. He was rather upset at being told that, unfortunately, he wasn’t good enough to dance at the Saddleworth Rushcart ceremony, and delighted when he was deemed good enough to dance at an event in Mossley. The guys were really into their traditions – the names used for people holding particular positions in the sides, the annual meet-up to honour the memories of old Morris dancing friends who’d died, and so on. And these were the traditions of a male-only organisation. He observed that some of them felt that there was honour in sticking to traditions even if it meant that the sides couldn’t go on.

A crucial point he made at the end was that male-only Morris dancing was about masculinity and male bonding without any hint of the “toxic masculinity” culture which is sometimes associated with men-only activities. He even said that male Morris dancers could be role models for young men – and, as he said, the idea of bells and whistles and flowery hats being associated with masculinity sounds a bit mad, but it does actually work. And they were enjoying themselves! They were having such fun, and so were the people watching them – and they were also keeping an old and important tradition alive. It would be a tragedy if Morris dancing died out.

But, having said all that, the Manchester Morris Dancers didn’t participate at Saddleworth, because they weren’t able to muster a full side. And they’ve now voted to admit women members, largely because they need to boost numbers, and hope that admitting women will attract more people, especially younger people, both female and male. I really hope they’re able to keep going, and the same with other sides across the country. Morris dancing is not seen as cool, and that’s the big problem – but who’d have thought that knitting and sewing and baking and so on would become cool? Is “cool” still a cool word? I am old and out of touch!! So maybe there’s hope for Morris dancing. I really do hope so. Richard Macer got rather attached to the Manchester Morris Men, and to Morris dancing in general, because of this programme. I did too!