My Grandparents’ War (series 2) – Channel 4

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The loss of the Queen marks a break with the wartime generation, and a reminder that there aren’t now many of that generation left with us.  It’s important that their stories not be forgotten, and this series shows celebrities looking into the roles played by their grandparents during the War.  First up was Kit Harington, whose two sets of grandparents each met and married whilst serving in the war effort in their different ways.

His maternal grandfather was in the Army, and, following a training accident, was admitted to the Exeter hospital where his future wife was serving as a VAD.  Later, he fought at Monte Cassino.  We saw Kit meeting a 99-year-old lady who’d been in the same team as his grandmother, and also visiting a Commonwealth war cemetery at Monte Cassino, and reading some of the poetry which his grandfather had written partly to try to cope with PTSD.

On his father’s side, both grandparents had been posted to the Caribbean.  His grandmother was with the censorship office in Barbados, and his grandfather had been with naval intelligence, detailed to keep an eye on the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.  He’d have known both Ian Fleming and Kim Philby.

That was rather exciting, but the roles of all four grandparents were fascinating, and the programme was really very well done.  This is an excellent series, and highly recommended.  And readers of A Chalet Girl from Kenya may be interested to know that the third episode, featuring Emeli Sande, covers the Mau Mau Rebellion.

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The Affairs of Ashmore Castle by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

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I’m pleased to say that this was a distinct improvement on the first Ashmore Castle book.  I loved the author’s Kirov trilogy and liked her War At Home and Morland Dynasty series, but The Secrets of Ashmore Castle was a bit disappointing.  This one was much better – a glorious, if sometimes a bit rose-tinted, depiction of Edwardian rural England.

The series is clearly intended to try to ape Downton Abbey, rather than to be particularly original; but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, given good characterisation and good plotlines.  The plotlines in the previous book were rather silly in parts.  Those in this book were more like it.

I was, however, nearly put off very early on: I’d only got as far as page 10 of this before I found a historical blunder.  The book stated that Ernest of Hesse was the brother of the Queen of Romania.  No, no, no!  He was the brother of the Empress of Russia.  The Queen of Romania was his ex-sister-in-law!  Errors like that are extremely annoying.  There were a few spelling mistakes as well.  Spellcheck doesn’t pick up on errors if the incorrect spelling’s a word in itself, and editors don’t seem to read things properly any more.  However, in general, this book was a return to the sort of form expected from Cynthia Harrod-Eagles.

Like the War at Home books, there were a *lot* of characters and a lot of different storylines going on, so it was quite bitty.   And very much one in a series rather than a stand-alone book: ends were not tied up neatly – the book finished so abruptly that I checked the number of pages to make sure that my copy hadn’t got any missing – and readers really needed to have read the first book in the series in order to be able to follow that one.   As a slight aside, were some of the names meant to be a joke?  Bunce the farmer is very Roald Dahl.  And Trump the dog?!

No spoilers, but, as with the first book, we had various members of the Stainton family – the earl, the jam heiress countess, the dowager, the earl’s younger brother, the earl’s two younger sisters and the earl’s uncle – plus the countess’s middle-class friend and her husband, and various servants and other locals.   A few famous names were mentioned, and we even got to meet the King and Queen at Cowes; but there was little mention of national or world events: it was about the domestic, family and love lives of the characters.  And the countryside – glorious rural England in what we think of as the Golden Age before the Great War.  Of course, it wasn’t glorious for everyone, and the book didn’t really show much of the poverty that existed; but it’s period drama escapism … like Downton Abbey.  The descriptions of both the landscape and the grand houses were wonderful.  And the clothes.  Lots of detail about fashion!

Don’t be looking for too many thrills from this, but, as a domestic period piece, it really was good.  Roll on the next one in the series!

India in 1947: Partition in Colour – Channel 4

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It would have been nice if, to mark the 75th anniversary of “Freedom at Midnight”, one of our TV channels had shown a programme focusing on everything that India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have achieved since independence.  But no.  Instead, we have to rake over whether or not Nehru was having it off with Edwina Mountbatten, and slag off Mountbatten, Nehru and Jinnah for not making a better job of an impossible situation.   Don’t get me wrong: the violence and the refugee crisis that followed partition was horrific.   But something focusing on the more positive aspects of independence, and the 75 years since then, would have been a lot more welcome.  The colourised pictures were interesting to see, but only really formed a backdrop for the negative narrative.

No-one got a good press in this, but, as I’ve said, it was an impossible situation by 1947.  I’m not sure that anyone could have done much better, and I’m not sure how helpful it was just to go on about the alleged faults of the three main leaders.  Gandhi, incidentally, was completely ignored.

Mountbatten was slagged off over the partition plan, but the programme claimed that he had nothing to do with it anyway, and it was all the work of the civil service.   Both Mountbatten and Nehru were slagged off for having a close personal relationship and leaving Jinnah out in the cold.  Or, rather, out in the heat, when the others took off to the Hills.  And of fiddling the border decisions to suit India.

Jinnah didn’t get a very good press either.  It was pointed out that Islamic fundamentalists tried to assassinate him because they were so angry about partition.   But other Muslims didn’t want to be a minority in a mainly Hindu India.  Jinnah was in a no-win situation: they all were. The programme also talked about complaints regarding the borders, but, wherever the borders had been, a lot of people would still have felt that they had to move.

Even the British Army came in for criticism.   Excuse me, but how were 50,000 troops supposed to deal with violence on such a scale? And the head of the Boundary Commission was criticised for having dysentery.  Oh, and for not being “an Alpha Male”.

The one person who got a tiny amount of praise was Edwina Mountbatten, but they were far more interested in her relationship with Nehru than in her work with refugees.

The narrators did concede that, by mid-1947, the fear and violence were out of control, and there wasn’t much that anyone could have done to improve things.   But they just seemed determined to be negative about everything.   The programme didn’t even point out that Freedom at Midnight created the world’s largest democracy.

And it said nothing that we haven’t heard a hundred times before.  I’d far rather have seen a programme about how India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have progressed since 1947, and I’d really have liked to have heard just one word of positivity.   This was almost 100% negativity.  Two hours of negativity.

Lenny Henry’s Caribbean Britain – BBC 2

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It was rather nice to hear the Manchester United Calypso being mentioned as an early example of Caribbean influence on British culture 🙂 .  I’m not quite sure when it was revived, probably about 10 years ago, but it was the first ever official United song recorded, in the mid-1950s, when it was sung by Edric Connor, who’d come to the UK from Trinidad.   I like calypso music.  I don’t, I have to say, get grime music at all: this programme began with someone chanting “Brush your teeth, brush your teeth” whilst two red buses went past, and I just did not see/hear the appeal!   But we don’t all have to like everything, eh?

This two-programme series had its moments, but, compared to the positivity of Back In Time For Birmingham, it was quite negative. It felt at times, especially during the first episode, as if they were accusing practically everyone – other than Big Ted and Little Ted, who were pictured with Floella Benjamin and brought back lots of memories – of being racist; and there were a lot of references to “them” and “us”.

But, as I said, it had its moments – the Notting Hill Carnival was shown in a very positive light, as were Rastafarian, reggae and ska music. And jungle and grime, but I’m too old for them 😄.  There was also quite a lot about art, TV and theatre, and most of that was relatively positive. certainly in the second episode.  What Lenny Henry said about black comedians feeling that they had to poke fun at themselves will resonate with comedians from any sort of minority group, and I really enjoyed the sections about Caribbean food.  But there did seem to be this very strong emphasis on “them and us”, and I’m not sure how helpful that was.

I was expecting there to be quite a lot about sport, given the number of top British sportspeople with Caribbean heritage, but all we really got was how great Viv Richards was.  Yes, of course he was great, but I was disappointed not to get any mention of black British sportspeople as opposed to West Indian sportspeople.  Maybe they avoided that because everyone knows about the huge contribution made to British sport by people with Caribbean heritage, and they wanted to focus on the arts and cookery instead?

I enjoyed the second episode much more than the first, probably because it featured some big names from the ’80s, but, overall it just wasn’t quite what I was expecting.

 

 

 

The Resistance Girl by Mandy Robotham

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  I heard a lot about the “Shetland Bus”, the Special Operations Group forming a link between the Shetland Islands and the Resistance movement in Nazi-occupied Norway, when visiting Bergen, where this book’s set, some years ago.   Books about Resistance and SOE operations very much tend to focus on France, so a book focusing on operations in Norway is very welcome … even if it *is* written in the present tense.  We’re reminded every Christmas of the importance of the wartime link between us and our Norwegian friends, but the work of the brave British and Norwegian individuals involved still doesn’t get as much recognition as it deserves.

That’s one of the major themes of this book.  The other, very difficult, theme is the Lebensborn programme, with which I think most people are familiar because of Frida Lyngstad from Abba.   The Norwegian women involved voluntarily or forcibly became partners of German men, and their “racially pure” babies, born in special maternity homes, were sent to Germany to be adopted by Nazi couples.  It’s a horrible part of history.  Due to the post-war reprisals against those seen as collaborators, many of the women concerned, if they’d been able to keep or recover their babies, moved to Sweden, as Frida’s mother did.

Our heroine, a member of the Norwegian Resistance, is Rumi, who’s just lost her fiance in a Shetland Bus run.  New love is on the cards in the shape of Jens, her neighbour’s half-British nephew, who’s with the SOE.   The horror of the Lebensborn programme is told at one degree removed, when Rumi’s best friend Anya falls victim to it.  The book does a good job of getting across what’s happening without it being too difficult to read, but the romance doesn’t detract from the seriousness of what’s going on – life in a country occupied by the Nazis, the missions being carried out by both the Norwegian Resistance and the British authorities, and the Lebensborn programme.   The Raid on Telemark, which is probably the best-known Allied/Norwegian act of anti-Nazi sabotage, doesn’t feature in the story, but it does get a mention.

There should be more novels like this, and about the SOE and Resistance work in other countries too.  There were no landmark events marking this particular element of the war effort, so there are no special dates on which to remember it – and it’s so important that it not be forgotten.   This book is well worth reading.

Sanditon (Season 2) – ITV

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I’m not quite sure how to judge this.  On entertainment value?   On being something Jane Austen might realistically have written?  On historical authenticity (it’s set in 1820)?

As far as entertainment value goes, the sets and the costumes were all excellent, and I do want to know what happens to the characters.  But how about being Austen-esque?  Well, it hasn’t gone ridiculously OTT this time.  There were no bare bottoms, although one bloke was walking about with a bare chest.  The introduction of a company of soldiers, albeit regulars rather than the militia, has obvious echoes of Pride and Prejudice, Georgiana’s silly chaperones are similar in character to the likes of Mr Collins, Mr Woodhouse and Mr Elliot, and Charlotte’s sister Alison gazing up into a handsome man’s eyes after an accident isn’t dissimilar to Sense and Sensibility.

However … whilst the need for an heir is central to more than one of Austen’s novels, she’d never have gone into the medical details, as the writers here have done with Esther Babington.   But it’s hard to criticise the inclusion of an explanation, rather than just vague comments about not having had a child.   And what about the sugar boycott/free produce movement, which both Georgiana and Charlotte actively support?   Well, Austen certainly never mentioned it, but it was a big thing for a long time, and it was something which women were particularly involved in.   No mention of the Peterloo Massacre, the Cato Street Conspiracy or anything else connected to the difficulties of the times, but then Austen never mentioned anything political either.

What isn’t quite so authentic is the strident feminism around which much of the plot hangs.   Would Georgiana really have been so rude in turning down an unwanted suitor?   OK, Elizabeth Bennet told Mr Darcy exactly what she thought of him, but he asked for it!   Georgiana’s admirer didn’t seem to have done anything worse than be boring.  And would Charlotte really have declared that she never wanted to marry, and taken a job as a governess, lecturing her new employer about the need to educate girls?   Emma Woodhouse said that she never wanted to marry, but she had a place in society as a result of her family’s wealth.   And the Dashwood girls were well-educated.  But, still,  wouldn’t Charlotte have been desperately trying to find any husband at all, as Charlotte Lucas did?  Well … whilst Peterloo wasn’t mentioned, the bad harvests and their effect on the Heywood family’s finances  were, so I suppose it was realistic that Charlotte had decided that she *had* to find a job.  And, as she said, that meant a job as a governess.  And all her talk about being free and independent wasn’t all that dissimilar to comments made a generation later by Jane Eyre.

So, OK, maybe it was all possible.   This first episode certainly wasn’t completely overboard, as much of the last series was.  All in all, it wasn’t bad.   And I love the fact that they’ve brought in a character called Alison: my name doesn’t generally crop up in period dramas!    I’m still narked about the way the last series ended – and, I think because the actor was unavailable, Sidney Parker was killed off at the start of this one – but I’ll be sticking with it.

 

 

The Railway Children Return

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I’m pleased to say that this film is about evacuees from Salford.  It’s a bugbear of mine that stories about evacuees practically always feature children from London, as if no other part of the country were affected.  There’s been so much publicity about it that I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying that the children concerned are sent to Oakworth – although much of the Oakworth village set is actually Haworth – where they’re billeted with the former Bobbie Waterbury, her daughter (the headmistress of the local school, referred to as “the head teacher” as kids today apparently can’t be expected to cope with the word “headmistress”) and her grandson.

The shots of the village and the surrounding countryside are glorious, and there’s plenty of Blytonesque running around in fields, having conker fights and collecting eggs from chickens.  The plot wasn’t really very dramatic, though.   It followed the original film in that the children helped someone in need and stopped a train, but the suspense and emotion weren’t really there.  Maybe the scriptwriters focused a bit too much on appealing to a young audience demographic?

(Don’t read the rest if you don’t want any spoilers at all!)

I’d been expecting a spy story.  Instead, we got a wartime racism story.   It might have worked better in an adult film, but there wasn’t enough sense of menace here.  It was obviously aimed at a young audience – I could have lived without seeing kids using the outside of a train as a toilet, and the remarks about farting, but, OK, I’m not really in the target demographic – and maybe that was why the fear of the military police just didn’t come across very well, despite the talk of our man possibly facing hanging if he were caught.  The police just never seemed very intimidating.   Also, it was hard not to wonder why no-one seemed to notice kids just disappearing from school in the middle of the day, or why everyone’s rations seemed to stretch so far that they could hold food fights and feed biscuits to their dog.

Having said all that, the racism story was historically accurate.  We know that there were major issues over the segregation in the US Army, especially concerning black soldiers engaging with white British women: the film actually borrowed the true story of the Battle of Bamber Bridge, in which US military police attacked black soldiers drinking in a pub.   The idea in this film was that a young black soldier had deserted as a result.  He was discovered hiding out by the four children – the three evacuees, an older girl with a younger brother and sister, as in the original film, and their new pal, Bobbie’s grandson.   It was then rather unconvincingly resolved (I won’t say how), and he was allowed to gallivant around the countryside and then return home to his mum, thanks to all the children stopping the train (but without red underwear) and the intervention of Ric Griffin from Holby City.

It was all right, and it was worth seeing for the shots of the countryside.  And it was also lovely to see a film in which the Brits were the goodies.  The liberal elite will hate that … which is probably a recommendation in itself.  But don’t be expecting a classic, and don’t be looking for an unforgettable moment like the legendary “Daddy, my daddy” scene, or you’ll be disappointed.   It’s OK, but it’s not great.

 

The Forgotten Village by Lorna Cook

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I’m not a fan of dual timeline novels; but I read this one for a Facebook group reading challenge, and it wasn’t bad.   It’s set in and around the real life ghost village of Tyneham, Dorset, which was requisitioned for use as a firing range in 1943.  It was supposed to be returned to the villagers after the war, but the Ministry of Defence have hung on to it, although some of the buildings are now open as museums.

The past timeline of the book, in 1943, revolved around the fictional, unhappily married, Standishes – Sir Albert, the local squire and MP, and his wife Veronica.   Infuriatingly, the book referred to her, incorrectly, as “Lady Veronica” rather than as “Lady Standish”: OK, it’s a common mistake, but if people are writing a book then they should do a bit of basic research.   The present timeline, in 2018, revolved around holidaymaker Melissa and her new boyfriend, TV historian Guy, who’d seen a photograph of the Standishes and became curious as what had happened to them.  Added into the mix was the fact that Guy’s grandma had once been Lady Standish’s maid.

I was hoping to read about the effect of the evacuation of the village on its inhabitants, but there was very little about that.  The focus was all on the two couples’ lives and relationships, and the 2018 couple’s search for information about the Standishes.  And the far-fetched twist in the tale could be seen coming well before the end.  So it wasn’t really what I’d hoped for.   However, it wasn’t a bad book, and I quite enjoyed it.  Dual timeline books are just not my thing, though, even if they *are* all the rage at the moment!

Lucy Worsley Investigates: Madness of King George – BBC 2

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  This was a very interesting programme, about not only George III’s illness but the treatment of mental illness during the 1780s and how that changed.  However, I wish that they’d given someone a chance to put the case for the porphyria theory, instead of just dismissing it as wrong and focusing entirely on the alternative diagnosis of bipolar disorder.  Yes, the reason that the porphyria theory, put forward by Macalpine and Hunter in the 1960s, is so well-known is the 1991 Alan Bennett play and subsequent 1994 film, rather than the works of any medic or historian, but the 1998 book “Purple Secret” is very convincing, and I do think that Lucy might at least have considered it.

Having said which, the argument for bipolar disorder is probably more convincing, especially now that additional papers giving us more details of George’s condition have been released.  The general opinion does now seem to be that the porphyria theory is wrong … which is quite annoying, because I’ve read so much about porphyria that I diagnosed it immediately when a character in Casualty presented with its symptoms!

George’s symptoms certainly seem to match those of bipolar disorder, but I wasn’t entirely convinced by the arguments presented about the triggers.   The tragic loss of three children would certainly cause huge distress to anyone, and the death of his daughter was only a year before the episode which led to the Regency, but his two sons died in 1782 and 1783 respectively, the Gordon Riots were in 1780 and the American colonies were effectively lost by 1781, so I’m not sure how all those link into an episode in 1788, several years later.  The death of Peter III of Russia in 1762 surely didn’t affect him in 1788, and I think we can be pretty certain that the French Revolution didn’t affect him a year before the Storming of the Bastille.

Hmm.

However, what was said about the treatment of mental illness at the time was fascinating, if horrifying.  It was thought to have a physical cause, so poor George was subjected to bleeding, purging and blistering.  I’m not quite sure why Lucy felt it necessary to order some leeches off the internet in order to show them to us, but I Googled it out of interest and found several places offering leeches for sale.   OK, let’s not go there.

If we accept that George was already struggling due to the events of 1780-83, what may well have tipped him over the edge was a knife attack made on him in 1786, by a woman called Margaret Nicholson.  Margaret was certified insane and  committed to Bedlam (the Bethlem Royal Hospital) for life.  She died there 42 years later.   We learnt that the hospital divided people into “ravers” (unfortunate term), “melancholics” and “incurables”.  Margaret was classed as “incurable”, even though she probably wasn’t.  Some people were literally clapped in irons, although others were put into straitjackets, which were quite mild by comparison.   It was a pretty horrific place, and people would come there to view the patients as if they were animals in a zoo.

However, Lucy then explained that, quite possibly because of what had happened with a) George and b) Margaret, a report was commissioned into the goings-on at Bedlam, published in 1791.   It actually said that restraint was OK for the poor but not for the well-to-do!   But it did lead to reforms, and psychiatry began to move away from the idea that mental illness could be treated by purging/bleeding/blistering.   She then finished by saying that George’s illness made him more popular – rather than being horrified by the idea of a “mad” king, the public were sad that he’d been ill and grateful that he’d recovered.

There was a lot to take in in this programme, and it really was interesting.  And, having accepted the porphyria theory after reading the arguments put forward in favour of it, I suppose I do now accept that bipolar disorder is a far more likely diagnosis.  So there, they convinced me!

 

 

 

The Match by Diana Townsend

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To mark the women’s Euros, this is a novel about the great Dick, Kerr Ladies FC, formed at a Preston munitions factory in 1917.  Their popularity (their match against St Helens Ladies on Boxing Day 1920, played at Goodison Park, drew a crowd of 53,000) was one of the main reasons that the FA banned women’s football from fields and stadia controlled by FA-affiliated clubs for 50 years, from 1921 to 1971.   The main characters are fictional, with none of them based even loosely on the legendary Lily Parr; but the real life manager, Albert Frankland, appears, and there are unexpected cameo appearances from Lloyd George, FA chairman Lord Kinnaird, and Preston North End hero Bob Holmes.

It’s not the best-written book I’ve ever read.  Nearly all of it is dialogue; and, frustratingly, much of the dialogue sounds more Yorkshire than Lancashire; and people keep calling each other “pet”, which is a Geordie term, not a Lancastrian one.   It’s very frustrating when authors from down south seem to think that Northern England is one amorphous mass where we all speak the same.  It isn’t, and we don’t!!  Also, it was “Dick, Kerr & Co.”, not “Dick Kerr” – sorry to be fussy, but the comma matters.  The founders were William Dick and John Kerr, not Richard Kerr!   And no-one would have been calling Preston “The Invincibles” 26 years after they won the double, any more than we call Arsenal “The Invincibles” 18 years after they went through the league season unbeaten!  Oh, and, whilst I’m nitpicking 😄, this is not America – we do not buy “programs”, nor to we stand “in line”.  I think someone used an American spellchecker on the Kindle version, because some other words are also spelt the American way, even though it’s a British book.

It’s very entertaining, though, and it covers a number of important issues.   We see the growing confidence and independence of women as they take on jobs previously done by men, and male resentment of that.   We see the struggles of football clubs to keep going without the income from fans, something which was an issue during the Covid lockdowns and was one of the reasons for the infamous Super League plan.

And we also see the struggles of self-funding hospitals.  Most of the matches played by the real Dick, Kerr Ladies were to raise money for wounded servicemen.  In this book, the women aim to raise money for the real life Moor Park VAD Hospital, in which the sweetheart of one of the women was being treated.  Like so many First World War hospitals, it could only operate thanks to voluntary work and contributions raised by the local community.  It wasn’t even in a stately home, as so many were: it began life in a pavilion provided by the Royal Lancashire Agricultural Society.

Strangely, it mentions the 1916 Zeppelin raid on Ramsbottom, but not the fact that the same raid killed 13 people in Bolton.  It’s a little-known piece of Lancashire history: it’s thought that the bombers got lost whilst looking for either Manchester or Liverpool.

There are various sub-plots about the women and their families, involving a strict family who don’t really approve of women’s football, a violent husband and, as already mentioned, a badly wounded sweetheart, but the football team is at the centre of things, and the actual matches are those which took place in real life.  The team’s first match was against their male colleagues.  And they won.   Then, on Christmas Day, they played another women’s works team, Arundel Coulthard Factory, at Deepdale, in front of 10,000 people.

In 1920, they played the first women’s international match, against France, but the book ends with the Christmas 1917 match.  The account of the actual match is definitely fictitious: I don’t think there’s ever been any suggestion that the other team played dirty and included women thrown out of Dick, Kerr and Co. for stealing explosives!   But the scoreline, a 4-0 win, is accurate!

There’s a sequel coming, and I’ll be looking out for it.  I know I’ve nit-picked, but I do that!  I genuinely enjoyed this book, and it was a very apt time to read it.