Living in the Shadow of World War II – More4

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Programmes about the history of food are always interesting, and the effect of food rationing during the Second World War is still with us. Apple crumble and carrot cake, anyone 🙂 ? My fridge is full of leftover bits and pieces, even fruit that’s starting to go off, because my grandparents’ generation trained my generation never to throw good food away. This programme managed to cover all sorts of things in under an hour – glorious terms such as “National Loaf” and the “Rural Pie Scheme”, some strange revelations about the testing carried out by nutritionists, the Dig For Victory scheme, mobile demonstration vans showing people how to make eggless cakes, issues with knicker elastic, how being Land Girls made life easier for lesbians, “Doctor Carrot” (with very odd-looking shoes) and, of course, queues. You’d think they’d have mentioned that Lord Woolton, the Minister for Food (and only a “lord” since 1939) grew up just round the corner from Old Trafford, though. I mean, I’d have said that in the first few minutes.  What came across really well was what a good job the authorities did of managing a difficult situation, and how they really tried to make it as fair as possible.

I’m not sure that I really needed to know that nutritionists were analysing what came out as well as what went in, but, OK, it made the point that there was serious scientific research going on into what people needed to eat in order to remain healthy. Whilst the Nazis allowed people not considered to be part of the master race only 450 calories a day, and the Soviets prioritised the transport of armaments even if it meant food supplies running short, the government here really did try to make sure that no-one went without – even though, by late 1942, pretty much all types of food other than vegetables were on ration, and it wasn’t always possible to get certain items even if you had the coupons for them.

All that queuing! And then trying to feed yourself and the rest of your household on whatever you’d managed to get. My grandmas and great-aunts used to keep ridiculous amounts of non-perishable foodstuffs in stock, because they never quite got past the psychological impact of coping with rationing. And it was a huge amount of work for shopkeepers. The programme talked about all the detailed record-keeping that had to be done, especially when people wanted to take only part of their weekly ration and come back for the rest another day, and people remembered little arguments over things like whether or not the weight of the paper that the food was wrapped in should be taken into account. And, OK, there was a fair bit of black market activity going on, despite the large fines and two year prison sentences that could be imposed for it, but people were generally very accepting of the situation. There were no food riots, even though everyone must have got thoroughly fed up (no pun intended) with it all.

So much thought and work went into it all. What a contrast to the times of food shortages in earlier periods of time, when the less well-off were just left to suffer. Famously, even the Royal Family were subject to rationing, and we heard Eleanor Roosevelt’s account of being served off gold and silver plates on a visit to Buckingham Palace, but only getting the same amount and type of food that was available to everyone else, including “National Loaf” bread – which must have been very good for you, because it contained extra calcium and vitamins, but which apparently looked and tasted bloody awful. Price caps were put on the amount that restaurants could charge for a meal, to ensure that it didn’t become a case of the rich eating out all the time whilst everyone else had to cope on rations, and subsidies were given to the least well-off.

It didn’t mention school dinners, which was a shame, but I suppose they couldn’t cover everything. We did hear about British Restaurants, though – and how they got their patriotic name because Churchill thought that terms like “community feeding centres” sounded too socialist! It wouldn’t be a bad idea to bring something like that back. And the wonderfully-named Rural Pie Scheme, providing pies for farm workers. A lot of voluntary work was involved. Then there were the “mobile demonstration vans”, doing their eggless cake demos! Austerity food like apple crumbles and carrot cakes are still very popular … although some of the other stuff mentioned, including horse meat and (immediately after the fall of Norway) whale meat, didn’t go down very well even at the time. It seems a bit unfair that game wasn’t rationed, seeing as people in inner city areas would have had far less access to it than those in rural areas, but I suppose there was no practical way of monitoring it.

The programme talked a lot about the campaigns to help people cope with rationing and promote healthy eating, as well. There seemed to be a lot of films, which presumably people only got to see if they went to the cinema, although wireless programmes were also mentioned. Doctor Carrot, with a top hat, glasses and some very odd-looking shoes, helping fighter pilots to see in the dark!  A lot of it sounds horrendously patronising now, especially as the voiceovers were always by men, at a time when nearly all the cooking would have been done by women, and always in those terribly posh accents that all BBC announcers used to speak in, but the authorities really were trying hard to make sure people could manage.

We also heard a bit about the Dig For Victory scheme, including film of Aintree racecourse, a golf club and parts of the royal estates being dug up. It was all so well-organised. I hate to sound like some old biddy going on about how everything was done better back in the day, but imagine if the people in charge of, say, rolling out Universal Credit had been in charge of distributing ration coupons or encouraging people to Dig For Victory. Domestic food production levels rocketed. Farm labourers’ wages went way up! People volunteered to help bring in the harvest. The Land Girls did incredibly important work – some of it, especially for those in the Timber Corps, extremely physically demanding.

The programme also touched on how the war was quite liberating for those women, with particular reference to lesbians, and also briefly mentioned clothes rationing – with specific reference to painting your legs to make it look as if you were wearing stockings, and the potential issues that a shortage of elastic could cause with underwear! – and petrol rationing, but it was mostly about food. It says a lot about how attitudes had changed. I’ve got the Napoleonic Wars on the brain at the moment, because of the Peterloo bicentennial, and there were terrible food shortages then, with people just left to cope as best they could, food riots breaking out, and then, after the wars, the Corn Laws making it all worse. During the Second World War (I do wish people would not talk about “World War II”, as if it were a film franchise), things really were pretty well-organised – and, as we’re always being told, the health of the working-classes actually improved.

I don’t know why this series was shoved in a graveyard slot, on More4 rather than on Channel 4 itself, because there’s usually a lot of interest in the Home Front during the Second World War. There are two more episodes, which I haven’t had chance to watch yet. I’m looking forward to them: this was great.

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Sanditon by Jane Austen (Facebook group reading challenge)

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The forthcoming ITV adaptation of this, Jane Austen’s unfinished novel, apparently includes three men skinny-dipping in the sea.  Austen did not actually write that scene 😉 .  She didn’t actually write very much of this at all, before she had to stop work due to ill-health.  I’m not sure what she’d have made of people reading her unfinished work, much less of people making up their own endings to it; but it’s a promising start, and not necessarily what you’d expect of Jane Austen.  It’s set in a Sussex seaside resort – it’d probably make a wonderful sitcom, the genuinely funny kind that we used to get in the ’70s and ’80s – and there’s quite a big cast.  It includes a mixed race character, which was a first for Austen, and a wealthy widow who’s the queen of the town of Sanditon.  Our heroine is Charlotte Heywood, who’s staying with family friends, there are various other young single people, and presumably they were all going to be paired off after various misunderstandings and revelations.  However, there just isn’t very much of it – Jane Austen set the scene, but sadly wasn’t able to get much further.

It helpfully refers to Waterloo, so we know that it’s set some time between the Battle of Waterloo, in June 1815, and early 1817, when Jane Austen had to give up writing.  It’s summer, so it must be the summer of 1816.  I do like to know when books are set, and, apart from Persuasion, her other books don’t make it clear!   So it’s set in peacetime – not that the wars ever seem to bother Austen characters very much – and it’s set during the Regency, the Prince Regent famously being very keen on Brighton.  We don’t know exactly where Sanditon is, but it’s somewhere near Brighton and Eastbourne, but, unlike them, at this point fairly undeveloped.  There are all sorts of glorious Austen sarcastic remarks … oops, I mean “ironic” remarks.  We did Northanger Abbey at school, and the teacher went berserk if anyone talked about Jane Austen being “sarcastic”.  “Ironic,” she would say indignantly.

Anyway.  There are lots of ironic remarks sending up the fad for sea air and sea bathing.  Health fads are nothing new – although most of us are unable to take advantage of any which involve going on holiday for weeks at a time!  I’m actually a great believer in sea air, but, as this book delights in pointing out, at that time there were a lot of hypochondriacs who decided that they had all sorts of ailments which sea air and sea bathing would cure, and Jane Austen did love to poke fun at people she saw as being a bit daft.

Unusually, the book doesn’t start with the heroine, but with an initially unnamed lady and gentleman whose carriage overturns in the Sussex countryside.  They turn out to be Mr and Mrs Parker: Mr Parker is an entrepreneur who’s hoping to make Sanditon the next “in” seaside place.  This is really something different for Austen: she didn’t normally “do” entrepreneurs.  They’re helped out by the Heywoods, and they, apart from having 14 children (13 of whom aren’t even named) are a more typical Austen family – gentry, but of limited means.  The Parkers take Charlotte Heywood, one of the daughters, back to Sanditon with them.  They’re desperate to get tourism going in Sanditon, and news of any new arrival is greeted with great excitement.

Charlotte was clearly set to be the main character, but the book doesn’t revolve around her in the way that Austen’s other books revolve around their heroines.  There’s a lot about Lady Denham, the aforementioned wealthy widow, and her niece, the sweet and beautiful but dowerless Clara Brereton.  Then there’s Miss Lambe, the “half mulatto” 17-year-old West Indian heiress, who like Anne de Bourgh is extremely rich but sickly.  She’s one of a group of schoolgirls spending the summer in Sanditon, but we don’t really get chance to know any of them.  Assorted other characters arrive in Sanditon, but, before Austen was able to do anything much other than set the scene, that was it: she wasn’t able to write any more.  It’s not even clear who was going to be the hero.

How very frustrating!   I’m sure Andrew Davies has done a good job of it, but we’ll never know what Jane Austen intended to happen – and that’s a shame, because it was shaping up to be very good, and also a bit different from her other books.  I’ve read them all so many times that I practically know them off by heart, but, for some reason, I’d never read this one before.  The Sunday night 9pm slot, the famous Downton Abbey slot, always gets people talking, so, once the ITV series gets going, I’m sure that Sanditon will be being talked about everywhere!  But, in terms of what Jane Austen actually wrote, there isn’t really very much to say.  Unfulfilled promise!

 

The Peterloo Affair by Lucinda Elliot

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This can be quite accurately described as a Regency romance, although it couldn’t be further removed from the images that that term conjures up. That made me think about how wide of the mark general perceptions of the Regency era are. Thanks to Georgette Heyer & co, the word “Regency” suggests dashing young men in breeches dancing with elegant young ladies in long frocks, at glamorous balls in spa towns or stately homes. However, the Regency was a time of war, unrest, riots, repression, lack of representation, assassination, unemployment, food shortages and high prices for what food there was.  Today, we mark the 200th anniversary of the killing of eighteen people, with hundreds more injured, as they attended a peaceful parliamentary reform meeting in our city. The response of one of the most authoritarian governments our country has ever known was to introduce even more measures aimed at repressing attempts to improve the rights of ordinary people.  It was a far cry from the world of the Bath Assembly Rooms.

This book traces the romance between two people, from a fictional village somewhere on the north east side of Manchester, who were both at St Peter’s Field that day. It’s not the greatest book ever – although it did amuse me by using words like “dandyprat” and “rumpskuttle”.  And it would have benefited from more careful editing: the piece de resistance was when the name of a character called Jimmy Thribble was mistyped as “Jimmy Riddle” (I am not making this up).  But it’s not bad, and it’s got the additional merit of having a woman as the main character: a disproportionate number of those injured at Peterloo were female. For 99p on Kindle, it’s worth a read.

We can’t know whether or not women were deliberately targeted, but we do know that the proportion of women injured, relative to the number of women attending, was considerably higher than that for men.  Women who became involved in political protest risked particular hostility from the authorities – don’t get me started on religious and political leaders who seemed to think that women speaking at Abolitionist meetings was more shocking than the institution of slavery itself – and also, as this book shows, from elements within their own communities.

The community in this book is that of an unspecified and presumably fictional village, seven miles out of town and, given the references to Middleton, Harpurhey and Oldham, presumably on the north east side of town. Our heroine is a young woman called Joan. Her social background’s a bit confused/confusing. The family are working-class, and, due to the socio-economic problems of the time, they struggle to afford food and clothing.  However, Joan and her friends seem to have, or at least have had, access to lots of romantic novels.  And we never actually see anyone doing any work: they seem to have a lot of free time.  And their parents seem very worried about what the neighbours will think about everything!

However, the author’s got it right in that they’re not factory workers.  Not that many people at Peterloo actually worked in mills: it was a Monday, and, whilst a lot of what would now be called self-employed people took “Saint Mondays” off, it was a working day for people in factories.  It’s estimated that over a third of those there were handloom weavers, and many of the others were artisans – shoemakers, tailors etc. .

The language is also a bit confused: the author’s tried to write some but not all of the dialogue in dialect, so we sometimes get “thee” and “thou”, and sometimes don’t; and she sometimes gets the dialect completely wrong – “fash” is a Scottish or Geordie term, not a Lancastrian one! Whilst I’m moaning, there are some irritating grammatical errors, such as the use of “her” rather than “she” and “who” rather than “whom; and the “Jimmy Riddle” thing is just ridiculous!  And the Six Acts were a response to Peterloo, not a cause of it!

OK, enough moaning.  It’s really not bad at all!  Joan and her pal Marcie – how many people in Lancashire in 1819 would have been called Marcie?! – are unimpressed with women’s lot in life, and have decided that they’re going to steer clear of men and become some sort of doctors, treating people with herbs. A term like “wise women” might have been better, but, OK, credit for emphasising the lack of choices for women at this time. Their intentions don’t last very long, when Joan gets involved with a handsome Irishman called Sean and Marcie gets involved with Joan’s brother. Sean actually does have traits of a typical Regency romance character, having a terrible reputation for loving girls and leaving them. One of his exes even went mad as a result: even Sense and Sensibility didn’t go that far 🙂 . However, the way it’s written isn’t too Mills and Boon-ish to be taken seriously, and we learn how Sean’s wild behaviour was triggered by what would now be recognised as PTSD after his experiences during the Napoleonic Wars. Joan dumps him at one point, but, after he’s badly injured at Peterloo, realises how much he means to her, and it all ends happily.

OK, OK, it’s not the greatest plot ever; but we do see the people of the community, led by Joan’s father and Sean, becoming involved in calls for reform, we see their struggles at a time when the Corn Laws are making the price of food very high, and, in particular, we see the insistence of Joan and Marcie and the other girls in the area that women should join the local contingent going to hear Orator Hunt speak at St Peter’s Field.  The part of the book is the section covering the day of the Peterloo Massacre itself is excellent: the events of the entire day are extremely well-described, and it’s worth reading for that alone.

It’s Joan’s story, rather than the story of Peterloo, but the reform movement and the social and economic conditions of the time are very much a part of it; and, as I’ve said, the sections covering the events of 16th August 1819 are very well done, even if some of the rest of the book isn’t.  For 99p, it’s worth a read.

Councillor Luthfur Rahman, executive member for skills, culture and leisure, Manchester City Council, said: “The Peterloo Massacre was a significant moment in Manchester’s history and in the campaign for democracy in the UK. It’s important we don’t forget and that we remember the sacrifices of all those who went before us in the name of democracy and peace.”

There are a lot of events taking place today and over the weekend to mark the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre.  I hope they get the nationwide coverage that they deserve.  There’s been considerable controversy over the importance and impact of Peterloo.  When there’s controversy over something, it’s usually a pretty sure sign that it’s something important.

 

More about the historical background – Peterloo.

Who Do You Think You Are? (Kate Winslet) – BBC 1

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I thought that this was the best episode of the series so far, despite Kate’s melodramatics. I don’t think we’ve ever had anyone with Swedish heritage before: it was like stepping into the world of Vilhelm Moberg’s Karl Oskar and Kristina, and it’s a subject that’s not often covered on English language TV. It was really good to see something different. The military heritage on the other side of her family was interesting too. It had never really occurred to be that the Armed Forces would have been the main employers of musicians before the days of civil orchestras, although it’s really obvious when you think about it! And it’s nice to have an A-lister on the programme: they do sometimes have people whom I’ve barely heard of.  This was a very interesting hour’s TV.

She did overdo it a bit, with the tears and the “I can’t bear it”-ing. OK, it can’t be very pleasant finding out that your long-lost ancestors lived in poverty, had brushes with the law due to stealing food and lost children in infancy, but it’d probably be a similar story for most people’s families. Even those at the top of the social ladder would have been hit by infant deaths, and adults dying young. There were the constant references to her ever-so-‘umble roots, as well. One would have done! But, hey, at least she was interested enough in the social history to get emotional about it.

The story with Kate was that her great-great-grandfather had moved to London from the Halland region of Sweden, becoming a successful tailor on Savile Row. This was fascinating: you think of emigration from Sweden as being to Minnesota and other parts of the American mid-West, not to London. Even Swedish emigration to America isn’t something that’s talked about that much in English language books or TV programmes. So much attention’s paid to emigration from Ireland and, later on, from Italy and the Russian Empire, and yet relatively little’s paid to emigration from Sweden and (then under Swedish rule) Norway, or even to the huge waves of emigration from Germany. I suppose it’s because there wouldn’t have been that much of a cultural or, with Scandinavia and mainly Protestant parts of Germany, religious clash, but it’s certainly a neglected area.

I don’t know what Kate was expecting to find out, but I got the impression that she wasn’t expecting to find that her ancestors’ lives had been so hard.  We think of Sweden, as with Norway and Switzerland, as being a very wealthy country, and forget that that’s a fairly recent development, and how difficult it was historically for countries with very cold weather, very hot weather and or a lot of mountainous terrain, especially at a time of rapid population growth.  The same with the idea of some countries as being particularly liberal, and or as not having a rigid class structure. It hasn’t always been like that.  Take the Netherlands, generally seen as the most liberal-minded country in Europe now, and its centuries of strict Calvinism.

Vilhelm Moberg described life for lower-class people in Sweden in the first half of the nineteenth century so well in The Emigrants, and I kept thinking about that when Kate was learning about her ancestors, although at least there were no religious issues here.  When she was taken to a grand castle type place, she must have wondered if they were aristocrats. But no – her great-great-great-great-grandfather was a worker on the estate, paid in tokens that could only be spent in the estate shop, and ended up dying in prison after being convicted of stealing potatoes, shortly after the death of his infant son.  The family were starving, with Sweden being hit by successive years of food shortages even before the Hungry Forties and the Great Famine of the late 1860s.  Neither of those two major famines came into it, strangely enough – we heard about the early 1830s and the early 1850s, but not the two “big” famines, although that was just because of which dates fitted with major events in the family’s history.

Her great-great-great-grandfather fared better, going into the Navy; and it was brilliant that she was able to see the sort of croft house that he’d have. But her great-great-grandfather was the only one of the three children he and his wife had who survived to adulthood.  He became a tailor, like his father – who’d been booted out of the Navy for embezzlement!  I can’t think of any other episode that’s featured Swedish history, and I really enjoyed it. How brilliant were the records, as well? Very impressed with mid 19th century Swedish record-keeping!

Turning to the other side of her family, she found out that her great-great-great-grandfather had served in the Grenadier Guards, joining up at the age of just 11, during the Napoleonic Wars. After having to leave the Army due to rheumatism, he became the head prison warder at Dartmoor … but, at that time, Dartmoor was seen as a sort of new model prison, with inmates working in gardens and attending classes in all sorts of subjects.

That was interesting as well, but I thought that the really good bit was his time in the Army, starting off as a real life Little Drummer Boy, at a time when the sons of soldiers often joined up as children so as to benefit from the educational and career opportunities offered, and rising to the rank of Drum Major. We’re all familiar with military bands, and the importance of drummers and buglers and fifers in the Army in the 18th and 19th centuries – I’m going to have “Oh, soldier, soldier, won’t you marry me, with your musket, fife and drum?” going through my head for the rest of the day now – but, as with Swedish and German emigration to Britain and America, it’s something that doesn’t get all that much attention, and it’s always nice to see new topics covered on a long-running programme.

I’d love to know how they choose people to go on this programme. Presumably they must do a certain amount of research first, to make sure that they can actually find something out, and that it’s something reasonably interesting. But do they approach the celebs, or do the celebs approach them? Where would you start, when it came to choosing people?   They usually manage to turn up something of interest, but often the socio-economic history behind it is something we’ve heard before, with other people.  But, as I’ve said, I don’t think they’ve shown anyone with Swedish heritage before.  A really good hour’s TV.

The Queen’s Lost Family – Channel 4

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The title of this programme was very misleading – none of George V’s children were “lost”, with the arguable exception of Prince John, whom the programme never even mentioned – but it was quite an entertaining hour of serious talk about the changing role of the Royal Family, combined with a fair amount of gossip and scandal. OK, it didn’t really say anything new, despite making a big deal of having access to the newly-released letters and diaries of Princess Mary, Countess of Harewood, and it jumped around a lot; but still, I do love a bit of royal talk! It also made some good points about life in the Britain of the 1920s in general. It was too light on the gossip element, though: it never even named any of Prince George (the future Duke of Kent)’s alleged celeb lovers!

I’m not entirely sure what it was aiming to do, especially given the confusing title. Explore the relationships between George V’s children? It was lovely to see, from the letters, how close Mary was to her brothers, and especially to her eldest brother. She’s known to have been quite supportive of him over the Abdication Crisis. Make a point about how all George V’s children suffered from his strictness? I think he gets a bit of a raw deal, TBH. Many fathers of his class and generation were quite remote from their children – although he does, to be fair, seem to have been exceptionally strict. If they were trying to do that, they should really have said more about Bertie’s stammer: it wasn’t mentioned once. Nor was Prince John, which really was weird. There was just no reference to him at all, even in passing. Trace the lives of each of the children (well, except from John)? Maybe. Very little was said about either Mary or Bertie after their marriages, but I think it was focusing on the more glamorous and more scandalous siblings. It was a shame, really, because both Bertie and Mary did a lot of charity work, much of it in unglamorous places, and I think they deserved more attention than the programme gave them. But I suppose you can only fit so much into an hour. Minus adverts.

Or was it meant to be about the changing face of the Royal Family in the 1920s? That was certainly how it started. With the Romanovs murdered, and the Hohenzollerns and Habsburgs sent packing, the newly-renamed Windsors must have been more than a bit worried – and it’s to the eternal credit of King George V and Queen Mary that the British monarchy came through this period so strongly.  The programme made it sound as if the country had gone straight from the pre-1832 world of only the upper-classes being able to vote to the post-1918 world of all men and most women being able to vote, which was hardly accurate; but the general point that Britain in 1919 was a very different world to Britain in 1914 was fair enough. The independence movement in India was also covered, although, for some strange reason, Ireland wasn’t mentioned at all.

There were clips of the princes and princess carrying out royal engagements in all sorts of different places. Edward/David got to go on tours of the Empire: Bertie got to visit factories at home. There was also some interesting talk about Mary, and how she was stuck at home whilst her brothers were away at school or naval college, not really allowed to do anything and with no hope of escape other than marriage. Being a princess sounds so glamorous, but it really wasn’t … until Princess Margaret came along, and showed that princesses could go living it up on the town just as well as princes could! A good point was also made about how it was Mary’s wedding, the first time the daughter of a sovereign had married in Westminster Abbey since Edward I’s time, that set the tone for modern royal weddings, with huge crowds in the streets and widespread coverage in the media.

Edward/David missed it, because he was away on a royal tour. He came across as being incredibly annoying. There’s this image of him as the people’s prince, because of his “something must be done” talk after the famous visit to mining areas of the North East, but comments he made after the 1922 General Election and during the General Strike make it pretty clear that he wasn’t actually that keen on “the people” at all. And he did a lot of moaning about how hard his life was, but was quite happy to be a prince when it came to getting into all the best nightclubs and pulling plenty of attractive women. He even moaned about being expected to return from a tour of Kenya when his father fell seriously ill. Bertie, meanwhile, was living a life of eminent respectability, and genuinely trying to help the working classes by running his Boys’ Camps – which the programme didn’t mention.

Henry, Duke of Gloucester, is usually seen as the one who kept a low profile, but he created a bit of scandal of his own, getting involved with an unsuitable woman and installing her as his mistress in a house close to Buckingham Palace – whilst she was heavily pregnant with someone else’s child. He did make a career for himself in the Army, though. And then there was George, who ran wild. The programme was very unsympathetic towards him – OK, he did run wild, but saying that it was “irresponsible” to have homosexual affairs and get addicted to cocaine was a bit much!  “Irresponsible”?!

It was all very bitty, and the title was very silly, but there was some good stuff in it, both about the Royal Family and about the social and economic issues facing post Great War Britain.  Also, whereas the BBC would have spoilt this by shoehorning in their own political agenda and making a load of irrelevant references to modern political events, Channel 4 just talked about the period that the programme was about, and I appreciated that.   Not bad at all!

Ann the Word by Richard Francis

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Shakers are a lot more interesting than Transcendentalists.  They do not worry about cold showers or manure.  More importantly, there’s the local connection.  Whilst obviously I knew that Shakerism originated in Manchester and Bolton, even I wouldn’t have claimed that “American’s most important and successful utopian community” had been deeply influenced by a fight over potato prices on Shudehill.  I’m not sure that I’d have claimed that Ann Lee, the first leader of the Shakers, was the most influential working-class woman since Joan of Arc, either – although I can see the point.  This isn’t a particularly good book, and it says nothing about the influence that Shakers had on architecture, furniture and education, not to mention bonnets, but it makes some very valid points about how the authorities couldn’t handle the idea of a religious community being led by a woman.  And it goes into quite a lot of detail about the geography of 18th century Manchester – which will probably mean nothing to New Englanders, who are presumably the intended audience, but is very interesting if you’re me.

To be fair, it’s meant to be a biography of Ann Lee, not a book about Shakerism; and she died before the Shakers had established their reputation for being skilled farmers, craftspeople and educators.  It’s a shame that something wasn’t said about that, though, especially as the author was quite negative about Shakerism.  OK, it’s hardly most people’s thing, but each to their own!  There aren’t many sources about Ann, other than those written by people who lived and worked with her, so most of what the book says about her time in America is just an account of conversions of different people, and it reads like a novel, with a lot of dialogue and detailed accounts of who took whose arm and who got upset and so on.

The part about her early life in Manchester is much more interesting – probably because there were virtually no sources about it, so it’s mainly about Manchester!  There’s an account of the Forty-Five, and also an account of food price riots in 1757, notably the one on Shudehill – along with comments about how this was all linked to working-class assertiveness.  If you go back to the Civil War era, and look at the Levellers and the Diggers, there’s certainly a link between working-class assertiveness and radical Protestantism: I’d never really thought about it in connection with the Shakers, but it’s a fair point.

Ann was born in Toad Lane, which is now Todd Street – by the side of where Cathedral Gardens, Chetham’s and the National Football Museum are – and, of course, that was the heart of town in those days.  The Infirmary, where Ann worked as a cook, and the “house of correction”, where she was imprisoned for a while, were all in that area.  So was the grammar school, which the author annoyingly doesn’t mention!  The descriptions of town in the mid-18th century are the best part of the book!   Ann’s early life is interesting, too, especially how she suffered from what would now be recognised as depression and eating disorders, and spent some time in an asylum: it was after that that she really got into the religious stuff.

There are also references to Shakers in the Cheshire area – mainly in the Marton area just north of Congleton.  There’s a really nice café there: I sometimes stop at it on my way home from Little Moreton Hall and Biddulph Grange!  And a reference to groups of “prophets” meeting in Great Budworth.  There’s a nice ice cream place there.  Sorry, food on the brain!

The parts about her life and work in America are, as I’ve said, mostly about converting different people: there are a lot of names, which I doubt will mean anything even to someone who’s very au fait with Shakerism.  However, the accounts of how the Shakers were persecuted by the authorities are fascinating, and disturbing.  They were accused of being British spies, this being the period of the American Revolution, and, as they refused to swear an oath of allegiance because they said it was against their faith, many of them were imprisoned.  Suspicion about a woman leading a religious group meant that Ann was horrifically persecuted. OK, there’d have been hostility towards anyone seen as claiming to be some sort of Second Coming, but Ann was seriously sexually assaulted.  It wasn’t just the authorities: the Shakers were attacked by mobs as well.  Think about the treatment of the Yazidis by ISIS.  Was the treatment of the Shakers by other Christians so different?

It’s not the greatest of books, but I very much enjoyed reading what it said about 18th century Manchester, and it made some very good points about hostility towards the idea of women as religious leaders.  It also said a lot about attitudes towards religious minorities in both Britain and America – not just Catholics and Jews, but minority Protestant groups as well.  I think we tend to forget that it’s only very recently that that’s changed, and there are still some issues now.  Anyway, I think that’s enough reading about New England Utopian groups – on to something else now!

Poldark and Abolitionism – Poldark (series 5), BBC 1

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There seems to be an increasing trend for period dramas to address the social and political issues of the time in which they’re set. OK, Victoria didn’t do it very accurately; but it’s still extremely welcome.  Ballrooms and bedrooms are great to an extent, but getting some big historical talking points in there’s even better. And, in the first episode of the new – and, very sadly, last – series of Poldark, we saw several major characters attending an Abolitionist meeting.

Abolitionism was probably the first great popular movement. “Am I not a man and a brother?” – the famous Wedgwood image might not work today, but the sentiment does: certain people might do well to remind themselves of it. As the 19th century went on, there were so many more reform movements, and most of them did succeed. Some of them centred around just one brave person – think Elizabeth Fry and prison reform, or Josephine Butler and the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts. Some were mass movements, notably the campaigns for universal suffrage. Some were organised by groups of leading figures with particular interests. Workers’ rights, children’s rights, women’s rights, health, education, housing, sanitation, the removal of religion bars …

A lot of the language and images may seem patronising now – the Wedgwood image is very much of its time, don’t get me started on the Earl of Shaftesbury’s attitude towards the industrial north, and I don’t think the temperance advocates understood the real reasons why so many people drank too much – but people tried. To paraphrase Dirty Dancing (rather incongruously, I know), they thought they could make the world better.

Yet the century kicked off with a virtual reign of terror, amid Establishment paranoia about revolution. Trying both to fight this, on behalf of his pal Ned Despard – who did really exist, and was very well-known at the time although he’s largely been forgotten now – and to help to promote the campaign for Abolition, we have, of course, got Ross Poldark. Debbie Horsfield from Eccles has come up with all this, because the books don’t cover this period, and I’m rather enjoying it! Come on, what a hero! Mr Darcy may have been a good landlord, but he never made impassioned speeches in Parliament or saved the king from assassination attempts, did he? Mr Rochester locked up his wife and tried to commit bigamy! Now, Ross – what a hero. Tricorne hat and all!  And, hopefully, he’s making us think.

It looks as if a fair bit of this series is going to revolve around Ross’s friendship with Ned Despard, who, as I’ve said above, was a real life figure. Ned, like Ross, fought in the British army during the American War of Independence. He was then appointed superintendent of the Bay of Honduras (Belize), which was technically under Spanish sovereignty but had come under the control of British settlers – who were cutting and exporting mahogany, using slave labour. Poldark’s nemesis, George Warleggan the baddie, is getting involved in the mahogany trade. Ned clashed with the wealthy landowners, partly because, when new settlers arrived, some of them white and some of them (former slaves) black, he gave equal rights to them all. He also married a black or mixed race woman, possibly a former slave, Catherine (Kitty).

Despard was recalled to London, spent some time in a debtors’ prison, and then got involved in radical politics. Exactly what went on isn’t entirely clear, but he was arrested and imprisoned on suspicion of involvement in the 1798 Irish Rebellion, before eventually being freed without charge, and then, in 1802, accused of leading the “Despard Plot”, an alleged conspiracy to assassinate the king and launch an uprising. Lord Nelson spoke on his behalf. But he was sentenced to death, and hanged and beheaded alongside six others – in front of a huge crowd.

Both he and Kitty, who’d mounted a very determined campaign for his release during his first period in jail and again in 1802, had become very well-known. Kitty had, additionally, spoken out about the appalling conditions in which prisoners were being kept – a cause taken up by the MP Francis Burdett. And this programme also showed her speaking at an Abolitionist meeting.

Was Despard guilty? If so, what exactly was he guilty of? Was he, after being a thorn in the Establishment’s side for years, framed? If he was guilty – and he almost certainly was guilty, of some sort of plotting – then did the way he’d been treated excuse him in any way? We kept getting that trailer with the voiceover about “when your own country betrays you”. What does the fact that he enjoyed a lot of popularity amongst the working-classes say about popular feeling?

Something to remember. Ned’s actions in the Bay of Honduras were correct in law. There was no discrimination on grounds of race in British law in the 1790s, any more than there is now. And there has never been any legal barrier in British(/English/Scottish) law against interracial marriage. That’s just worth remembering.

And something to think about. Reform not revolution, yes … but these were very, very difficult times. I think it’s meant to be 1800, so we’re 19 years before the Peterloo Massacre, which I know I tend to harp on about but which is getting a huge amount of local attention at the moment because we’re so close to the 200th anniversary. If you’ve got a state which will do that, where peaceful protesters will be mown down and stabbed by the cavalry … as the voiceover for the trailer kept saying, “to whom do you then owe loyalty”?

This is great stuff. Period dramas don’t always make you think. They should do! As I’ve said, ballrooms and bedrooms are fine, but let’s get everyone talking about big historical issues – and they don’t come much bigger than Abolitionism. Let’s not make it all about politics, obviously. We want the soapy stuff too. Oh, and if Ross could do the bare-chested scything thing again, it would be much appreciated. But let’s think, as well.

Maybe it was easier in the late 18th and the19th centuries. People, or at least middle-class people, involved in the reform movements had so much more time. However strongly you might feel about something, it’s difficult to do much when you’re stuck in work all day and then you’ve got housework and family responsibilities as well. I wonder about this sometimes. People who go around setting up camp outside fracking sites, or whatever – have they not got jobs? I’m not knocking anyone: I just genuinely don’t get it.

But, that aside, the point is that people like Elizabeth Fry, Josephine Butler and the others saw injustices and they tried to do something about them. At the moment, there just seems to be so much anger and hatred. Some of it’s utter rubbish about the most bizarre things, like claiming that the Wimbledon draw was fixed as part of a conspiracy by the British Establishment to give an advantage to a particular player (I am not making this up!!). Some of it is extremely serious – people yelling and screaming outside primary schools and threatening teachers, because schools have introduced “No Outsiders” programmes which explain to children that everyone deserves to be treated fairly and equally.  Then there are all the people who hurl abuse at you and accuse you of every manner of prejudices just because you happen to disagree with them about something.  And politicians hurl insults at each other instead of trying to get anything sorted.

Less yelling, more contemplating, more “am I not a man and a brother”, more thinking you can make the world better? It’s a nice thought …