Who Do You Think You Are (Matt Lucas) – BBC 1

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  This was a fascinating episode.  How incredible for Matt Lucas to find out that his grandmother’s first cousin had been Anne Frank’s family’s lodger, and was actually mentioned in her diary.   Anne had remarked that this man was rather irritating and hung around even when the family had dropped heavy hints that they wanted some privacy.   That’s very Anne!   I once read an article which said that lessons about the Holocaust should focus on accounts of the horrors of the concentration camps, rather than a teenage girl’s witterings about how annoying adults were and whether or not she fancied Peter van Daan; but, as I said in an online discussion at the time, the point of reading Anne’s diary is to be reminded that she was just an ordinary girl, not some kind of “other”.  An ordinary girl who had the misfortune to be born into a group of people whom another, evil, group of people classified as “other”, but who was just like any other ordinary girl from any other sort of background.

Tragically, Matt learnt that his grandmother’s two aunts and most of her cousins had been murdered in the concentration camps.   She’d been able to escape to Britain from Berlin, where her family lived before most of them moved to Amsterdam in the sadly mistaken belief that the Netherlands would be a safe place, and it was poignant to see Ukrainian flags flying over many of the public buildings in Berlin during his visit there.   We know that Vladimir Putin’s family suffered terribly during the Siege of Leningrad, and yet he’s putting millions of Ukrainians through the same sort of hell.

This really was very moving.  There’ve been other episodes in which celebs have found out that members of their family died during the Holocaust, and they’ve all been moving; but for Matt to find out that he had a family connection to Anne Frank, whose story, as he said, is the one Holocaust story that everyone knows, was really something.

 

The Black Death: Lucy Worsley Investigates – BBC 2

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When I was 13, I got 91% in a biology exam.  Apologies if that sounds like showing off.  It was a very long time ago!  The point is the interaction between biology and history.  Our big topic that year was genetics, and our biology text book had a wonderful family tree showing how Queen Victoria’s haemophilia gene spread through the royal houses of Europe.  So, instead of trying to put iodine on a piece of onion without getting bubbles in it (something which took me eleventy billion attempts, and of which I still fail to see the point), I got to focus on royal history, with particular reference to the Romanovs.  Sorted!!

The application of science to the events of the past was one element of this very interesting programme.  Lucy Worsley really is so good when she’s acting like an adult and not dressing up, even if “Lucy Worsley Investigates” does make her sound like Nancy Drew.  But what really struck me most was how she, and all of us, now view the Black Death through the prism of Covid.  Three years ago, would a programme about medieval plague have used the terms “herd immunity”, “super spreader event”, “frontline worker” or even just “pandemic”?  I think we’ve all got past panic buying toilet rolls, and few people wear masks now, but our outlook on history’s changed.   That’s quite a big thing.

We started off with the scientific facts – how there were variants (another Covid-era word) of the plague, and how it was spread by body lice getting into fabrics, as well as by fleas on rats.  The body lice factor explains what happened in Eyam, so I suppose we knew that anyway, but the emphasis has always been on fleas on rats.   And there was a lot of talk about how this was a new disease, and, because it was new,  it spread very rapidly at first, only ceasing to be so dangerous once herd immunity had built up.  

Lucy kept talking about “Britain”, which was a bit annoying as “Britain” wasn’t a political entity then, and references to the political, economic and clerical authorities wouldn’t have included Scotland,   Just saying!   She talked a lot about the role of economics, and what can be deduced from economic records.  We think of inheritance tax as having been brought in with the People’s Budget of 1909, but there was a form of inheritance tax even in the 14th century.   And she really is obsessed with “fornication”!   Last week, she kept trying to make the witch trials all about fornication, and this week we were told that the Church tried to blame the plague on sin, and especially on loose women.   Thankfully we didn’t get that with Covid … although it has to be said that some deeply unpleasant people in the 1980s tried to make out that the AIDS pandemic was some sort of message from on high.

The Church did have a useful role to play, though.   Priests read out Edward III’s instructions on how to try to deal with the plague, after hearing horror stories about how it’d affected countries on the Continent.  Hopefully they were more like cheery Jonathan Van Tam than grumpy Professor Chris Whitty!   And clerics were also “frontline workers”, as we’d now say.   

We were told that the plague actually increased the role of religion, because, with little hope other than prayer, people turned to religion, deeply distressed at the need for plague pits rather than proper funerals.   No real Covid link there, but how about social change?   As we know, the devastating effect of the plague on the population led to a shortage of labour, and an increase in social mobility and wage levels.   The Statute of Labourers, passed in 1351, tried to keep wages down and tie people to their place of origin, but it just wasn’t practical to do that.  We also heard about improvements to the lot of women, stepping into places once held by men, as was later to be the case during both world wars.   

Are we going to see positive social change brought about by Covid?  Well, here in North West England, where we were so badly affected, we were hoping so, but, at the moment, we’re still waiting.  We’ll see.

All in all, as I said, this was an interesting programme about the Black Death, but I think that the most interesting part about it was the historiography.   We now see the Black Death through the prism of Covid.  I wonder if it’s going to have a long term effect on how we see other aspects of history too.

 

Victoria: Daughter, Wife, Mother, Widow by Lucy Worsley

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I’m not sure whether or not the 99p Kindle offer on this book was to mark the Platinum Jubilee of Queen Victoria’s great-great-granddaughter, but I was very glad of it.  For one thing, I wanted a “royal” book to review, to mark the Jubilee long weekend 🙂 .  For another thing, it makes some very interesting points.  OK, it probably won’t tell you anything major that you haven’t heard before, but the same can be said of most books on history’s best-known figures.  It’s about the angle and the interpretation; and this book, apprising Victoria through 24 significant events or factors in her life, really does do a good job of showing us who Victoria was and what she did.  Lucy Worsley is rather irritating on TV, but she comes across extremely well in writing.

Having said all that, I’m going to take issue with her argument that people had a problem with the idea of a female monarch, and that the nineteenth century was a time in which women’s lives became extremely restricted.  She even finishes the book on a rather miserable note within that theme, saying that her main feeling about Victoria is pity, because ideas about the role of women trapped all Victorian females, and Victoria herself most of all.  I know that there’s the “separate spheres” argument, that women became confined to a domestic role in the 19th century, but I don’t buy it.  Look at pictures of textile mills in the 19th century.  Who are most of the workers?  Women!   Look how many people were employed in domestic service in the 19th century.  Who were most of them?  Women!   As for there being a lack of female influence, tell that to Emmeline Pankhurst, Florence Nightingale (one of whose visits to Victoria makes up one of the 24 chapters), Josephine Butler and Elizabeth Fry, and all the other middle class women, and upper class women, involved in charity work or campaigning.

And were people really that bothered about the idea of a female monarch?  Princess Charlotte had been extremely popular, and, whether in 1837 or 2022, most people, when asked to name England’s greatest ever monarch, will say Elizabeth (I).

So I must beg to differ with Lucy in that regard.   But I still really enjoyed her book.  She starts the book by pointing out that, throughout the twentieth century, most people’s image of Victoria was of a large, unsmiling elderly lady dressed in mourning.  And that’s exactly how Victoria’s depicted in the statue of her which stands in Manchester’s Piccadilly Gardens.  Then pointing out that that’s changed in recent years, because of the film with Emily Blunt and the TV series with Jenna Coleman, which [the book was published in 2018, before the third season was broadcast] both show her as a younger woman who liked dancing and parties.  Interesting how it’s been popular culture that’s brought about that change, not academia.  The aim of this book is to look into how she changed from the young dancing princess to the sombre old lady.

There’s an amazing amount of detail.  Some of it really feels quite prurient – things like what Victoria wore on her wedding night, how much she weighed at certain times and how old she was when she went through puberty.  That’s very private stuff.

And it’s all personal.  Would anyone write a book entitled “Edward III: Son, Husband, Father, Widower”?  I don’t think so.  Then again, there are plenty of books about Henry VIII which focus far more on his marriages than on such trivial matters as the Reformation or the Battle of Flodden Field!   And, by Victoria’s time, the life of the monarch and political/economic/social events were no longer as intertwined as they were in the days when the monarch ruled as well as reigned.

It’s very frustrating how Queen Victoria is depicted as being emotionally and politically dependent on Prince Albert, and, equally, how Queen Anne is depicted as being emotionally and politically dependent on her friends.  I once read a book – may have been by J H Plumb, but I’m not sure – which compared Queen Anne’s court to an Angela Brazil novel, with Anne as the new girl and the Duchess of Marlborough as the Head Girl.  Would anyone make similar comments about, say Edward III and Alice Perrers, or Edward II and Hugh Despenser the younger, or James I and the Duke of Buckingham?   No, would they heck as like!

But then a male sovereign is not going to have undergone nine pregnancies, most of them followed by post natal depression.  If we look at our female sovereigns, excluding Lady Jane Grey who only lasted nine days, we’ve had Mary I and her phantom pregnancies, Mary II who had one miscarriage and was unable to conceive again, Anne who (before becoming queen) had seventeen pregnancies but no surviving children (that poor, poor woman), Victoria who had nine pregnancies during the first two decades of her reign, and Elizabeth I who chose not to marry but then had the problem of determining the succession.  Our present queen is the first one whose reign hasn’t been significantly affected by issues relating to childbearing.

Lucy really doesn’t like Prince Albert.  At one point, she describes him as being “pompous and cruel”.  I think that’s a bit much.  OK, he was clearly very insensitive towards his wife and children, but Victoria adored him, he did a lot for the country, and, if he were around now, he’d be in therapy for a long list of issues, most of them probably resulting from what happened with his mother.   She plays down the romantic element of the match between Victoria and Albert, stressing the arranged marriage element instead, and even says that it was Albert who insisted on having so many children.   We’ve all heard the “fun in bed” question, we all know that Victoria didn’t want to breastfeed, and, according to Lucy, Victoria knew about birth control but (presumably for religious reasons?) didn’t approve of it.

So I don’t really see how anyone can claim that Albert was solely responsible for how many children they had.  She also says that, after her marriage, Victoria stops commenting in her diary that she’s worried about her weight, because Albert gave her more self confidence about her appearance.  Give the man a break!

There are a lot of references, tied into the image of family life, to the idea of a middle class monarchy, intended to win the support of the class which held political power from 1832.   Fair point to some extent.  And I think  (apologies for making a sweeping generalisation) that “Good Old Teddy” was far more popular amongst the upper and working classes than Victoria was.  But from 1867, and even more so from 1884, the upper working classes had the vote, even if they weren’t actually becoming Members of Parliament.  And are the middle classes really the only ones with the family values?   I think this gets overstated, especially given the upper middle classes were so keen on sending their kids away to boarding school.   Having nine children was more typing of the working classes than the upper classes, by Victorian times.

She also points out that some people in Ireland referred to Victoria as “the Famine Queen”, and that Duleep Singh allegedly referred to her as “Mrs Fagin” because Britain took the Koh-i-Noor diamond.  It’s something that still happens today, the blaming of senior members of the Royal Family for something that was the fault of politicians or the Armed Forces or business interests.   Prince William has recently been attacked by Caribbean politicians as if he were personally to blame for the slave trade, and booed by Liverpool “fans” as if he were personally to blame for the cover-up over Hillsborough.  It’s not very nice, and it’s certainly not very fair.  But it’s what happens.  As well as the interest in the personality of the monarch, they (and their heirs) become the personification of the nation.  And Victoria in some ways was the personification of an age.  Even books written about the USA ,and other countries which weren’t part of the British Empire, refer to “Victorians”.

Lucy herself is full of praise for Victoria: she acknowledges that she had faults and made mistakes – don’t we all? – but the overall picture she presents is a very positive one.   She gives her a lot of credit for working out a way to reign successfully at a time when a) the political power of the monarch was all but gone and b) many people (so Lucy says) had issues with the idea of a female monarch.   The Crimean War is pinpointed as being a crucial time in the history of the monarchy, with the introduction of the VC, Victoria’s own idea, and Victoria’s letters to wounded soldiers, really making people feel that she cared.  And we do need to know that the monarch cares.   Look at all the calls for the Queen to speak to us after Diana died.  Look at the effect which the Queen’s speech in the early weeks of lockdown had.   And it meant so much to everyone in Manchester when the Queen came in person to visit those injured in the Arena bombing.  The monarch is the head of the nation, and the person to whom people look to lead us in times of trouble, and also in times of celebration.  No politician could ever do that in the same way

The overall message of the book is that Victoria might have seemed like an ordinary woman, but that she was actually an extraordinary woman who led an extraordinary life.  Well, there’s no arguing with that.  Nor is there any arguing with the fact that Elizabeth II is also an extraordinary, ordinary woman leading an extraordinary life.   Great book by Lucy Worsley, and God Save The Queen!

 

Lucy Worsley Investigates: The Witch Hunts – BBC 2

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Do not get me started on the subject of the “Witch Way” bus route, which runs very close to my house and is so named because it originally linked Manchester with the Pendle area, and some bloke evidently thought that using Pendle Witch Trials as a silly gimmick was appropriate.  It isn’t.  At least they’ve removed those pictures of a very sexy-looking witch, sat astride a broomstick, from the sides of the buses.  And, when I visited Salem in Massachusetts in 2019, I was rather bemused to see the “Witch City Mall”, home to a variety of shops, restaurants and beauty parlours.  I appreciate that tourism is big business, but the witch hunts which took place in Britain, across Europe and in America, mainly from 1450 to 1750, weren’t some sort of Disney film.  Thousands of people, most of them women, were judicially murdered; and we saw Lucy Worsley getting distressed, to the point of tears, as she talked about the horrors to which these women were subjected, the terrible fear that other women must have felt that they could be the next to be accused, and how little we hear of their voices, their real stories.

In Britain, witch hunting on a large scale, with the involvement of the central authorities, really began during the reign of James I of England/James VI of Scotland, who was apparently convinced that witchcraft caused a storm which nearly sank his ship as he returned from Denmark, where witch hunts were already common, in 1590 (at which point he was king of Scotland, but Elizabeth I still ruled in England).  This programme focused on the North Berwick trials, which took place shortly afterwards, and particular on the case of Agnes Sampson, the first to be accused.

As a slight aside, do people still take lucky mascots/charms into exams with them?  I used to take a miniature Good Luck Care Bear (remember care bears?!) and a lump of coal, but my elder nephew (aged 13) recently had school exams, and apparently lucky mascots aren’t a thing any more.  Or maybe they are, but only for girls.  I know that some men have lucky pants or lucky socks which they wear for football matches, but I don’t really want to think about other people’s pants, so let’s not go there.   However, lucky charms/amulets, often used by women in childbirth, were apparently considered a sign of witchcraft by the supposedly “godly” witch hunters – although not as much so as marks on the body.  As Lucy explained, there was a strong sexual element to the witch hunts.   There always is, isn’t there?  Men using religion to try to control women.  People getting caught up in some sort of hysterical frenzy.  And all these people, mostly women, being tortured into making confessions, and horribly executed – with Scotland having one of the highest rates of witch execution of any country.

Thankfully, even Lucy realised that this wasn’t an occasion for dressing up.  We got a lot of shots of her sitting in the back of a car, walking around and reading original texts, but she was dressed in Puritanical black and white, as she explained how the Reformation turned up the religious temperature, and both Protestants and Catholics alike got caught up in an obsessive fear of the devil and his works, with local folk healers/wise women, living peacefully in their communities, generally the main targets.  Agnes Sampson, an ordinary women from a small village, found herself hauled up before the king, and then physically and mentally tortured until, broken, she confessed to whatever they asked, and gave the names of other people as well.

As Lucy described the horrible death which Agnes met, garroted and then burnt at the stake, she did become quite emotional, and was really rather moving.  This is a horrible part of history.  Lucy said that the stories of the witches weren’t well-known.  Well, maybe the stories of the Scottish witches aren’t, but the stories of the Lancashire witches are, because they’ve been turned into novels, and even used as gimmicks by tourist authorities and bus companies.   And the term “witch-hunt” is still widely used, to describe a frenzied campaign against people, often innocent, who are perceived to be some sort of threat.   But, as Lucy said the voices of the real women involved aren’t often heard.  She tried very hard to put those voices across, in what made for a fascinating hour’s TV.   Very, very good programme.

Downton Abbey: A New Era

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I enjoyed every minute of this.  If you’re looking for a couple of hours of old style, feelgood escapism, and you’re able to get to the pictures to see this, then I highly recommend that you do so.  Yes, all right, it’s all a bit cliched and predictable, and no doubt some people will complain that it doesn’t even touch on the terrible hardship faced by so many people in the late 1920s; but it’s entertaining, and it feels like catching up with old friends.

And it’s got some of the more glamorous aspects of the 1920s down to a tee.  ITV were guilty of a few anachronisms in the TV series, but the film, like the first film, gets it spot on.  Especially the costumes.  The tennis whites.   I’m so glad that the AELTC still make players wear all white clothing, and I’m also glad that coloured cricket pyjamas have so far been kept out of Test matches!   And the hats.  Lots of wonderful hats!

There are two main storylines.  One is that the Crawleys have been approached by a company wanting to use Downton Abbey as a film location.  Lord Grantham and Carson are both horrified, but the money is needed for repairs to a leaking roof.  And it all gets a bit Singin’ in the Rain as the film is turned from a silent movie into a talkie. The other is that the Dowager Countess has acquired a villa in the South of France, left to her by an old admirer, and intends to hand it over to little Sybbie.  Cue a party from Downton heading off to the glamorous Riviera, with Edith, resuming her career as a journalist, writing an article about the appeal of the area to the likes of F Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.  All very 1920s.

Lady Mary stays at Downton to oversee the film making.  The beautiful leading lady turns out to be rude and unpleasant, but it turns out that she’s worried about her Cockney accent ending her career now that talkies are coming in.   She eventually learns to do an American accent, and heads off to find fame in Hollywood.  However, they need someone with a posh voice to dub her lines in the film they’re making at Downton.   Now, who could possibly step in to save the day?  And the suave leading man, whom all the women fancy, turns out to be gay … and Barrow is in need of a new love interest after his previous boyfriend decided to marry a woman.  Nul points for working out what happens, but it’s all good fun.

Meanwhile, in the South of France, Carson is refusing to dress for the climate or to learn a word of French, and is going around muttering about how the English do everything properly and the French haven’t got a clue, Lord Grantham fears that the marquis whose villa it was may have been his natural father, and Lady Grantham is worried about her health.  Of course, everything turns out OK in the end.

Tom and Lucy get married at the start of the film.  Daisy and Andy are already married.  Edith and Bertie are happy with their new baby … and everyone seems to accept that Marigold is Edith’s illegitimate daughter, but not to be bothered about it.  Anna and Mr Bates are also happy with little Johnny.   Miss Baxter is after Mr Molesley, and Mrs Patmore is after Mr Mason: the course of true love never doth run smooth, but you know that both ladies are going to bag their chaps in the end.  The only person who isn’t happy is Lady Mary, but that was because Matthew Goode wasn’t available for the film, so we’re told that Henry is off doing something with cars.

There’s a sad storyline towards the end, but it was made clear towards the end of the previous film that that was coming.  And, after it, the film does end on a high note.

Don’t be expecting to be too intellectually challenged by this, but do expect to enjoy it, and to come out with a big smile on your face.  It’s lovely.

 

 

 

Gentleman Jack (series 2) – BBC 1

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Hooray!   Finally, we’re back to having some decent “period drama” to watch on a Sunday evening.  Other than sport, Sunday evening TV has been dire for weeks.  So welcome back, Anne Lister and Ann Walker, and Shibden Hall.

This must be an extremely demanding role for Suranne Jones, because Anne Lister is in practically every scene.  And she spends half those scenes striding about very energetically, in between corresponding with her ex, dealing with her business affairs, managing her household, catching up with her relatives, dealing with Ann’s relatives and actually spending some time with Ann!

Even when she’s taking time out from all of that, she’s addressing the viewer.  That’s a reminder that this is an adaptation of Anne Lister’s diaries – and another result of that is that some of the other characters sometimes seem a bit caricatured, because we’re seeing them through Anne’s eyes, not in a more balanced, rounded way.  Having said that, a lot of Dickensian characters and even some of Austen’s characters are deliberately caricatured, so it’s something that doesn’t seem out of place in a drama set in the 19th century.

It would have been nice to see more about Ann Walker, though.  Anne Lister seemed to be very comfortable in her own skin, even if other people weren’t always very comfortable with her personality and behaviour, but Ann Walker suffered badly from depression and anxiety.   It’s thought that that was partly because, unlike Anne Lister, she found it a struggle to reconcile her faith and her sexuality, and that’s something which it might have been interesting for the series to explore, especially with all the talk at the moment about the upset caused by conversion therapy.

However, it’s just great to have a decent period drama in the Sunday 9pm slot again, at last, and particularly great that it’s a northern drama – OK, it’s Yorkshire and not Lancashire or the Lakes 🙂 , but Rievaulx Abbey looked mighty fine in the scenes set there, and it’s always good to see the hard-working, world-leading 19th century industrial north on screen – and that it’s female-led.   And there’ve even been stories of people saying that the first series helped them to accept themselves.  No-one’s even making a huge big deal of the fact that this is a series about a same sex relationship: the comments mainly seem to be about Anne’s constant striding (she really does do a lot of striding!) and the locations used for filming.

It’s not exactly relaxing watching, because Anne is on the go practically all the time!   Even the Rievaulx Abbey sketching party scene was a bit hectic, because Anne was striding about whilst the others were sketching!   But I wasn’t bored for a single moment, and nothing about it was unconvincing either.  A really good hour’s TV.  Welcome back, Gentleman Jack!

Thatcher and Reagan: A Very Special Relationship – BBC 2

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Those of us who grew up in the 1980s saw the likes of Mikhail Gorbachev (who comes from a village near the Russo-Ukrainian border, brought glasnost to the old USSR and must be absolutely devastated at what’s going on at the moment), Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa bestriding the world stage (I like that expression).  Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and to some extent Helmut Kohl were also part of that.

Going back into history, you find, to name but a few, Churchill, Disraeli, Gladstone, Bismarck, Metternich, Louis XIV, Elizabeth I, Charles the Bold, Henry V, Saladin, William the Conqueror, Harald Hardrada, Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great … on and on and on.  Where are all the world leaders now?!   That new German Chancellor’s so anonymous that I can only remember his name because it makes me think of the snowman in Frozen, and the rest of them aren’t much better.   And how is banning Russian players from Wimbledon supposed to help anyone?  Maybe that’s why everyone’s so into Zelenskyy, because he actually *has* got something about him.

Anyway.  Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were obviously both quite controversial figures at home, but this programme wasn’t about that; and I was impressed that the BBC, which often seems to forget that it’s supposed to be politically neutral, respected that – and focused on the relationship between the two, which was what it said on the tin.

We even got some Freudian-type stuff about how Ronald liked Maggie because strong women reminded him on his mother, and how Maggie liked Ronald because she was keen on glamorous, powerful men.  That does rather make one wonder how she ended up with Denis, who was many things but certainly not glamorous, but never mind.

It’s rather frightening how dated the video shots from the ’80s and early ’90s look now, but I’m trying not to think about that.  I’m still trying to process the fact that the Miami Open was won by someone who was born in 2003, and that the defeated finalist was someone whose dad I remember as a young teenage pro.  And how on earth is Brooklyn Beckham old enough to get married, when surely it was only five minutes ago that he was an adorable toddler kicking a ball round the pitch at Old Trafford after we won the league in, er, the year 2000?  Oh, and, speaking of the ’80s and early ’90s, remember the Berlin Wall coming in November 1989, Nelson Mandela being released from prison in February 1990, and those precious few months of thinking that we’d finally reached an age of peace?   It all went kaput when Iraq invaded Kuwait in July 1990, before The Scorpions had even released “Wind of Change”, but it was nice whilst it lasted.

This first episode really was quite interesting, because there was so much about that personal bond and what helped them to form it, and how Mrs Thatcher (as she was then) coped with being a woman in a man’s world.  I’m not sure that we needed quite so much psycho-analysis about the significance of her handbag, though.  Why are people so obsessed with the Queen’s handbag and Maggie Thatcher’s handbag?!   They should see the contents of mine – talk about everything but the kitchen sink.

I wish we could get back to a point where Anglo-American relations are as close as they were then, but we don’t seem to have had another pair of leaders who’ve got on so well.  Blair and Clinton, to some extent, but both of them were very narcissistic and I don’t think that they worked together anything like as well as Thatcher and Reagan did.

Also, even with the Gulf Wars, there wasn’t the sense of the common enemy that there was in the days of the Cold War.  I never really got the Cold War, TBH.  OK, it was coming to an end by the time I was old enough to understand much about it, but I think it was because people were always talking about “the Russians”, rather than “the communists” of “the Soviets”.  I like Russia.  Not easy then and not easy at the moment, but all that Russians-as-baddies stuff has never worked for me.  But it did for Thatcher and Reagan … until Gorbachev came along, and we’ll hear more about that next week.

A lot of this was about the issue of American nuclear weapons being based in Britain, and in Western Europe, and how Thatcher and Reagan worked very closely together on that, but we also saw them having their differences over trade issues, and over the lack of overt  American support for Britain during the Falklands War.

All in all, I thought it was very well-presented.  Too many BBC programmes these days take a very biased political viewpoint, and or try to make the issues of the past about the issues of today, like that ridiculous programme in 2017 which tried to make out that the Reformation was somehow linked to Brexit, or that Simon Schama programme which tried to link William Blake to Darth Vader.  This one did what it was meant to do, and it did it rather well.

 

A Place to Hang the Moon by Kate Albus

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I quite liked the idea of this book, about three young orphaned evacuees hoping to find a new family during the Second World War.  There was a bit of a Noel Streatfeild feel to it, and I loved the fact that the children were always reading and that a lot of the action centred on the local library.  Also, the snowball fight with forts and snow angels sounded distinctly Chalet School-esque!  The characters were mostly very convincing, and it could have been a very good book with a bit more attention to detail.

Unfortunately, the American author seemed to have done very little research into her subject.  There were irritating errors such as the school summer holidays taking place in June and July, when it’s July and August in England.  There were frequent mentions of rationing, but I honestly don’t think that she quite understood what it meant, because everyone always seemed to be eating cakes, biscuits and chocolate.  And we were informed that the wireless reports about air raids gave out so much detail that listeners were even told exactly which streets had been hit.  Hardly.

The use of American language by British characters grated as well, especially as I’m not sure that terms such as “students” and “assignments”, rather than “pupils” and “homework”, would have been used even in the US in 1940, but, OK, the book’s aimed at young American readers, and I accept that children of that age might be confused by unfamiliar terms such as “autumn” or “nappy”.  But the errors about the war and the school holiday times were disappointing.   And it was a shame, because, as I said, the characters worked very well and it could have been a very good book had a little bit more effort been made.

The plot was actually pretty daft, but I suppose it was no more unlikely than those in a lot of older books for young children, and this definitely had a pleasantly old-fashioned feel to it.  Our three children, two brothers and a sister, were orphans from a well-to-do family, living with their grandmother in London.  Oh, and that’s another thing.  Why are fictional evacuees *always* from London?!   You’d think that no-one was ever evacuated from any other city?  Gah!

Anyway, when she died, they apparently had no other relatives, family friends or anyone else to take them in.  They were at boarding school, so the logical thing would have been for them to spend their holidays at those hostel type places for children whose parents were in India etc, and for their solicitor to act as their legal guardian.  But, OK, children’s books aren’t always logical, so the rather bonkers idea which the solicitor came up with was to evacuate them to a village in the Midlands along with the pupils from a nearby state day primary school (er, even though the eldest boy was 12) and hope that the family with whom they were billeted would adopt them.  Er, right.  But not to mention the fact that they had money, so that they wouldn’t attract any gold diggers.

Of course, they had a couple of disastrous billets, and various problems at school, but did eventually end up with a very nice lady who was happy to adopt all three of them.   It was a lovely ending, and it was a lovely book in many ways, but those errors about Britain in general and wartime Britain in particular really were rather annoying.

The Secrets of Ashmore Castle by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

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  I wasn’t convinced about this at first, because, whilst, the Kirov trilogy, the Morland books and the War At Home books all very much revolved around national and international events, this one was almost entirely about the personal lives of both upstairs and downstairs characters.  I did get into it, though, and will definitely be looking out for the rest of the series.  There were a few references to Edward VII’s coronation and to the Boer War, and – was this a nod to Highclere Castle, with its Downton Abbey connections 🙂 ? – Howard Carter made an appearance, but it was mainly about people’s love lives and finances, which wasn’t entirely what I’d been hoping for.  There were a few middle class characters who got involved with free libraries (which seemed oddly mid-Victorian for 1902, but still) and look as if they may get involved with the suffragettes in future books, though, so fingers crossed for some more meaty historical stuff in future books.  And it was still very enjoyable, and I’m sure it’ll be popular.

There were a lot of characters, the story kept flitting between them, and it was very much a scene setter, start of a series book.  There’s obviously a lot more to come!  The rather Enid Blyton-esque title suggested that there’d be hidden passages behind portraits with strange eyes, leading to secret mines or treasure troves.   There weren’t!   But there were a few hints at mysteries to be resolved in later books.

The basic plot (without too many spoilers – this all happened at the beginning!)  was that the Earl of Stainton had broken his neck in a hunting accident, as you do; and his son and heir therefore had to be summoned home, to Buckinghamshire, from his archaeological expedition in Egypt.  At the same time, the younger son left the Army and also came home.  And there were three daughters, one married, two not yet “out”.  Incidentally, would a Victorian earl and countess really have named two of their daughters Linda and Rachel?  The youngest was Alice, which was a fairly typical aristocratic name at the time, but Lady Linda and Lady Rachel?!   Anyway, it turned out that the estate had been badly run for years, and that the late earl had spent what money there was on his fancy woman and membership of expensive London clubs, so the best bet for the new earl was to find a rich wife.  Off he went to the London Season, where he met a wonderful girl with no money, and her sweet, shy best friend, whom he didn’t fancy but who was rolling in it.  Typical, eh?

Oh, and his grandma was still alive.  And living on Bruton Street.  Obviously this was 24 years before a certain significant birth took place in that neck of the woods, but it was mentioned that the Strathmores were her neighbours 😉 .

It seemed at first that the upper class characters were all going to be either callous or naive and the servants were all going to be either stupid and obsequious or sly and devious, but the characterisation did very much improve as the book went on, and I do want to know what happens to them all.  Don’t be expecting Gone With The Wind, but this is a nice read on a dark autumn night.

 

 

Ridley Road – BBC 1

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It’s not often that the TV adaptation of a book is better than the book itself, but writer Sarah Solemani, and executive producer Nicola Shindler from Whitefield, have done an excellent job with this.  Oh, and I’ll just point out that a lot of it was filmed in Manchester, in Bolton and in Ashton-under-Lyne.

It’s quite a bold move by the BBC to show this in the iconic Sunday 9pm slot, usually associated with cosy Georgian or Victorian-era costume drama, but the fact that some of the actors, notably Tracy-Ann Oberman, have spoken of their concerns at the risk of receiving abuse on social media *because* of it – especially given their experiences of such abuse in the recent past – just shows how much it’s needed.

The story’s been completely changed.  In the book – review here – the central character Vivien has recently been orphaned, moves from Manchester to London to look up someone she’d briefly gone out with whilst he was staying with her family, and finds out that he’s involved in the 62 Group, working against the National Socialist Movement*, and also that her late father was involved in its wartime predecessor, the 43 Group.  It’s mostly the men who are involved in the action, with the women watching from the sidelines and mopping up the blood.  However, in this TV version, Vivien is part of an overbearing family trying to push her into a marriage with a family friend, and then runs off to London in pursuit of the man she really loves, finds out that he’s involved in the 62 Group, and becomes actively involved herself.

I wasn’t all that keen on the overbearing family, who were rather stereotypical and seemed to have walked straight out of the pages of a Maisie Mosco book, but I think the idea was to give her a safe, cosy background and for her then to find out that danger lurks in the outside world, and you can understand the reasoning behind that, especially as this clearly is very personal to many of those involved.

Nicola Shindler’s spoken about how she herself resigned from the Labour Party because of the culture of anti-Semitism that had been allowed to flourish under Corbyn’s leadership, and Tracy-Ann Oberman, who plays Nancy, has spoken about the horrific online abuse she received from Corbyn supporters.  Earlier this year, there were some deeply unpleasant incidents in which mobs drove through predominantly Jewish areas of London and Manchester, shouting threats.  And, as the story shows, and which oddly seems to be have been forgotten in recent times, people who attack one minority group will often attack another minority group too: we saw a mixed race character receiving abuse from members of the National Socialist Movement.

A bit more background information would have been useful.  We kept being told that Vivien and Jack had had some great romance, but we didn’t see any of it.  And that her parents had split them up, but it wasn’t clear how or why.  We were made aware that there’d been a big falling-out between Vivien’s parents and her uncle and auntie, who were very involved in the 62 Group, but we didn’t really find out why.  And some of the depictions of Jewish religious rituals may well have been confusing to people who weren’t familiar with them.  But it’s only a four-part series, and you can only fit so much in.

*The 62 Group.  In July 1962, the National Socialist Movement held a mass rally in Trafalgar Square under the slogan “Free Britain from Jewish Control”. A riot broke out at the rally, and, shortly afterwards, the 62 Group was set up.  The timeline got a bit muddled in the programme, but that was because the writers obviously felt it important to show the rally – to show swastikas being waved in Trafalgar Square, and people saying all sorts, because there were no laws against hate speech then.  There are a lot of issues now because it’s so difficult to stop hate speech on social media, and the programme did show how important and essential legislation is.

It also showed how easy it is for rabble rousers to whip up hatred.  Vivien’s landlady, who seemed like a harmless little old lady, was going along to meetings, where local Fascist leaders were going on about how corner shops were being forced to close down because Jewish-owned Tesco were opening supermarkets.  People twist tropes and stereotypes to suit themselves and the issues of the time, and it soon escalates.

One stereotype which the authors have spoken about trying to challenge is that of the minority groups who are victims.  This is Black History Month.  I have seen dozens of lists of “recommended reading”.  Nearly every book on those lists has been centred on accusing white people of racism, rather than saying anything positive about the achievements of black people.  This series is very much about fighting back, about challenging those who attack minorities.  The police and the authorities were seen as doing little to help, and that has some parallels with today, if not here than certainly in the US.

All in all, it’s a challenging story, and, as I said, it’s a bold move by the BBC to show it, especially in that iconic timeslot.  Nobody wants this sort of thing to be making headlines.  No minority group wants to see prejudice against them being all over the news, and becoming a political issue.  Nobody wants to have to form a 62 Group.  But the writers and actors have spoken out about how necessary this series is, and bravo to the BBC (and I don’t often say that!) for recognising that.