Summer of Rockets – BBC 2

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This was fascinating.  I was expecting John le Carre, but it was more Antonia Forest.  I’m sure there’s plenty of spy stuff to come, but I’m far more interested in how sweet little Sasha copes with life at his snooty, sadistic boarding school (Stephen Poliakoff apparently hated it) and how his sister Hannah finds the London Season when she thinks that being a debutante’s a load of rubbish.  And there was a lot of suspense over a broken shoe outside Buckingham Palace.

It’s called “Summer of Rockets” because it’s set in 1958.  Hydrogen bombs, Cold War, etc.  But not much has really happened about that yet.  Not much has actually happened at all.  Apart from some sinister-looking men getting out of a car, the only real drama was Hannah’s mishap with her high heel.  But the characters are all so interesting that that doesn’t really matter.  Every scene’s telling.

Samuel Petrukhin, based on a combination of Poliakoff’s father and Poliakoff’s grandfather, invents and sells hearing aids – to customers including Winston Churchill.  He’s also in the process of inventing hospital pagers.  Clearly a very clever and successful man … but what he really wants is to climb the social ladder.  As a Russian-born Jewish man, who speaks with a pronounced accent even though he kids himself that he speaks pure RP, this isn’t going to be easy.  His right hand man, Courtney Johnson, is black.  You can imagine how the posh types in gentleman’s clubs react when “the darky and the Jew”, as one of them put it, turn up.  And Samuel wasn’t allowed to deal with Churchill during the war years, in case he was bugging the hearing aids.

Samuel’s wife, Miriam, is from the “Jewish aristocracy” – just like Poliakoff’s mother, the granddaughter of a baron.  She’s done all the debutante stuff, but she’s far more lacking in confidence than he is: she’s not kidding herself that it’s easy to gain acceptance when you haven’t got WASP credentials.  However, they’re both determined that their daughter Hannah has to be presented, and poor Hannah is packed off to etiquette school to learn how to walk the walk and talk the talk.  She thinks it’s all stupid.

Meanwhile, little Sasha, brilliantly played by young Toby Woolf from The Last Post, is sent to a posh boarding prep school, when he just wants to go to the local school.  The headmaster makes pointed remarks about how he’s the only Jewish boy there.  The other teachers (sorry, masters) make pointed remarks about him being the son of an inventor.  The poor kid’s clearly going to have a nightmare there.

At the start of the programme, at Glorious Goodwood, once their party’s finally been admitted, Sasha wanders off and is found by posh Kathleen Shaw (Keeley Hawes, who seems to be everywhere these days!), wife of an MP and war hero who seems to be suffering from shell shock.  There’s clearly something very dodgy about the Shaws, which is presumably where the spy stuff’s going to come in.  Samuel is desperate to be best buds with them, because they’re part of the social elite.  It’s obviously going to end in tears … but what I really want to know is how Sasha and Hannah are going to get on.  It was billed as a Cold War drama, but it’s also – I’ll say “also” rather than “actually”, because the spy stuff’s obviously coming – a period drama about class and elitism and outsiders.  And that’s more interesting than spy stuff!

What makes it particularly interesting is that it’s not stereotypical.  I think this can be very challenging for scriptwriters: if they create characters who fulfill stereotypes, they’re accused of perpetuating stereotypes, but, if they create characters who don’t, they’re accused of not accurately reflecting the experiences of particular demographic groups.  There was an argument over this twenty years ago, when Coronation Street brought in its first Asian family, the Desais, as the new owners of the corner shop.  The same arguments still go on now.  I want to say that we should just be looking at characters, not their ethnicity, religion, sexuality, gender identity, etc, but that doesn’t work either because then the issues relating to particular groups aren’t being reflected.

It’s a difficult one.  But I do like the fact that Samuel, Miriam and Courtney are all removed from stereotypes.  Courtney is not the stereotypical 1950s West Indian working-class man: he’s in a managerial role and “talks posh”.  We haven’t been told Samuel’s back story, but we can tell from his age that “Russian-born” doesn’t mean “fled the pogroms” (most of which weren’t even in Russia itself, whatever people may think!!) but rather means “post-Revolution emigre”.  Poliakoff’s Russian ancestors (thank you, Wikipedia!) owned a flat in a nice part of Moscow and a dacha in the countryside.

And Miriam’s from the “Jewish aristocracy”.  No-one talks much about the “Jewish aristocracy”.  There are books like The Matriarch and The Hare With Amber Eyes, about international banking dynasties, but not about people like Rufus Isaacs (Marquess of Reading), Ernest Cassel (before he converted to Catholicism), Poliakoff’s great-grandfather Samuel Montagu (Baron Swaythling), or Montagu’s nephew Sir Herbert Samuel.

Samuel’s not a very good social climber, TBH.  Why give your kids first names that scream “non-WASP”?   And he’s kidding himself that he sounds like an aristocrat: everyone can see that apart from him.  He’s a brilliant man, a genius inventor with so much going for him – but he wants to be accepted into upper-class society, and it’s obviously going to lead him into trouble.  That’s going to be interesting.  But what happens to Sasha and Hannah is going to be even more interesting.

The Bridge at Andau by James A Michener

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Do not bother reading this book!  It’s just arrant Cold War propaganda, and some of the comments in it verge on racism and homophobia to boot.  What a disappointment. I was looking for something about the 1956 Hungarian Uprising, and I’ve read some excellent works by James Michener in the past, but I’m not sure how I even got through this.  He just about stopped short of claiming that “the Russians” (had he never heard the word “Soviets”?!) ate little children and that communism condemned everyone to living on dry bread and water.  The West, by contrast, was apparently practically perfect in every way.  What happened in Hungary in 1956 was appalling, but I’m afraid that, in its own way, this book is pretty appalling as well.  This was not what I was hoping for.

I do appreciate that, in 1957, when this book was published, Cold War tensions were running high; but I still don’t expect this sort of bias in a book written by a respected 20th century American author.  It was the sort of language you expect in … I was going to say a Victorian book, but I think a better analogy might be a 17th century tract taking one side or the other over the various wars of religion.  What a shame, because the story of the Hungarian Uprising is an extremely important one, and the story of the 200,000 or so refugees one that’s often forgotten.

Andau is a village just inside Austria, on the border with Hungary.  In 1956, around 70,000 refugees crossed a small wooden bridge, the Brucke von Andau, from Hungary into Austria, and then walked the nine mile “Road to Freedom” to Andau itself, where they were given a warm welcome.  The bridge was destroyed by Soviet troops in November 1956.  It was rebuilt forty years later.  The book tells the story of conditions and emotions within Hungary in the build-up to the Uprising, of the horrors of the Soviet invasion and the brutal suppression of the Uprising, and of the flight of the refugees.  It should have been a fascinating and emotive read, but it was difficult to take in the story of the events through all the propaganda.

For example, he said that he’d spoken to some young married couples – but then started going on about how he thought they weren’t really married because the women weren’t wearing engagement or wedding rings, and then claim that communism meant that everyone in Hungary in the 1950s was so poor that they couldn’t afford to buy rings.  Pages and pages about how it was virtually impossible for anyone in communist Hungary to buy a car, whereas it was dead easy for the American working-classes to do so.

He also went on at length about how communism was the enemy of religion.  All right, to some extent obviously that’s true, but it was a fairly blatant attempt to appeal to conservative middle America.  As for saying that the troops from Soviet Central Asia were particularly brutal and that most of the Hungarian secret police were gay, and that any Hungarians who weren’t Jewish would have preferred the Nazi occupation to the Soviet occupation … I was just disgusted by what I was seeing on the page.  I would never have touched this book if I’d known it was going to be like this, but everything else I’ve read by James Michener’s been reasonably good.

What it wasn’t particularly was American propaganda.  He criticised the US for not doing more to help, and for not taking in more refugees.  But it was very much anti-Soviet, anti-communist propaganda.  It was fulsome in its praise of the heroic Hungarians, and the Austrians who welcomed the refugees – OK, that I could have lived with, despite the flowery language.  There was certainly heroism in Hungary, and the Austrians did welcome the refugees – and some of the refugee stories were very moving.  Some of the characters were real, others based on real people, or a combination of real people; but he does explain that.  And, yes, the communist regimes in Eastern Europe were often brutal, and what happened in Hungary in 1956 was horrific.

But this is not an account of what happened.  It’s just propaganda.  And it was a best seller.  It’s even got its own Wikipedia page!  That is frightening. I’m trying not to judge a book written in the 1950s by the standards of today, but propaganda is propaganda, in any generation.  And I didn’t expect it from James A Michener.  I’ve got another book on the 1956 Hungarian Uprising to read, and I just hope it’s a bit more objective than this one!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I was expecting McCarthyism and the space race …

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