Great British Railway Journeys (series 12) – BBC 2

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 I wasn’t sure how this was going to pan out, but Michael Portillo and BBC 2 have done an excellent job of adapting to Covid restrictions; and they managed to make Slough, Pinner, Hatch End and various other places which, with all due respect, don’t scream “glamour”, sound very interesting!   Windsor, Winchester and Oxford added some rather more traditional interest, along with Downton Abbey (OK, Highclere Castle), and we even got to see Michael riding on Thomas the Tank Engine along the “Watercress Line” heritage railway in Hampshire.

The theme was the 1930s, and we heard about a wide range of subjects relating to that decade, although we did also cross into the 1920s and 1940s.  We got the Abdication, the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, the establishment of the spinal injuries unit at Stoke Mandeville, the opening of a Mars factory 🙂 in Slough, Heath Robinson’s cartoons and the model village at Bekonscot, to name but a few.  And, of course, we got Thomas the Tank Engine!  The second week’s going to cover the Kindertransport, Sutton Hoo, the (in)famous Summerhill School and 1930s art in the first episode alone, so they really are packing a lot into each half hour slot.

The pandemic wasn’t really mentioned, but we did see Michael wearing his (garishly-coloured) mask on the trains, and he only spoke to one person at a time – no big groups, no joining in with dancing or other activities.  And he’s unlikely to be filming abroad any time soon.  But it didn’t spoil any of the programmes.  This is what we’re all having to do at the moment – adapt as best we can, and try to find interesting things to see and do within the restrictions.  It’s lovely to see another series of this, and it’s wonderful that they’ve been able to film it despite everything that’s been going on.

Great British Railway Journeys, the Battle of Cable Street – BBC 2

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I really want Michael Portillo’s job. As well as the current series of Great British Railway Journeys, we’ve got Great Asian Railway Journeys and another series of Great American Railroad Journeys coming up, and we’ve not long since had Great Australian Railway Journeys.   And, as well as seeing some fascinating places, he also gets to meet some fascinating people, like Beatty, 102-year-old East End matriarch and veteran of the Battle of Cable Street.

Like the Jarrow Crusade, which took place the same month, and the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass, four years earlier, the Battle of Cable Street showed how ordinary people, many of them living in extreme poverty, and labelled as troublemakers by the authorities, came together to stand up for themselves. In this case, especially with the use of the “No Pasaran” slogan famously used during the Siege of Madrid (I’ve recently acquired a book about British volunteers in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War, but haven’t had time to read it yet), it also showed how well aware people were of what was going on in Germany, Spain, Italy and elsewhere, and how determined they were to prevent it from happening here. What a wonderful lady – 102 years old, broad Cockney accent, so very eloquent. We need so much to listen to the stories of people like her whilst they’re still here to tell them.

The Jarrow Crusade’s already been covered during this series, and it’s an interesting take on the 1930s, talking about that and the Battle of Cable Street, and also about seaside resorts, the development of television, the growth of car production and the popularity of the cinema, as well as the horrific poverty caused by the Depression.  I’m in the middle of reading a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and every single thing it says about the 1930s is doom and gloom.  Awareness of the Battle of Cable Street was raised about a year ago by, of all things, an episode of EastEnders, in which Dr Legg talked about how he met his future wife there. Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists planned to march through the East End. Locals protested to the Home Office, to no avail, and the marchers were given a police escort. Demonstrators built barricades to block their way, all sorts of things from stones to rotten vegetables to the contents of chamber pots were thrown, and the marchers were forced to turn back.

The police then clashed with the demonstrators, and around 150 people were arrested … but it’s the demonstrators who are remembered as heroes. Let all those who claim that the working-classes don’t understand anything about politics watch this, and learn … and, hey, also learn that there was a time when left-wing groups, which were heavily involved in organising the resistance to the march, actually opposed anti-Semitism.  And how wonderful was Beatty, talking about her experiences that day – how horrified she was actually to see Oswald Mosley in the flesh, how many people turned out to resist the march, how determined she was to play her part.

Many different sections of the community came together to organise the resistance to the march. People can do a lot when they pull together – whereas, now, too many people seem interested only in hurling abuse at others, making nasty generalisations about anyone who doesn’t agree with them, or turning everything into party politics and point-scoring.

We could really do with getting back to the more community-minded culture of the 1930s.

Michael said that it’d been a privilege to meet Beatty.  It was also a privilege for viewers to hear what she had to say.  I love these programmes so much!   You wouldn’t think that watching an ex-politician going around on trains could be so interesting, but it really, really is!

 

Great British Railway Journeys (series 11!!) – BBC 2

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The North has spoken: hear the voice of the North! We’re in the 1930s in this latest series of Michael Portillo’s wonderful railway programme, which I am always so pleased to see in the TV schedules, and we’re in the beautiful North East. We got, packed into the space of half an hour, Newcastle’s bridges, Durham cathedral, greyhound racing, fish and chips and artwork – but the most important part was the first stop, the visit to Jarrow, best-known (with all due respect to the Venerable Bede) for the Jarrow Crusade of 1936. There were a number of hunger marches during the inter-war years, but the Jarrow Crusade – led by a woman from Manchester (had to get that bit in!) – is the one that’s really gone down in history. Strangely, this is the first time that I’ve actually seen one of the famous Jarrow Crusade banners in the flesh, so to speak. Like the banners carried at Peterloo, and on the suffragette marches, it was hand-made, and a lot of work went into it. There’s something fascinating about those banners. The ones carried during the Jarrow Crusade are such iconic images of the Depression.

The banners were in neutral colours, because none of this was partisan.  No-one was trying to score political points, to oppose anyone else.  Everyone was trying to work together.  I wish we saw more of that now.  People seem to want to politicise everything now, even something like the Australian wildfire crisis.  We so badly need to get back to working together.

The Jarrow Crusaders were refused support by the London-based leadership of all the main political parties, and by the trade unions.  There’d been some trouble at some previous hunger marches, and there were concerns about infiltration by communist agitators about whom everyone was paranoid about the time … and the authorities were more concerned about that than about the plight of Jarrow, where, following the closure of the shipyard which had been the town’s main employer, unemployment stood at 80% and child mortality at 11%.  There’d been hopes that a steelworks could be opened in the area, but it hadn’t happened – not least because British iron and steel bosses objected to the American investment that was on offer.  The BBC mentioned that the Bishop of Jarrow blessed the crusade, but didn’t mention that the Bishop of Durham denounced it.

However, there was heartwarming support at most of the places where the marchers stopped along the way.  They were given accommodation, food and clothing, and cobblers worked through the night to repair their shoes.  That included local branches of all the political parties, despite what the leadership said, as well as other local organisations.   People can be wonderful.  Sadly, the Crusade didn’t really bring about any action at the time, and it was, as the local historian whom Michael spoke to said, the war which rescued Jarrow’s economy; but it did do a lot to raise awareness of the issues faced by communities left behind by deindustrialisation.  Unfortunately, 84 years later, we’re still not dealing with these issues, and the dismissive attitude of many in the London bubble towards areas affected has got worse rather than better.  Long live the spirit of the Jarrow Crusaders, and well done to BBC 2 for highlighting it in this opening episode.

What else?  Greyhound racing in Byker.  No reference to Byker Grove!  A lot of talk about fish and chips – a very important subject!  Artwork in Spennymoor – and I’m going to show my age and say that, whilst I associate Byker with Byker Grove, I associate Spennymoor with George Courtney 🙂 .  And we saw Michael staying at a lovely railway hotel.  So many of the best hotels in the country started off as railway hotels.

There are a lot of railway programmes around at the moment.  Michael Buerk’s been talking about Victorian railways.  Chris Tarrant’s been talking about the importance of railways during the First World War.  There’s something fascinating and romantic about railways.  Well, past railways, anyway!  I’m so glad to see this back for yet another series, and this was a great start to it.

Heaton Park on Great British Railway Journeys – BBC 2

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All right, it was only for a few minutes, but I was very excited about it!  Several generations of my family have spent numerous hours of their lives in Heaton Park.  My primary school was (and indeed still is) next door to the park.  We used to have Sports Days there.  In the second year infants, we had a “nature table” on which we proudly displayed leaves, twigs, pine cones and assorted other things which we’d carefully collected during walks there. When we were in the juniors, we went there to do “educational” things like drawing pictures of Heaton Hall, although we were far more interested in rolling down hills and throwing bits of grass at each other.  At weekends, my sister and I would sit on “the lions”.  Everyone who grew up round here remembers sitting on “the lions”!  When we were older, we took our little cousin there.  I still go there a lot: I live within walking distance.  It’s rare for me to be there for more than a few minutes without seeing someone I know.  I watch all Michael Portillo’s railway programmes, and this one felt like the series was coming right to my doorstep.

In last night’s episode, Michael arrived in our great and wonderful city at Victoria station, and then visited the Manchester Art Gallery – not so much to look at the art as to discuss the 1913 attack on the gallery by three suffragettes.  Yes, all right, all right, damaging artwork is not ideal, even though the idea was only to damage to glass casings, but campaigners for women’s suffrage had tried to make their point by peaceful means, and got nowhere.  This particular attack took place on the day after Emmeline Pankhurst had been given a three year prison sentence.

Oh, and you could see my favourite cafe, The Vienna Coffee House, in the background, as Michael was going into the art gallery.  Sadly, he didn’t pop in for a drink and one of their highly recommended cakes, salads or sandwiches afterwards, but I’m just giving it a mention even so 🙂 .  I’ve been going there ever since it first opened.  It’s extremely nice.

Michael also visited the site of St Peter’s Fields, where, of course, the Peterloo Massacre took place on August 16th, 1819.  The Free Trade Hall was built on the site in 1850s, and, in 1905, was the scene of the famous incident in which Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney heckled Sir Edward Grey, and were later, after refusing to pay a fine, carted off to Strangeways.  That was really the start of the militant phase of the suffragette campaign.  Michael talked about all of this, and also visited the Pankhurst family’s former home, now a museum and a women’s community centre.

With last year’s centenary of (some) women finally being given the vote, and this year’s forthcoming bicentennial of the Peterloo Massacre, there’s a lot of focus at the moment on Manchester’s history as a city – in fact, I’m going to say the city – which took the lead in the fight for democracy in the UK.  I am so, so proud of all this, and very pleased to see this part of our city’s history being covered in this lovely series.

I’d assumed that he was visiting Heaton Park – to which he travelled from town on the Metrolink – to see the Heritage Tramway, and that we’d be hearing all about how, back in the 1870s, the new Manchester to Bury line had to be diverted through an expensive tunnel because the Earl of Wilton, who owned the park and the hall before selling them to the council in 1902, refused to let it go through his land.  However, instead of focusing on selfish aristocrats, the visit to Heaton Park was all tied in with Manchester’s history as the city which promotes the rights and needs of the ordinary people.  Hooray!  (Although it was rather a shame that the tramway didn’t get to appear on TV.)

There’s a well-known local garage called Grimshaws.  Well, it’s now officially called Pentagon, but everyone still calls it Grimshaws.  I used to take my car there for MOTs, when I was in my old job.  Anyway, the garage developed from a bicycle shop owned by one William Grimshaw, who, when he wasn’t selling bikes, also sold gramophones, and was known as the “Gramophone King”.  In 1909, he heard the famous tenor Enrico Caruso sing at the Free Trade Hall. We used to have our secondary school Speech Days at the Free Trade Hall. They were horrendously boring, but being in the Free Trade Hall was always exciting.  I’m still annoyed that the council sold the Free Trade Hall off to be converted into a hotel.

Anyway, to get back to the point, the enterprising Mr Grimshaw recorded the concert (you’d never get away with doing that these days!), and then played the recording on a gramophone at Heaton Park a few days later.  This was the first time a gramophone concert had been held in the open air in this country.  40,000 people turned up!  And – despite our “lovely” climate – the idea soon caught on.  More concerts at Heaton Park, and William Grimshaw was also asked to hold gramophone concerts at other parks, first locally and then nationally.  There was no way that most people would have been able to go to concert halls regularly, and there wouldn’t have been that many tickets available anyway; but this brought music to the masses, and out in the fresh air which Edwardians were so obsessed with.  And it all started here.  Brilliant!

It was very exciting indeed – well, it was for me! – to see Michael sat on a bench on the path where you go up from the lake towards the hall and the farm centre.  And the aerial shots were amazing.  I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen aerial shots of Heaton Park before.  They looked so good!  And then he went out in the lake in one of the lovely rowing boats which are available to hire.  The far side of the lake, the wooded area, is just land, and behind it’s a car park, but, when I was a kid, I liked to pretend it was one of those islands that people got stranded on in Enid Blyton books, and that I was going to go there and have a big adventure.

I’d like to say that I used to play tennis there as well, but, being a fat and unfit kid, I was always better with imagining and daydreaming than exercise.  Oh well.  However, we heard all about the importance of the park in the changing role of women, as the Victorian era gave way to the Edwardian era, and how women would go to the park to cycle and to play tennis.  And, even better, to attend suffragette rallies held by the Pankhursts!  I’ve mentioned about fifty million times that I went to the same secondary school as Christabel, Sylvia and Adela Pankhurst, haven’t I?  We heard that crowds of up to 200,000 people (I’m sure I’ve heard 50,000, but I’ll definitely go with the figure of 200,000 given in the programme!) attended the great Heaton Park suffragette rally of 1908.  It didn’t mention the fact that suffragette activists burnt down the Heaton Park bowling pavilion … but they did.

I’m not going to say anything about burning down a bowling pavilion 😉 , but, had I been around in 1908, I’d like to think that I’d have been at that rally.  Had I been around in 1909, maybe I’d have been at the gramophone concert.  I did go to an Oasis concert at Heaton Park a century later, in 2009!   I have spent so much time in that park over the years!  Very, very exciting to see it featured in this lovely series.