The North Water – BBC 2

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Several blokes who all swear a lot have set sail for the Arctic, on a whaling mission.  Except that it’s not, because the one in charge is going to scupper the ship so that its owner can claim the insurance money.  Presumably he does plan to save himself.  One of the crew’s going to turn out to be a rapist and one’s going to turn out to be a murderer – not sure whether or not this is the same person.  Our hero, an Irish doctor with an East Midlands accent (most of the others are meant to come from Hull, although some of them sound more like they come from Leeds), is covering up some sort of secret, which seems to be that he was kicked out of the Army for deserting during the Indian Mutiny.  The media reviews don’t seem to have picked up on this.  I don’t know why, because it’s been made pretty obvious!   He spends a lot of time in his cabin, reading books by Homer.  But he nearly didn’t make it through the first episode, after the others left him behind and he fell through the ice.  But it’s OK – he managed to get out of the water by himself.

It’s all very dark – both literally and figuratively speaking.  I’m sure we all understand that the mid-Victorians did not have their homes, pubs and ships lit by 100 watt electric light bulbs, but does everything need to be so dark?  There were complaints about this with both Jamaica Inn and Taboo, but the BBC don’t seem to be getting the message.

I get the feeling that it’s going to be a bit like a grown-up version of Lord of the Flies.  The longer these blokes are all stuck with each other, in the middle of nowhere, the worse their behaviour is going to get.  But it’s quite watchable.  I’ll stick with it!

The Mortymer Trilogy by Alexander Cordell

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Do people get a bit parochial about the protest movements of the early to mid 19th century?  *We* talk about Peterloo, the Great Chartist Meeting on Kersal Moor and, later, the suffragettes.  People in the East Midlands might talk about the Luddites, people in Dorset about the Tolpuddle Martyrs, and so on.  Maybe we should all be paying more attention to South Wales – the Merthyr Rising of 1831, the Newport Rising of 1839, the Rebecca Riots of 1839-43, and a succession of sometimes violent strikes thereafter: the last of these three books takes us right up to the early 1870s.  Even going into the 20th century, there was the Taff Vale legal case, and, later, the Tonypandy Riots and the Llanelli Riots.

They’re not exactly the most cheerful of books, because most of the characters seem to end up being killed in mining accidents, dying of cholera or being transported as convicts – although the author does try to lighten things up a little by providing extremely long descriptions of drunken nights in the pub or trying to move house by barge whilst accompanied by an incontinent donkey.   However, there’s plenty of interest in them (although I wouldn’t really include the pubs and the donkey in that).

The three books are Rape of the Fair Country, Hosts of Rebecca and Song of the Earth, and we see the Mortymer and Evan families at various times working in coal mines, ironworks, as barge workers, on a farm (in order to cover the Rebecca Riots, which were mainly protesting against rural toll roads) and, finally, on the railways.

The author, despite being English himself, is rabidly anti-English, which I must say I could have done without.  He keeps making the point that a lot of the coal mine/ironworks owners were actually Welsh, and also that miners in England were treated just as badly as those in Wales, and also that some of the miners in Wales had actually come from England, but then going back to slagging off “the English” again and again.  A lot of this involves complaining about the Marquess of Bute – who was actually Scottish!   There are also a lot of anti-Irish comments, accusing Irish immigrants of accepting low wages and therefore undercutting the Welsh workforce, although those are more from the characters than the narrative. So don’t read these if you’re easily offended!   He keeps having a go at the Church of England as well.  I’m no fan of religious organisations and I would definitely have been backing disestablishment, but I’m not sure how the Church of England was to blame for miners being underpaid.  And what exactly did he think the mines in Wigan or Barnsley or Newcastle were like – a bed of roses?!

Anyway, to get back to the point, we do see a lot of English, and in particular Irish, people living in South Wales at the time, and also some Spanish people.  We see Nonconformists – including a lot of references to religious Revivalism – , Anglicans, Catholics and, perhaps surprisingly, Jews.  It’s certainly quite a mixed population – and, as so often happens, that perhaps weakened the workers’ movements, with people not always working together.  We also see splits within the families over unionism and strikes, as in How Green Was My Valley.

There’s some romance, and there are some nice descriptions of the countryside, but the mood of the books is generally angry and everyone constantly seems to be arguing, especially in the final book.  Don’t read them if you’re looking for something light and comfortable, but they’re well worth reading if you don’t mind something hard-hitting.

 

Mr Jones

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  This film tells the tragic story of Gareth Jones, the brave young Welsh journalist who tried to tell the world about the Holodymyr, the man-made famine which killed millions of people in Ukraine in 1932-33, part of a wider famine also affecting Kazakhstan and other parts of the Soviet Union, and is now considered genocide in Ukraine.  Not only were the Soviets were determined to cover it up, but so were left-wing intellectuals in the West, unwilling to admit that damage that Stalinism had done.  That, and false reporting by the New York Times‘ “man in Moscow” Walter Duranty, meant that the efforts of Jones, Malcolm Muggeridge and others to bring the famine to world attention sadly did little good.   Jones was murdered by bandits, almost certainly in the pay of the Soviet secret police, not long after his reports were published.

It’s not the easiest of films to watch, especially as quite a lot of it’s in Russian with English subtitles, but it tells an important and still little-known story of very tragic events.

It was only in the era of glasnost that people were really able to talk for the first time about what happened.  Gorbachev himself spoke of losing two aunts and an uncle in the mixed Russian-Ukrainian village in Southern Russia where he grew up.   It’s not clear how many people died – estimates vary from 3 million to 12 million – and there’s little clarity and fierce argument over exactly what went on.  Stalin’s collectivisation programme, together with generally poor administration, meant that crop yields fell in the first place, and a lot of grain was lost in the processing and transportation processes.  Then such grain as there was was requisitioned, and most of it was allocated to industrial workers in towns, leaving those in the countryside to starve.

Some people think that, whilst due to appalling mismanagement, it wasn’t deliberate.  Others believe that the Stalinist administration deliberately starved people in rural areas, probably to stifle Ukrainian nationalism.

Malcolm Muggeridge – am I the only person who associates him with Adrian Mole? – raised the issue in the British press, after spending time in the Soviet Union.  Other Western reporters also raised the issue.  However, they didn’t feature in this film, which was all about Gareth Jones, the first Western writer to speak out using his own name.

We saw Jones working in the Soviet Union, and some fairly harrowing scenes as he uncovered what was going on.  Then we saw his attempts to bring it to Western attention – and how, although his reports were widely publicised, it didn’t really suit anyone in authority to accept what was happening.   George Bernard Shaw and others would later travel to the Soviet Union, at Stalin’s behest, to claim that they saw no signs of famine: in this film, it was George Orwell who was reluctant to accept the damage done by communism, but that did sum up the views of many left-wing intellectuals.

Business people were eager to normalise relations with the Soviet Union, in the middle of the Depression, in the hopes of boosting the economy.  And we saw Lloyd George, for whom Jones had once worked, saying that he accepted what Jones was saying but that he didn’t know what Jones wanted him to do about it – what *could* he do about it?  On top of that, the Metro-Vickers trial was going on – the Soviets were holding six British engineering workers.  The film suggested that they’d threatened to execute them if Jones published his report … although I’m not sure that that’s very accurate.

The main figure, though, was Walter Duranty, the Liverpool-born journalist working for the New York Times, who insisted that Stalinism, although brutal, was necessary because the Soviet Union couldn’t be governed any other way, claimed that there was no famine and that Jones and the others were talking rubbish, and played a big part in Roosevelt’s decision to recognise the Soviet regime.  In the film, Duranty’s presented as a big baddie, forcing people to lie.  But what were his motives?  It’s certainly known that he did know about the famine.  Did he genuinely believe that Stalinism was a good thing?  Was he keen to promote good relations between the USSR and the West, to avoid war or promote trade?  Was he maybe, as some people have suggested, being blackmailed because he was gay?

There’s so much we don’t know.  But we do know that the famine happened, that it was the fault of the Stalinist regime, that millions of people died, and that Gareth Jones and other brave Western journalists tried to expose it.  People are very critical of the media these days: we shouldn’t forget what an important job journalists do.   And the Holodymyr, usually referred to as the Holodomor in the Russian rather than Ukrainian translation, is still little-known in the West.  Sad story all round.

 

How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn

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Yes, I know that this book’s over 80 years old, and, yes, I know that it was made into a film during the war, and has been adapted for TV; but it was new to me!

We’ve got a small Welsh mining community, in the late Victorian/early Edwardian era; and the story is told, in English but with Welsh idioms/speech patterns, from the viewpoint of a boy called Huw as he grows up.  On the plus side, Huw’s part of a loving family and a close community.  On the minus side, the mines are terribly dangerous and fatal accidents are common, wages are low, the community is divided over union membership and strike action, and the tyranny of the chapel is like something out of the Netherlands or Geneva at their most Calvinistic.  Any young woman unlucky enough to get into trouble is hauled up before the entire congregation and berated for her wickedness –  whilst her boyfriend, natch, gets off scot free.  However, no-one seems to have an issue with the two gay boxers who run one of the local pubs, so at least that’s something.

There are various romances involving Huw’s many siblings, including a love triangle between one of his sisters, the Methodist preacher (who’s actually very nice when he isn’t berating girls in trouble) and one of the mine owners.  And we hear all about Huw’s schooldays – he’s all set to get a white collar job and escape poverty, but then he gets expelled just before his exams.

It’s a lovely book in many ways, but Huw is really rather annoying.  The reason he gets expelled from school is one of the many fights he gets into.  OK, lads get into playground scraps, but Huw beats up the teacher, so badly that the police get involved.  The teacher did ask for it, but still!   And then Huw’s girlfriend disappears.  To be fair, he does ask her brother where she’s gone, but he can’t get an answer.  He doesn’t twig to what’s going on until his sister-in-law tells him that she’s been sent away … hopefully to a place with no chapels.  After that, she’s never mentioned again, and he doesn’t seem to give the baby a second thought.  It’s a bit silly anyway, TBH.  Surely the girl and her family would have tried to make him marry her?

However, despite the fact that Huw isn’t a very appealing protagonist, it’s really a very interesting book.  No dates are actually given, but, from references to the Diamond Jubilee and the Boer War, we can tell that it starts off in the late 1890s.  Strangely, even though everyone is a devoted royalist and they all get incredibly excited when the choir led by one of Huw’s brothers goes to sing in front of Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle, Victoria’s death’s never actually mentioned – we just suddenly start hearing about “the King” rather than “the Queen”!   As is often pointed out, the late Victorian/Edwardian period’s seen as a Golden Age which was destroyed by the Great War; but, for people in working class communities, and especially for women, it really wasn’t that great.  But then there were these very close communities, and that’s something that we’ve pretty much lost now.

This book’s been criticised for being maudlin and sentimental (especially as the author claimed that it was about his own experiences, until it transpired that he’d actually grown up in London!)  and that’s certainly what the title suggests – oh, everything was so wonderful back in the day, the sort of thing we’ve been hearing right back to when William Blake moaned about dark satanic mills.  But I didn’t read it like that – the book did not pull any punches about the conditions in the mines, the struggles by some families to put food on the table, the treatment of “fallen women”, the teacher who got angry with any pupils who spoke Welsh rather than English at school, and so on.  But nor was it a misery memoir like Angela’s Ashes.  Nothing’s all good or all bad, and that’s what this book shows.  Not bad at all!

Now … do I buy the three sequels, and add to my already ridiculously high book mountain?   Still thinking about that!

Britannia, Season 3 – Sky Atlantic

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   I’m pretty sure that there’s nothing in my history books about the Roman occupiers of Britain being cannibals, but, according to “Britannia”, they were just that.  Well, one of them was, anyway.  The poor bloke who ended up being served up at a banquet wasn’t even chopped into pieces and put in a stew.  He was wheeled to the table in a long silver dish, intact,  covered in a) all the trimmings and b) his helmet.

It all started off quite peacefully.  New series, new theme tune – Children of the Revolution.  Who knew that Ancient Romans and Celts were into Marc Bolan?   The Roman general with the Scouse accent had now got a nice pad in St Albans, but was in the doghouse all round because he’d lost track of the mysterious girl with magic powers, and wasn’t having much joy getting any information out of the guy who previously claimed to be 10,000 years old.  To add to his woes, his wife turned up.  This was when the rot set in.  First of all, she told him off for putting on weight.  Then she asked him where his sword was.  It was at the polishers, claimed he.  Ah.  Well, what was the sword that’d been found sticking out of a stump, then, asked she, brandishing it about.  He tried to claim that it wasn’t his, but failed dismally because it’d got his name on it  Engraved on it, that is, not marked with a Cash’s name tape.  She also crawled about sniffing the floor for any signs that other women had been in the place.  As you do.

Having found that he did, indeed, have a mistress around the place, she said that it was better than doing unspeakable things with his socks.  Too much information.  And then she had his mate served up for tea.

Meanwhile, Phelan, the dispossessed prince, was training as a druid, and was told to change his name to Quant.  Maybe druids were into Mary Quant make-up as well as glam rock.  Or maybe they just didn’t want their new guy being associated with Pat Phelan.  He was dispatched into the woods to find some moss, but sat around chatting to a centipede and then came back empty-handed.  And then the girl with the magic powers stabbed the guy who’d claimed to be 10,000 years old because he’d forgotten her name.  Or something.

I don’t know what the scriptwriters on this are on, but I suspect that it’s something rather stronger than mead.  Or vino.  And I think they may have had a little too much of it.  But at least it was entertaining.  It was so totally bonkers that you just had to laugh.  I mean, what on earth?!

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

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   This book’s won rave reviews and the Pulitzer Prize, so I was expecting to think it was brilliant; but I’m afraid I didn’t really get it.  I was expecting historical fiction, and that’s what it seemed to be at the beginning; but it then turned into … I’m not sure if it was meant to be an alternative history or sci-fi or an allegory or what, but it just wasn’t what I was expecting.  Each to their own and I’m sure that a lot of people will love this book, but it wasn’t for me.

I’ve read this prior to watching the TV adaptation of it, now showing on Amazon Prime. That’s been praised, as well as the book.  However, concern’s been expressed about the plethora of Auschwitz novels appearing in recent years, and I understand that concern is now growing about the number of films and TV series about slavery in the US.  It’s hard to strike a balance which draws attention to difficult aspects of the past without portraying the history of a particular demographic group as nothing but trauma; but I hope that people aren’t going to criticise individual authors and directors, all of whom I’m sure have genuinely good intentions.  You can’t do right for doing wrong, sometimes.

This started with a young woman, Cora, who was a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia.  It wasn’t entirely clear when it was meant to be set – there were some references that suggested particular dates, but they weren’t consistent.  We heard about her family history, her grandmother being brought from Africa as a slave, and her mother escaping, and we also saw some of the horrors of life on a plantation with a cruel overseer and a cruel master.   Then Cora and a male friend, Caesar, decided to try to escape.  We then heard about a slave catcher, who was determined to catch Cora because her mother had eluded him, and we heard a bit about how being a slave catcher seemed like a good job for a thug with little hope of getting a well-paid job elsewhere.  So that was all very interesting, and that tied in with what I was expecting.  So far, so good.

But then it all moved away from history.  The Underground Railroad became an actual physical underground railroad.  First of all, Cora went to South Carolina, and found that medical schools there were conducting experiments on former slaves: presumably this was meant to put the reader in mind of Josef Mengele.  Then on to North Carolina, which had abolished slavery but was pursuing an ethnic cleansing programme of trying to create al all-white state.  Then she was captured, but escaped, and got to Indiana, which we were told was a former slave state, and lived in some kind of commune.  And then she headed out west – American destiny, Go West?  There’d already been references to the expulsion of Native Americans from lands taken by white settlers.

I’m sure it was all very well-written, and very clever if you like that sort of thing, but it just wasn’t for me.  I was looking for a book about someone reaching freedom with the help of the real Underground Railroad, i.e. the one which wasn’t a literal underground railroad bit was a network of people trying to help escaped slaves.  It started off with a very powerful depiction of the horrors of slavery, but I just couldn’t really take much from the rest of it because I knew that it wasn’t based on reality.

I’ll still watch the TV series, but I don’t really get this sort of alternative/fantasy/sci-fi history.  I don’t particularly get Game of Thrones, but at least that’s not messing about with such an emotive subject.  But, hey, life, would be boring if we were all into the same thing.

 

Dark Tides by Philippa Gregory

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  I always swear blind that I’ll never read another book by Philippa Gregory … and then I do.  This one, despite being the sequel to the dreadful “Tidelands”, is really quite interesting, until the end where it becomes utterly farcical.  All the main characters in it are fictional, so she can’t do too much distorting of the facts – although there are a few really amateurish blunders, surprising from someone who’s actually got a degree in history – and it covers quite a range of locations and themes.  We jump about a lot between London and New England, and also spend quite a bit of time in Venice.  The last few chapters are just silly beyond words, but most of it really isn’t bad.

Also, it raises the interesting question of what happened to old Roundheads.  The Yorkists hung around like a bad smell for years, plotting comebacks.  The Jacobites were still trying to make a comeback over 50 years after the Glorious Revolution.  Then they somehow got turned into a romantic Lost Cause, as did the Confederates, and as to some extent did the Spanish Republicans.  But what about the Roundheads, who won the war but lost the peace?   I suppose it’s a difficult question, because … well, who *were* the Roundheads?   Very few people set out in 1642 to execute the king, set up a republic, and try to force religious extremism on an unwilling country: most of them would have had aims similar to those which were actually achieved by the Whigs in 1688.  However, in this book, we see a former Roundhead soldier living in New England, only to become disillusioned there by the treatment of the Native Americans.

A lot of loose ends aren’t tied up, so I assume that a further sequel’s planned.  I’ll say I won’t read it, but then I will.

Amateurish blunders.  The wife of a knight or baronet is Lady Surname.  The daughter of, say, an earl is Lady First Name.  Mixing them up is a common mistake, but a poor one.  Illegitimate children cannot just be legitimised by their parents marrying years after their birth: it’s not that easy.  No-one has ruined their life if they discover immediately after the marriage ceremony that their new spouse is a bad ‘un: they just need to get the marriage annulled.  And Italians would not have been going on in 1670 about how the English were all obsessed with drinking tea!   Tea only started to become popular in England in the 1660s.

The story.  In the previous books, our “heroine” Alinor, a widow with two children, was tried as a witch after having an affair with a Catholic priest in disguise, by whom she’d become pregnant.  As you do.  This book, set 21 years later, finds Alinor and her daughter living and working in London, whilst her son has been working as a doctor in Venice.  But then a Venetian noblewoman turns up with a baby, and says that the son’s drowned and she’s his widow and this is their child.  And then the former priest turns up, having given up the priesthood, and says that he wants to marry Alinor so that their child can be his heir.  But where is the child?   There are two children, who’ve been brought up as the twin offspring of Alinor’s daughter Alys (who’s been abandoned by her husband).  Is one of them actually the child of Alinor and the priest?  Er, we don’t know.  Alys claims that her mother miscarried, but it all seems a bit dubious, and the mystery’s never really cleared up.  Presumably that’s been left for a future sequel?

Meanwhile … actually, the more I think about it all, the sillier it seems, not just the last few chapters but most of it!   But it didn’t actually seem that bad at first.  The Venetian noblewoman tries to seduce both the ex-priest and Alys.  Then she says that she’s got a load of valuable antiques left to her by her first husband, and needs help to bring them to England and to flog them to rich courtiers.  So the ex-priest helps her.  Then agrees to marry her.

Meanwhile, Alinor, unconvinced that her son is dead, dispatches her granddaughter Sarah to Venice, to look for him.  There are some genuinely interesting bits about life in Venice – the position of the Jews in the ghetto, and the denunciation process – but it all gets rather farcical as it turns out that he’s not dead after all, but is in prison, having been denounced by his wife and the bloke who was helping her with the antiques, with whom she was having an affair … but who then falls in love with Sarah.  Furthermore, most of the antiques are forgeries. Then it turns out that the son is now working on the leper island, from which no-one ever escapes.  But Sarah miraculously rescues him, and he, she and the antiques bloke all roll up at the church in London just as the bisexual widow is marrying the ex-priest.  All is exposed.  Oh, and the antiques bloke is the baby’s dad.

Hurrah!  The ex-priest is saved (not that he really deserves to be).  Er, no.  It is declared that the bisexual widow’s marriage to Alinor’s son was unlawful because she’s a Catholic and he’s a Protestant.  She and the ex-priest are both Catholics, but are both pretending to be Protestants.  So that’s OK.  So this marriage stands.  And the ex-priest declares that he’s ruined.  Er, even though the marriage hasn’t been consummated, so he could soon get it annulled. I did say that it got farcical, OK?!

In between all of this, we hear about Alinor’s brother, the aforementioned former Roundhead now living in America.  Those sections are much better, and considerably less farcical.

It’s actually not as bad as it sounds!  It does turn into a farce towards the end, but, for a while, it isn’t bad.

 

The Maid of Buttermere by Melvyn Bragg

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  I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel by Melvyn Bragg before, but I really enjoyed this.  It’s a fascinating depiction of a true story – how Mary Robinson, the daughter of Lake District innkeepers, was so beautiful that she was mentioned in guidebooks and people came to Buttermere to see her, and how she married a tourist who was, or said that he was, a colonel, an MP, and the younger brother of an earl … only for it to turn out that he was an impostor and a bigamist.

The story went viral, to use the modern parlance.  It was all over the newspapers, such a big story that people were practically fighting to get seats in court for his trials.  Songs were being written about it, and being used by kids for street games.  This was in 1802 – even then, an ordinary person’s wrongdoings and another ordinary person’s misfortune could somehow catch the mood of the nation, with everyone and their dog having an opinion about them, and those opinions being influenced by their positions in what we’d now call culture wars, in the febrile atmosphere following the French Revolution.  And, in the middle of this very sorry tale, there are a lot of glorious descriptions of the Lake District, not only the landscape but the lifestyle and customs.

It really is a beautifully written book.  We get these lovely descriptions of the Lake District and of life there, and of how Mary and her family have been affected by her unsought after fame, and how she’s still unmarried despite her great beauty and her genuinely nice personality.   And, if you don’t know the story, you will at first believe everything that her admirer, the supposed Colonel August Alexander Hope says: we aren’t told that he’s an impostor.  We see him courting a wealthy young woman – from Manchester 🙂 – whose guardians are delighted at the idea of her bagging an aristocrat, only for him to decide instead to make a love match with Mary.

And then we see it all come crashing down, as it turns out that he’s really John Hatfield, a man of relatively humble origins – from Mottram-in-Longdendale, as it so happens.  He owes money all over the show, he’s impersonated an MP, and, horror of horrors, he’s been sending out letters without paying postage (which MPs were allowed to do).  He also abandoned his first wife, who later died, and their children, remarried, and abandoned his second wife, who’s very much still alive, and their children.

Coleridge has already written an article about how romantic it is that The Buttermere Beauty has married an earl’s brother.  He now writes several more articles, about how poor Mary has been cruelly taken in by this cad.  Wordsworth also gets involved.  And it’s all over the papers.  In this era of the early Romantics, and also the Rousseau-esque Enlightenment ideas about the nobility of nature, Mary is cast as a symbol of unspoilt nature, living a simple life in the Lake District, until Hatfield came along.

And, in the tense political atmosphere – this is 1802, so we’re in the gap between the Treaty of Amiens and the start of the Napoleonic Wars, and we’ve also got the repressive Pittite legislation in force on the home front, as well as tensions over parliamentary reform, Abolitionism, Catholic emancipation and trade unions -, the upper classes are horrified that someone has dared to impersonate an MP, and an earl’s brother at that, but some members of the lower and middle classes, whilst sympathetic to Mary, quite admire him for cocking a snook at the Establishment.  (The narrative does explain the historical background, for non-historians).  The book was written long before the term “culture wars” was in use, but that’s what was  going on.

He’s hauled up in court in London, with hordes of people turning out to watch him going in, and scrapping over seats in the courtroom.  You really couldn’t make up some of the things that went on in Georgian Britain!   Meanwhile, poor, poor Mary, as if she hasn’t been through enough, has a baby, who dies three weeks after birth.  Then he’s brought before the Assizes in Carlisle, and by this point he’s become quite a celebrity.  People go to see him in jail.  Hotels fill up with people wanting a piece of the action.  Again, people are scrapping over seats in court.  It’s not Team John versus Team Mary: it’s whether you’re for John or against John: even some of those who are desperately sorry for Mary see him as a romantic figure who acted out of love for her.  And, again, there’s this support for a man who’s known hard times and hasn’t been frightened to impersonate one of the ruling class.  The one person who doesn’t seem to feature anywhere is the real Colonel Augustus Alexander Hope, who is abroad and doesn’t seem very interested in any of it!

John was hanged, for forgery.  Mary did get a happy ending, marrying a nice man and having four children.  Maybe if this had happened in mid-Victorian times, she’d have been expected to hide away somewhere and feel ashamed, even though she was a completely innocent party, but the Georgians were more understanding.

You do get these strange stories from time to time.  Remember the man who faked his own death in a canoe in 2002, 200 years after Hatfield married Mary?   And they do fascinate people.  And this one’s particularly interesting because of the way it interacts with the “culture wars” of the time.  Melvyn Bragg’s does an excellent job of writing about it, and it really is a very good book.

 

Mistress of the Maze by J P Reedman

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This is a different take on the time of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, the “revolt of the Eaglets” and the murder of Thomas a Becket.  As the title suggests, it’s a fictionalised account of the life of Rosamund Clifford, “Fair Rosamund” of the Bower.   The story, whilst well-known, dates from well after the 12th century and is really pretty bonkers – the idea that Henry would hide his mistress in a tower in the middle of a labyrinth, for fear of Eleanor’s vengeance, and that Eleanor would then murder her, is very hard to believe.  Henry had loads of mistresses and I can’t imagine that Eleanor wasted her time and energy in worrying about any or all of them; and the labyrinth story sounds like someone’s borrowed it from a Greek myth.

However, this is a well-written and entertaining book.  I did wonder if the author would go for a more realistic take on it – Rosamund did certainly exist, and Henry may well have had a home built for her at Woodstock – but she’s gone for the idea of the labyrinth.  The legend goes that Eleanor, even though she wasn’t even in England at the time of Rosamund’s death, and even though Rosamund died in a convent, got into the tower in the labyrinth and murdered her.  The author’s got round that by saying that Eleanor sent a former lady in waiting to kill Rosamund, but that Rosamund survived the attempted poisoning and died in the convent a couple of years later!

The book does do a very good job of making an unlikely story seem plausible, and it covers a period of English history which really deserves more attention.  The domestic details are interesting too.  Not bad at all!

They Wanted To Live by Cecil Roberts

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This is the sequel to Victoria Four Thirty, and it contains a really strange admixture of themes.  And, as Hungary is much in the news today, due to the row over UEFA refusing to let Bayern Munich’s stadium be lit up in rainbow colours as a protest against the new Hungarian anti-LGBT laws, it seemed like a good time to be writing about it.

It’s 1938, and our porter friend Jim has a win on the pools, enabling him and his Hyacinth Bucket-esque girlfriend Lizzie to get married and set off on a Continental honeymoon tour.  However, when they reach Vienna, expecting to find glamour and culture, they find a Nazi-dominated hell.  Horrified by what they see, they agree to smuggle a Jewish refugee’s baby to Budapest … to what, in a book published in 1939, both the author and the characters sadly assumed would be safety.

However, in Hungary, we move away from the harshness of political reality and into a load of folksy peasant stuff, national costumes and dancing and galloping across the steppe, along with caddish counts, which all seems to belong more to the 1920s than the 1930s.  We also see Jim and Lizzie, who’s renamed herself Betty, taken up by a crowd of aristocrats, who either believe or pretend to believe that waitress Betty is a former debutante and porter Jim is an Old Etonian.  After several glamorous nights partying in Budapest, we head off to the country pile of a count … where we hear a lot about the multinational nature of the grand families of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, and numerous references to the Treaty of Trianon – which was a mess, and is still causing issues today.  The author wasn’t to know what lay ahead, but it will be hard for the reader not to reflect on the fact that Hungary will soon be throwing its lot in with the Nazis.

A twist in the tale then takes us to Prague, just as the Munich Agreement is being signed, so we get to see that from a Czechoslovak (as it was at the time) viewpoint.  And then Jim returns to his mundane but very real life in London.  The book was published in 1939, so presumably it was written before war was declared, but most people, even early readers, will have read it knowing that war lay ahead.

It really is a strange mixture of very unpleasant realities, with this young, naive couple, abroad for the first time, seeing just what is going on in Austria, and other characters even being driven to suicide by Nazi persecution, and a fairytale in which they get mixed up with the glamorous life of the Hungarian nobility.

Several characters from the first book reappear, but most of them don’t.  The descriptions of Hungary, and also of Vienna, are superb.  I’m not sure how realistic the whole storyline with the Hungarian nobles is, but, OK, I suppose it could have happened.  And the contrast between down-to-earth Jim and aspirational Lizzie is rather funny, until it all ends in tears.

It’s a very readable book, but I can’t remember the last time I read anything with such a complete mixture of different themes.   One minute you’re witnessing Nazi thugs beating up innocent people in a Viennese cafe, the next you’re being taken off to swim in Lake Balaton by a rakish count.  This is certainly different.  And, oh, what a contrast to the first book.  In that book, we saw characters thinking that they could escape their mundane lives and start anew somewhere else.  In this book, we feel all along that danger is lurking, and that Jim is very wise to want to return home, even if working at Victoria Station isn’t very exciting.

Not that I’m comparing the pandemic to the war, obviously, but I went to Vienna in December 2019.  I’ve got photos of myself in the Cafe Sacher, with a piece of Sachertorte, a Viennese coffee and a big grin on my face, and at the Hofburg and the Schonbrunn and the Prater.  When I came home, I thought I’d be back on my travels very soon.  Little do we ever know what lies around the corner, eh?