My Grandparents’ War (series 2) – Channel 4

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The loss of the Queen marks a break with the wartime generation, and a reminder that there aren’t now many of that generation left with us.  It’s important that their stories not be forgotten, and this series shows celebrities looking into the roles played by their grandparents during the War.  First up was Kit Harington, whose two sets of grandparents each met and married whilst serving in the war effort in their different ways.

His maternal grandfather was in the Army, and, following a training accident, was admitted to the Exeter hospital where his future wife was serving as a VAD.  Later, he fought at Monte Cassino.  We saw Kit meeting a 99-year-old lady who’d been in the same team as his grandmother, and also visiting a Commonwealth war cemetery at Monte Cassino, and reading some of the poetry which his grandfather had written partly to try to cope with PTSD.

On his father’s side, both grandparents had been posted to the Caribbean.  His grandmother was with the censorship office in Barbados, and his grandfather had been with naval intelligence, detailed to keep an eye on the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.  He’d have known both Ian Fleming and Kim Philby.

That was rather exciting, but the roles of all four grandparents were fascinating, and the programme was really very well done.  This is an excellent series, and highly recommended.  And readers of A Chalet Girl from Kenya may be interested to know that the third episode, featuring Emeli Sande, covers the Mau Mau Rebellion.

Strangers at the Farm School by Josephine Elder

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This is one of the sequels to Exile for Annis,  set at the Farm School which is one of several unconventional fictional schools inspired by Summerhill School.  The school has expanded, and amongst the new pupils are Hans and Johanna, two children brought from Germany to Britain on what we now call the Kindertransport.  Both they and the other new pupils initially struggle to fit into life at the Farm School, and, whilst of course everyone settles in in the end, what happens is quite interesting and thought-provoking.

The timing with the Kindertransport’s actually a bit out, because they arrive at the start of the 1938/39 academic year, three months before the transports began.  That can be forgiven, though.  The book was published in 1940 and, with most children’s authors either writing spy stories or ignoring the war and the build-up to war, this book, with its focus on refugees, would have been something different.

We see contrasting attitudes from the children.  Johanna is happy and grateful to be in Britain, but Hans is initially suspicious of the British due to hearing Great War stories whilst growing up; and, the children being from a wealthy family, he resents the fact that they no longer live in a big house with servants and luxuries.  That’s very interesting.  It’s not unrealistic that a child might have felt like that, but I think that an author today would be afraid to present a refugee in a negative way for fear of a backlash, even though it’s explained that Hans is reacting like this because he’s afraid and unsettled and struggling to come to terms with what has happened to him and his family..

Meanwhile, Annis has been elected as the first female president of the school.  The book is very supportive of women’s rights: Annis learns to drive, and insists that girls should be allowed to play whatever sports they like.  We also see that several female former pupils have gone on to university, and that Annis herself is hoping to go to Cambridge, to study sciences.  We also get arguments in favour of food and drink using only natural ingredients, with mutterings about not wanting beer produced in test tubes: that again seems like a very modern view in a book from over 80 years ago.  Comments about “peasants” and “gippos” are more dated.  I’m not trying to judge the book by today’s standards, just interested in the views on these issues, especially given what an “in” topic women’s sport, in particular, is at the moment.

Other than Annis, no-one actually seems to do very much schoolwork!   They’re either doing farmwork, learning to ride, watching hop-pickers or playing sport.   Very little time seems to be spent in lessons, something which the new pupils find strange and objectionable. To be fair, people with exams coming up are excused from some of the farmwork, but they still seem to do an awful lot of it.  But then there’s trouble when some of the new kids don’t want to get stuck in.

Of course, everyone eventually decides that the school is wonderful, but I’m not sure how realistic it is that people would have sailed through external exams after so little preparation.  And there’s a happy ending for Hans and Johanna.   But it’s not a simplistic book: there’s a lot in it to make the reader think.   The idea in a lot of Girls’ Own books is that everyone should learn to fit in and subjugate their own interests to the common good, but, using beehives as a metaphor, Annis suggests that that would be like living in a totalitarian state, and makes it clear that a balance has to be found between personal interests and group interests. But that’s easier said than done: they run into trouble with packing the apples because there are no rules about it and not enough kids volunteer.   But then is it OK to miss group work to pursue, say, a talent for art?

It’s a very interesting book, which goes a lot deeper than some school stories do.  Of course, all turns out well in the end, but it takes a while to get there.

Rebekka and the Unwashed Child of Eve by Angela Stevens

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This was an excellent book, despite the off-putting title.  I don’t often read anything with a fantasy element, but this contained so much detailed information about rural Iceland in the 1870s – houses, systems of labour, the roles of men and women, food, drink, religion, medicine, clothes, embroidery -, all put across extremely well, that I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Belief in huldafolk, or fairy folk, remained strong in Iceland until recent times, and to some extent still does.  It’s become fused with Christianity via a belief that Adam and Eve had children who didn’t appear in the Bible as Eve was ashamed to show them to God because she hadn’t had time to wash them, and that it’s from their line that the huldafolk come.  In this book, a childless couple foster a child who’d fallen into the water and been frozen in it, and it transpires that the lost child and a fairy child had become fused together.  Their farm and their community prosper from when she arrives, and she and a local youth fall in love, but their neighbours become suspicious of her and she eventually leaves.

It sounds weird, but it really does come across well.  The folklore itself is interesting, and the picture of the society of the time and place, an unusual setting for an English-language book, is incredibly well-drawn.   This isn’t my usual thing, but it was very, very good.

All Creatures Great and Small (series 2) – Channel 5

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How lovely to have this wonderfully comforting programme back, just the thing for autumnal evenings and especially at such a difficult time for the nation.  It was particularly nice that the new series started with James and Helen’s wedding.  Needless to say, there were all sorts of mishaps before the happy couple finally made it to the altar, but they got there in the end.  Some valuable points were also made about farming being a reserved occupation, and the importance of vets in keeping the food supply safe, both in terms of keeping it going and in terms of keeping TB out of the bovine, milk-producing population.

Was it filmed during Covid restrictions, though?  There were only 8 guests at the service!

Anyway, it was a perfect mix of light-hearted comedy, romance and some more serious elements, and the views of the countryside were lovely.  Having this back is a real tonic.  Thank you, Channel 5.  “Reboots” don’t always work, but this one definitely does.

Britain’s Secret War Babies – Channel 4

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  This programme was about two people seeking to find their fathers, African-American GIs stationed in Britain during the war.  It was sad to hear that many black GIs with white British girlfriends had been unable to marry them because the US Army had refused permission, even when there was a baby on the way.   That left the women concerned with a choice between bringing up a child alone, with the stigma of illegitimacy and the additional issue of raising a mixed-race child in areas which were otherwise 100% white, or giving the child up.

In the two cases covered by this programme, one woman had been kept apart from the child’s father by her own mother, who didn’t want her daughter and grandchild moving to America, and the other woman had married a British boyfriend who’d ill-treated both her and her son when he realised that the child couldn’t be his.

Both the stories had happy endings in the programme, in that the biological fathers were identified, and half-siblings who were happy to meet the two “war babies” found; but, as the programme said, many people haven’t been able to trace their fathers, and many children grew up in care because their mothers couldn’t keep them and mixed-race children were difficult to place for adoption.  The presenter seemed determined to stress the negative aspects of everything, but even taking a more balanced view, it’s quite a sad part of wartime history.   Some couples would have been unable to marry anyway, because one or both partners were already married, because of family objections or because they just didn’t want to, but hundreds of children could have had very different lives if there hadn’t been that US Army objection to mixed marriages – marriages which would have been perfectly legal in Britain.

The presenter clearly had an agenda and kept trying to turn things on to it, but the human stories won through, and at least each of the “war babies” involved found their American relations and were welcomed by them.  Happy endings.

 

 

 

My Fair Lady by J P Reedman

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This is a novel about Eleanor of Provence.  Unlike The Silken Rose, which it predates, it covers Eleanor’s childhood, and also her life after the death of Henry III.   It’s pretty much historically accurate, allowing for the fact we don’t really know whether incidents such as Eleanor of Castile sucking poison out of her husband’s wound really happened, shows life at the courts of Provence, France and Scotland as well as England, and is generally very enjoyable.

However, it’s very biased in Eleanor’s favour.   Only a couple of lines are devoted to her mistreatment of Jews on her lands, the de Montforts are very much shown as being the baddies, and no criticism is attached to her over the number of her relatives given important positions.   It’s told in the first person so that’s perhaps inevitable, but, as much as I dislike the de Montforts, I’m not a great fan of Eleanor, so that grated on me a bit.  It’s a good historical novel, though, and there aren’t many books about Henry III and Eleanor of Provence so it was good to find another one.

The Girl in the Pink Raincoat by Alrene Hughes

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This isn’t a particularly well-written book, but it was on a cheap Kindle offer; and there’s an awful lot of local interest in it for anyone from the Manchester area.   It includes some very evocative scenes of the Manchester Blitz.  It also covers the largely-forgotten story of the internment camps at Warth Mills (in Radcliffe, near where Newbank Garden Centre is now), where many members of the local German/Austrian-Jewish and Italian communities were taken during the Second World War, and how many of them were tragically killed when the SS Arandora Star, taking them to Canada, was torpedoed.   There are also some vivid descriptions of Heaton Park before the war, of town, and of the factories both in the Strangeways area and in Trafford Park.

The storyline’s not particularly convincing, but it’s all right.   Gracie Earnshaw works in a raincoat factory, where she becomes involved with the boss’s nephew, Jacob Rosenberg.   His family aren’t keen, because he’s Jewish and she isn’t, but the two agree to marry … only for him to be taken off to an internment camp just as she was waiting at the registry office.   Without wanting to post spoilers, the story then develops with two other men, with an unlikely switch from war work to working in the theatre, and with a secret long kept by Gracie’s mother.

It’s not the best of books, as I said, but it’s worth reading for the descriptions of the local area and the local communities, and also for the inclusion of the story of the Warth Mills camp.  The author makes good use of real events, and her descriptions of Manchester are very much Manchester.  Overall, not bad!

The Great (second series) – Channel 4

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This really is a load of rubbish, and yet it’s strangely watchable, because it’s so bad!   I was going to say that it was like a very crude Carry On film; but Carry On films are funny, and this is just stupid.   They’ve deliberately got all the history of Catherine the Great’s life wrong, even things which could have been got right without altering the script, e.g. Catherine’s husband being Peter’s grandson (they’ve said that he’s Peter’s son).

At the start of the second series, Catherine has succeeded in overthrowing Peter – but she’s expecting their heir, who was actually born several years earlier.  And the set-up in this bonkers programme is that Catherine rules part of the palace, but Peter and his supporters are holed up in one wing.  No-one seems concerned with such trivial matters as running the Russian Empire or foreign policy.   Peter has a number of lookalikes, who keep getting shot, and there’s a lot of arguing over food.  And dead bodies are hanging around.  And at one point there was a crocodile running round the court.

It’s so bad.  It’s terrible.  And yet it’s worth watching just to marvel at how bad it is!

India in 1947: Partition in Colour – Channel 4

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It would have been nice if, to mark the 75th anniversary of “Freedom at Midnight”, one of our TV channels had shown a programme focusing on everything that India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have achieved since independence.  But no.  Instead, we have to rake over whether or not Nehru was having it off with Edwina Mountbatten, and slag off Mountbatten, Nehru and Jinnah for not making a better job of an impossible situation.   Don’t get me wrong: the violence and the refugee crisis that followed partition was horrific.   But something focusing on the more positive aspects of independence, and the 75 years since then, would have been a lot more welcome.  The colourised pictures were interesting to see, but only really formed a backdrop for the negative narrative.

No-one got a good press in this, but, as I’ve said, it was an impossible situation by 1947.  I’m not sure that anyone could have done much better, and I’m not sure how helpful it was just to go on about the alleged faults of the three main leaders.  Gandhi, incidentally, was completely ignored.

Mountbatten was slagged off over the partition plan, but the programme claimed that he had nothing to do with it anyway, and it was all the work of the civil service.   Both Mountbatten and Nehru were slagged off for having a close personal relationship and leaving Jinnah out in the cold.  Or, rather, out in the heat, when the others took off to the Hills.  And of fiddling the border decisions to suit India.

Jinnah didn’t get a very good press either.  It was pointed out that Islamic fundamentalists tried to assassinate him because they were so angry about partition.   But other Muslims didn’t want to be a minority in a mainly Hindu India.  Jinnah was in a no-win situation: they all were. The programme also talked about complaints regarding the borders, but, wherever the borders had been, a lot of people would still have felt that they had to move.

Even the British Army came in for criticism.   Excuse me, but how were 50,000 troops supposed to deal with violence on such a scale? And the head of the Boundary Commission was criticised for having dysentery.  Oh, and for not being “an Alpha Male”.

The one person who got a tiny amount of praise was Edwina Mountbatten, but they were far more interested in her relationship with Nehru than in her work with refugees.

The narrators did concede that, by mid-1947, the fear and violence were out of control, and there wasn’t much that anyone could have done to improve things.   But they just seemed determined to be negative about everything.   The programme didn’t even point out that Freedom at Midnight created the world’s largest democracy.

And it said nothing that we haven’t heard a hundred times before.  I’d far rather have seen a programme about how India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have progressed since 1947, and I’d really have liked to have heard just one word of positivity.   This was almost 100% negativity.  Two hours of negativity.

The Children’s Blizzard by Melanie Benjamin

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This is a novel about the severe blizzard which, after an ordinary-seeming morning, hit the Great Plains one afternoon in January 1888, killing  235 people and causing many others to lose limbs or digits to frostbite.   It’s sometimes called “The Children’s Blizzard” because, due to the timing, many of the victims were school pupils trying to make their way home at the end of the school day.

As readers of Laura Ingalls Wilder will know, teachers at that time and place could be girls of just 15 or 16, little more than children themselves.  They were the ones who had to decide whether their pupils should wait out the storm in the schoolhouses, try to get home, or try to reach another place of shelter.  Two of the four threads of the book are those of two such teachers, sisters, one of whom was hailed as a heroine in the national press as well as locally, the other of whom was vilified for making what turned out to be a bad choice.  The other main characters are a hired girl and a “booster”.

Boosters, who featured a lot in The Beautiful Snow, aimed to persuade people from Europe, mainly Scandinavia, and the eastern US to settle in Minnesota and Dakota Territory, giving a very over-favourable impression of the farming conditions and climate there.   Most of the characters in the book were Norwegian immigrants, and the author seems to contend that the US authorities and eastern US society weren’t overly concerned what became of them.

For some reason, there aren’t a lot of books about Scandinavian settlers in the Great Plains.  Vilhelm Moberg’s four The Emigrants books, about a Swedish family, spring to mind, and Laura Ingalls Wilder mentions Norwegian neighbours;  but most people’s image of immigrants in the late 19th century US is of people from Ireland, Italy and Eastern Europe crowding into New York City.   And, other than Laura Ingalls Wilder’s brief reference to a black doctor, I can’t think of any other books mentioning black settlers in the area, as this one does.  And the settlement of the area in general doesn’t get much attention, with the obvious exception of Laura’s books. Incidentally, I just did a “Goodreads” search on “pioneer”, and 8 out of the top 10 results were books by Laura.  Other than Willa Cather, none of the other authors or books in the top 25 were well-known.  Yet both the Native American Wars and the Dust Bowl have attracted a lot of attention from different quarters.  It’s strange.

It’s an interesting subject, not least because it’s had so little coverage; but it’s not the most gripping of books, which I think is largely because it’s so focused on the one incident, and goes into it very quickly.  We don’t really have chance to get to know and care about the characters before they and we are swept up in the blizzard.   But it’s still a fascinating story, about the hardship faced by the pioneers, many of whom had thought they were going to a land of plenty.   And, without wishing to get political, it’s interesting to think how often, in the past, there were places which were desperate for immigrants, so desperate that they deliberately gave a falsely favourable impression of the lands they wanted settling in order to get people in; and how that’s changed.

The best part of the book was actually the last few chapters, about what happened to the girls after the blizzard.   What happened sounded far-fetched, but is based on real accounts of the time.  The hired girl and the “right” sister briefly became the 1880s’ equivalent of tabloid celebs, benefited from a “Heroine Fund” set up by a newspaper and were able to start new and better lives.  The “wrong” sister ended up teaching at an “Indian school” in Montana and being horrified by the abuses committed there.   I think the author felt that she had to include that, given the current (unfair) fashion for criticising the Little House books.   And both the booster and the hired girl’s mistress were overcome with guilt over the way they’d treated them, which felt rather like a 19th century American moralising novel.  Somehow, that all made for better reading than the drama of the blizzard, maybe because we actually got to know the characters better.

All in all, I don’t think that I’ll be reading this again, but I’m certainly glad that I’ve read it once.  If you can find a reasonably-priced copy, it’s worth a go.