Green Book

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This wasn’t what I expected – and, whilst it wasn’t the best film ever, it asked some very interesting questions.  I thought, given the title, that it was all going to be about someone’s experiences of racism, but it went beyond that, and also explored the issues of not fitting the expectations, both external and internal, of a particular demographic group, and trying to cope when you end up feeling that you don’t fit in anywhere.  Even now, never mind in the 1960s, society isn’t set up for individuals.   That all sounds very deep and meaningful, but the story’s told by way of an old-fashioned, “buddy movie”, two totally different people thrown together and bonding type stuff, not very subtle and sometimes more than a bit cringeworthy, but good for plenty of laughs. It veers from the complex to the crude within seconds, at some points. Incidentally, since when was “dramedy”, which I saw on one website the other week, a word?  It sounds like some sort of camel.  “Comedy-drama” will do nicely, thank you.

Also, I was stupidly chuffed to discover that Mahershala Ali’s full first name is Mahershalalhashbaz.  I’ve never come across that name in real life before.  I assume that his parents got it from the Bible, and not from Clover Carr’s poem in What Katy Did At School!

Anyway.  This is based on the true story of African-American classical pianist Don Shirley and his Italian-American driver/bodyguard Tony Vallelonga, on an early 1960s concert tour through various states including parts of the racially segregated South.  The script was written partly by Nick Vallelonga, Tony’s son, but some people who knew Don Shirley well have apparently questioned its accuracy, especially in terms of the way it shows the two men bonding and becoming friends rather than just being employer and employee.  That’s quite complex, because the racial issues of the time make the fact of a black man employing a white man to be his driver/minder a very big thing, but the “buddy movie” light entertainment comedy element of the film relies on them developing a close personal relationship.

I’d love to know how accurate the depictions of the two men, as well as their relationship with each other are, because they both sometimes seem a bit … what’s the word?  Overblown?  I wouldn’t say pantomime-ish, but certainly a little OTT.  Tony is quite a caricature of a working-class NooYoik Italian-American.  He never stops talking, works as a bouncer at a nightclub where most of the punters seem to be Mafiosi, and spends the rest of his time with his large and very noisy family.  Women in the kitchen, men in front of the telly, but everyone is devoted to each other.  They do not mix with anyone who is not Italian-American.  He’s also a caricature of a certain type of working-class bloke, commonly found in soap operas and comedies in the 1970s and 1980s, generally.  He hits out with his fists before he thinks, swears all the time, eats with his fingers, and, whilst driving the car, smokes, eats, drinks and then throws the rubbish out of the window.

He also throws two glasses in the bin after two black plumbers working at his house drink out of them.

Don, Dr Shirley, is the complete opposite.  He’s elegant, cultured and refined.  He lives in the most beautiful apartment, full of antiques.  He dresses impeccably, his manners are perfect, and his grammar is perfect.  However, he’s so uptight and snooty that you want to yell at him to loosen up a bit, especially when he’s lecturing Tony about his speech and his behaviour.  Both of them would fit very well into a sitcom, but sitcom characters are supposed to be a bit OTT.  Superb performances from both actors, with the scripts they were given, but I think we could have done with a bit more subtlety in the way both men were written.

The rest of the people in this film aren’t exactly subtly portrayed, either.  Every white character in the South is a racist.  The very first time Dr Shirley sets foot in a bar south of the Mason-Dixon line, he gets beaten up.  When he and Tony go into a posh menswear shop, the sales assistant assumes that it’s Tony who wants to try on an expensive suit.  Every single person they see, black or white, gawps at the sight of a white guy driving whilst a black guy is sitting in the back.  At one point, the car breaks down in a rural area where several black people are working in a field.  More like a scene from a cartoon than a scene from a film, every single person stops, tools in hand, to stare when Tony gets out and lifts up the car bonnet.  And, everywhere they go, the police are just waiting to arrest them.  I’m not saying that this inaccurate, just that it’s a bit heavy-handed to generalise about entire populations of entire regions like that.

However, whilst the film is a bit heavy-handed, the fact of racism in the South in the 1960s is just that – a fact.  The title of the film comes from a guidebook, produced annually from 1936 to 1966, for African-American motorists, because of the very common problems of being refused accommodation, or service at restaurants, or even being told that they couldn’t fill up their vehicles at petrol stations.   This was going on all the time.  A century after emancipation, this was going on all the time.

We don’t actually hear that much about the book, though.  We do occasionally see Tony referring to it for suggestions of places to stay, but, otherwise, the impression given is that he and Dr Shirley didn’t bother to read it – which, for the purposes of the film, is a good thing, because it means that the viewer gets to see just how bad things were, because they don’t avoid trouble.  They haven’t been going long before they take a wrong turn whilst driving at night, get lost, and are pulled over by two policemen – because a black man is in an area which black people are not allowed to be in after sundown.

A brief historical note here.  “Sundown towns” were not particularly a Southern phenomenon.  There were many in other parts of the United States too.  Nor was it always, or only, black people who were excluded.  Some places excluded Jews, Native Americans, Chinese people or Hispanic people.  Welcome to the land of the free.  In the 1960s.  Not the Middle Ages.  The 1960s.

Tony punches one of the policemen.  Again, this all seems a bit overboard.  Maybe it did actually happen, but … would anyone actually do that?  But, for the purposes of the film, it has to happen.  He and Dr Shirley both end up locked in the only cell at a very small police station.  Eventually, the police acknowledge that they’ve got the right to a phone call, so Dr Shirley makes a call … and, the next thing you know, Bobby Kennedy, in his capacity as Attorney General, is ringing this two bit police station to say that the police have got to let them go.  Tony thinks that he’s going to be dining out on this story for the rest of his life.  Dr Shirley finds the whole thing utterly humiliating.  It’s taken away his dignity.

That’s probably the biggest point that the film makes about racism – that it strips Dr Shirley of his dignity.  For all his talent, his education, the way he speaks, the way he behaves, the racist attitudes with which he’s confronted keep challenging his dignity.  He may have the class to appreciate an elegant suit, and the money to afford it, but the manager of the shop won’t even let him try it on.  He’s denied admission to hotels, restaurants and even toilets.  Maybe the title “Green Book” doesn’t really work, because the idea of the Green Book is to enable people to avoid situations where they’re likely to face awkwardness and trouble.  Obviously no-one should have to think like that, and people should be able to go where they want, but, even now, you see comments in guidebooks saying that, for example, women travelling alone would be well advised to avoid a particular place.  Tony and Dr Shirley keep running into trouble.

The next time Dr Shirley ends up being arrested isn’t actually about race: it’s because he’s been caught in a sexual encounter with another man.  Tony bribes the police to let him go.  Again, Dr Shirley is upset at having had to resort to underhand tactics to get out of the situation, but, as Tony points out, it would be very awkward for him, in the climate of the 1960s, if this arrest became known publicly.  It’s already been mentioned that Dr Shirley had been married to a woman, although he’s now divorced, so we’ve previously got the impression that he’s heterosexual.  In an emotional conversation with Tony afterwards, he says that he doesn’t feel as if he’s accepted anywhere.  It seems that he’s referring to sexuality, as well as race, but the subject of sexuality’s never mentioned again, so we don’t really know exactly what’s going on.  I don’t really know why the scriptwriters put that in if they weren’t going to develop it properly.

Tony, on the other hand, is happy and secure within his world.  He hasn’t got much money, and he’s got no qualifications, and his manners are appalling, but he knows exactly who he is and where he belongs.  He’s part of a big working-class Italian American New York extended family, within a working-class Italian American New York community.  He’s happily married.  Part of the “bonding process” is that he writes terrible letters to his wife, Dr Shirley dictates romantic letters for him to write instead, and his wife is thrilled – even though she knows very well that someone must have helped him with them.  But he and his wife and their children are all very happy together.  And they’re part of a big network of relatives and friends, all of whom are working-class Italian-American New Yorkers.  He’s fine with that.  He doesn’t particularly want to learn about different things, and he certainly doesn’t aspire to what might be considered a more cultured lifestyle, or a more multicultural lifestyle.

Do you ever think that it might be easier to be like that?  Maybe by the 1960s, things were starting to change, but, before that, a lot of people never moved out of the communities in which they grew up, and never mixed with different people.  Whilst doing some family history research, I found that, on one side, my great-great-grandparents had lived next-door-but-two to each other.  Not quite marrying the boy/girl next door, but as near as makes no difference.  There are still people whose lives aren’t too far removed from that.  Is it tragic, that their lives are so narrow?  Or is it easier to be like that?  And, once you’re out of that sort of set-up, you can’t really go back.

We know very little about Dr Shirley’s background, so it does feel as if some of the pieces of the jigsaw are missing.  He’s very far removed from the stereotype of what a black man in the US in the 1960s should be, but what we don’t know is whether he was brought up like that or whether he’s distanced himself from that.  There’s a mention of a brother whom he doesn’t speak to – although apparently that isn’t true, and he got on perfectly well with his brother.  We don’t meet any of his relatives, and he doesn’t seem to have any friends who aren’t connected with his work.   Whether it was the way he was brought up or whether it was his own choice, or just the way his life panned out, he’s completely detached from “black culture”.

He’s barely even heard of Little Richard and Aretha Franklin, and doesn’t recognise their music when it comes on over the car radio.  He doesn’t eat fried chicken – which is quite a motif of the film: people keep going on about fried chicken.  Food is such a big part of culture.  People who’ve become detached from a cultural group, or even people whose parents or grandparents became detached from a cultural group, will often still eat the food associated with it.  And, in 1960s America, it’s still expected that part of the experience of being black is to grow up in poverty.  At one point, Tony says that he’s blacker than Dr Shirley is, because he does live in a working-class neighbourhood.  Dr Shirley doesn’t disagree.

And, for all his success, he’s deeply unhappy.  And, because of that, he drinks.  And it’s because he feels that he doesn’t belong.

It all sounds so ridiculous, this idea that, in order to belong, you have to conform to cultural norms.  Surely that’s the most prejudiced thing of all.  And yet that’s how it is, even now.   And it’s coming as much from people inside a particular community as from people outside it.  More, if anything.  There are so many films and TV programmes and comedy acts which play on stereotypes of particular groups, and most of that is coming from people within those groups.  Fair enough, as long as no-one’s getting offended by it?  But doesn’t it just make harder and harder for the people within those communities who don’t fit those stereotypes?

That word “community” – it gets used in so many ways, these days.  People talk about “the black community” or “the Islamic community” or “the LGBT community” as if everyone who fits that particular demographic is somehow supposed to have the same beliefs and outlook and interests.  You’re talking about millions of completely different people, living different lives, in different areas.  And yet, all the time, you get political commentators saying that a particular party’s trying to appeal to the X community, or has lost support amongst the Y community.  Or else it’s retailers trying to appeal to the A community or the B community.  As if you’re supposed to vote the same way, and have the same likes and dislikes, as everyone who’s from the same ethnic group or religion or part of the country as you, or is of the same sexuality, or even the same gender.  And then you get people claiming to be spokesmen/women for that community, as if they can somehow represent all these millions of different people.

It’s actually getting worse.  We’ve now got this “cultural appropriation” thing going on, as if you aren’t even allowed to sing particular music or make particular food or wear particular clothing unless you’ve got a personal connection to the demographic group from which it originates.  What is that about?  And people are accused of betrayal if they have a partner from a different demographic group, or express views which aren’t those which people from their ethnic or religious background are “supposed” to have.

Everyone wants to belong.

Or do they?

Dr Shirley doesn’t want not to be seen as black.  He’s not trying to get away from being black, just from the idea that black people have to be a certain way.  He’s actually one of the people who sees himself as being a standard bearer for a particular group, because the reason he’s touring the South is to try to change people’s attitudes, to overcome the stereotypes of what a black person is like.  One of the other musicians explains this to Tony, who’s struggling to understand why this very talented man, who can get as many well-paid gigs as he likes in places where he’s treated with the respect he deserves, is putting himself through all this unpleasantness.  He thinks he can take on the attitudes of racists in the South, and change their minds.  And it would have been great if that was the way things had gone, but it wasn’t.

At one concert, which was meant to be in North Carolina but was actually filmed at the beautiful Houmas House plantation in Louisiana, which I’ve visited, he’s welcomed by the host and hostess and their guests, and sits down at the dinner table with them – even though they do serve up friend chicken – but, when he asks to use the toilet, he’s told that he’ll have to use a grotty outhouse: the proper gents’ toilets are only for white men.  He says that he’s not using the outhouse and, if they won’t let him use the other toilets, the second half of the concert will have to be delayed whilst he goes all the way back to his hotel, uses the toilet there, and comes all the way back.  The host agrees.  We’re left thinking how absolutely ridiculous the host’s attitude is, but we’re also left wondering why Dr Shirley doesn’t just tell him exactly where he can shove both his piano and his toilets.  Tony says that, if anyone treated him like that, he’d use their luxury carpet as a toilet.

Dr Shirley says that what matters is to be dignified.

However, in order for the film to work, either someone’s going to have to give in and accept that they’re in the wrong, or he’s going to have to snap and say that he’s had enough.  Attitudes are, sadly, not going to be changed by a concert tour, so Dr Shirley has to decide that he’s not taking any more –  and, of course, this happens at the last concert of the tour.

It’s in a posh club, on Christmas Eve.  Tony, Dr Shirley and the other musicians want to have a meal at the club’s restaurant before the concert, but the restaurant is whites-only and, despite the fact that all the white people in the restaurant are only at the club because they’ve come to hear him play, Dr Shirley is not allowed in.  He’s told that either he should eat somewhere else, or that some food can be brought out to him in the miniscule dressing room.  Enough’s enough, and he walks out.  He and Tony go to a bar where Tony is the only white person in the place.  And he plays the piano there.  Mostly jazz music.

And then, after this grand denouement, after he’s finally had enough, after he’s accepted that what he’s tried to do hasn’t worked, after he’s stood up for himself – and done it in an immeasurably dignified way, rather than walloping someone as Tony would have done – the film suddenly turns into one of those warm fuzzy Christmas films that get repeated on the Sky Christmas channel all the way through December.

Will Tony make it home in time to have Christmas dinner with his wife, his kids, and their enormous extended family?  As head north, it starts snowing heavily.  They can hardly see for more than a few inches in front of them.  And then they’re pulled over by a policeman.  Oh no!  Are our heroes going to spend Christmas Day in the cells?  Fear not.  This policeman just wants to tell them that they’ve got a flat tyre.  Tony changes it.  They drive on.  But Tony’s tired.  He really can’t drive any further.  So Dr Shirley takes over.  And they make it back to New York City just as Tony’s lovely wife Dolores is dishing up.  Hooray!   And Dr Shirley is invited into join them.  Bless!  Everyone hugs and kisses.  Merry Christmas!

I suppose they wanted a happy ending, and that was the only way of doing it.  The tour didn’t change people’s attitudes.  Dr Shirley didn’t find inner peace and a sense of belonging.  But we got our happy Christmas dinner scene.  A bit of a non sequitur, but, hey, why not?  We don’t have to fit films into pigeon holes as being comedies or dramas, or being buddy movies or films about racism or films about angst or anything else.  This film doesn’t really fit into any one standard category.  It’s just itself.  And people should be able to be just themselves, but the world doesn’t work like that, and it can be very hard if you don’t fit in.  There are better films than this about the evils of racism, but this one’s a bit different, and, whilst it’s got its faults, it’s got plenty to say, and all of that is well worth listening to.

 

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Back in Time for School – BBC 2 (episode 5)

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I think this series, covering the 1970s this week, has lost the plot – which is a great shame, seeing as it’s doing the 1980s next week. Seriously, how many schools let kids skive off PE and spend the time in a meditation sanctuary room instead?   If only!   I’d have been the first one in there.  Not to mention missing lessons to play golf for “personal fulfilment”, calling teachers by their first names, and serving up the produce of home economics lessons for school dinners.  And please would someone tell the BBC that not all kids want lessons that involve role play and “active participation”?  Confident, outgoing kids might, but give me the set-up from the 1950s episode any day!  And did your old school have loudspeaker systems like Rydell High?  Mine certainly didn’t!   But, hey, they did mention Grange Hill!  Good old Grange Hill 🙂 .

I’ve been getting increasingly annoyed over the way the BBC’s used what began as a very interesting series to push its own political agenda; and it reached ridiculous proportions this week, when we were informed that the introduction of comprehensives was part of the same cultural shift that included women’s lib and the Race Relations Acts. What??  The most sensible comment in the entire episode was when one of the teachers said that education was constantly being used a political football.   I don’t think anyone would disagree with that, but need the BBC use programmes about education as political footballs, as well?  And every episode of Casualty and Holby City now revolves around criticising the NHS.  Enough!

Anyway. Back to the point!  I think this was the first time we’d seen inside a staffroom.  In between looking at copies of The Sun and discussing page 3 girls – the circulation of the aforementioned newspaper apparently doubled when the page 3 pictures started, which says rather a lot, and none of it good – the teachers commented that the loudspeaker system reminded them of Rydell High.  That was my reaction as well.  Did schools in the ‘70s actually have loudspeaker systems?  My school certainly didn’t have one even in the 1990s.  Announcements were made either in assembly or on notes sent to classrooms.  Assembly in this programme involved singing Kum Ba Yah.  The original version, not the one that goes “He scores goals, my Lord, he scores goals”.

Then on to a “commerce” lesson, in which everyone had to pretend that they were on an aeroplane. The BBC enthused about how brilliant this was.  I have no idea why.  What was it supposed to achieve?  And the gender division issue raised its head again, with girls being told that they couldn’t take the roles of pilots.

More interesting was the tuck shop, selling sweets. Oh yes!  We had one of these for a couple of years, although it was something to do with the Young Enterprise Scheme rather than actually being run by the school.  My then best friend and I – although this was in the ‘80s, not the ‘70s – used to buy X number of sweets each to eat on the bus on the way home, and we had a series of “landmarks” at which we ate the next sweet.  No wonder I was always so bloody fat!

Then on to decimalisation and school banks. This bit was fascinating.  By my day, we didn’t have school banks.  The big banks had all started running accounts for children, and tried to appeal to us by offering rewards or free gifts.  I had all the Nat West piggies.  Other kids had free schoolbags given away by the Midland – which was incredibly confusing, because it meant that umpteen people had the same bag.  I quite like the idea of a school bank, although it must have meant a huge amount of admin work for the staff.  Having said which, would you really want teachers knowing how much money you had or didn’t have?  Maybe not.

We then moved on to that staple of British school life – the lectures about how your hair was too long (for boys) or too messy, and how you shouldn’t be wearing make-up for school.   I’m amazed they didn’t add lectures about customising the uniform.  This is one that pretty much everyone in every generation will have memories of.  Being fat and uncool, I once decided that I was going to make myself look cool, just for once, by turning up at school wearing bright orange nail varnish.  One of the other girls told me that I looked as if my hands had been hit by the fallout from Chornobyl.  So much for looking cool 😦 .  The teachers weren’t impressed either.  Then there was the time that two of the lads at the boys’ school decided to see if it was true that, if you went for weeks without washing or cutting your hair, it would start cleaning itself.  Our jumpers were too long.  Our skirts were too short.  Our coats were the wrong colour.  Yep.  We’ve all been there!

In this programme, three kids were banned from going on a school trip because of issues around hair and make-up. Why are schools so obsessed with how kids look and dress?!  They are, though.  This bit was very realistic.  The trip wasn’t very exciting, though – it was to Spaghetti Junction.  Apparently, this was typical of a geography field trip in the 1970s.  How horrendously boring!

After that, the programme went a bit berserk, as the BBC tried to make out that the 1970s were all about schools letting kids do whatever they wanted. Student councils.  Were these common in the ‘70s?  And schools where kids called the teachers by their first names, and got to choose whether or not they even turned up at school, and, if they did, whether they went to PE lessons or sat in a very lavishly-decorated “sanctuary”.

PE in the ‘70s was apparently supposed to be about “personal fulfilment”. I have to say that that wasn’t a bad idea.  I was worse than useless at team sports, and something like golf or archery might have suited me better – but was it really practical?   A couple of kids go to the nearest golf course, or presumably the nearest municipal golf course as I can’t imagine private golf clubs wanting schoolkids wandering around their courses, others go to the nearest archery butts (if indeed there were any nearby archery butts), and so on?  I don’t really see how it would have worked.  Surely only very few schools can have done this?  I appreciate that the BBC was trying to make this entertaining, but I’d rather have seen something that was typical rather than something that was extreme.

There were also “Black Studies” lessons. Again, I don’t know how common these were – and two people who were called in to discuss them said that there’d been no such things at their own schools in the 1970s!   It was an interesting concept, though.  It was a genuinely well-meaning attempt to promote race relations by teaching about Afro-Caribbean culture, but there was something quite discomfiting about the idea of teaching “Black Studies” as if black culture was somehow “other” and apart from the mainstream; and that was how both the children and the teachers, of all ethnicities, seemed to feel as well.  It was meant well, but it just wasn’t the best of approaches.  It was mentioned that some schools had Afro-Caribbean carnivals, and these seemed to work much better.

Next up, home economics. This series is obsessed with home economics!   They made curry, which was then dished up for school dinners.  Hmm.  I know this happens in books, but I’m very glad that the stuff I made in the home economics room never got served to the other kids.  My mum and dad and sister had to help eat it, and I think they’d rather it’d all been chucked in the bin.  This was the first time that home economics lessons were co-ed.  Good to see – although this concept hadn’t reached our schools even by the time I left in 1992.  Although CDT lessons started at the girls’ school whilst I was there, cookery and sewing were not taught at the boys’ school.  But ours were fairly old-fashioned places, it has to be said!

Then, in line with the gender equality thing, we were told that, with far more mothers working, after school clubs were started. And the after school club was shown an episode of Grange Hill!   I loved Grange Hill.  I wish it’d never been scrapped.  It was great!  Even in the late ’80s, when everyone got obsessed with Neighbours and Home and Away, we still watched Grange Hill as well.

And, to finish up, a school disco. Er, yep.  As with role play and “active participation”, teenage discos were great if you were a confident, outgoing kid, but rather less so if you were the shy fat kid hiding in the corner or the toilets!   Mind you, if you’re the sort of kid who’s going to be on a reality TV series, you’re not going to be the sort who hides!

The teacher who complained last week that she’d never heard “Jerusalem” before said that she’d found this week “inspiring” and had taken a lot from it. It figured.  None of the other teachers were very impressed, and the pupils weren’t that keen either.  And now I’m waiting to see what they do with my era, the 1980s.  From what the preview showed, it’s going to suggest that all classrooms in the ’80s were full of computers, synthesisers and robots.   No.  They weren’t.  Any more than schools in the ’70s let you skive off PE to sit in a “sanctuary”.  This series has gone a bit mad!

Danny Dyer’s Right Royal Family – BBC 1

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I thought that this was just going to be silly; but some of it was genuinely touching. Danny Dyer, evidently *not* being an avid reader of the works of Jean Plaidy 😉 , had never heard the tales of the Plantagenets’ turbulent family history before; and was clearly moved by hearing how Henry II had faced rebellion by his own sons, and Edward II had had to marry a woman even though he was probably gay – and then met a very horrible end.  There was a lot of wisecracking, but he was obviously taking it all pretty seriously and taking it all in; and he was just so enthusiastic about everything that he made it a joy to watch.

As we know from watching Who Do You Think You Are, Danny Dyer, who grew up on a council estate in the East End and usually plays or fronts series about East End hard men, recently found out that he was descended from Edward III. Yes, all right, all right, so are zillions of other people, but it was clear how much it meant to him to find that out.  And this was a voyage of discovery for him, because he obviously knew very little about the Plantagenets.  Schools fail big time on teaching kids about the Middle Ages.  Such medieval history lessons at we had at school involved drawing pictures of the Bayeux Tapestry, motte and bailey castles and pie charts of how medieval monks spent their time.  And that was about it.   Maybe the teacher would actually have preferred to be teaching art rather than history.  And why would anyone think that a class of 11-year-old girls wanted to draw pie charts showing how medieval monks split their time between eating, studying and praying?!  Even at university, the medieval history modules weren’t great.  So thank you, Jean Plaidy, for introducing me to the glorious soap opera that was the lives of the Plantagenets!   And thank you to the BBC for doing the same for Danny Dyer.

We actually started well before the Plantagenets, with King Rollo. The real one, not the one in the cartoon.  This was good, because there can be a tendency for royal history programmes to start with William the Conqueror and ignore everything that went before.  There was a lot of dressing up and re-enactment in this, so, yes, we did get Danny dressing up as a Viking, but the Viking re-enactors whom he met in Sweden were keen to tell him about Viking life, dispelling all the Victorian myths about horned helmets and so on, and explaining how Rollo pretty much came from nowhere to become Duke of Normandy and found a dynasty.  Danny said, whilst visiting Scandinavia and later Paris, that he’d had no idea that the word “Norman” actually came from “Norseman”, and that was a good point.  We’re all taught about the Battle of Hastings, but the fact that the Normans were descended from Vikings, and the very complex personal and political ties between England, Ireland, Norway, Denmark and Normandy tend to be ignored.

Danny was pretty impressed by what he learnt about King Rollo, and it was also great to see a historical programme (of sorts!) covering something different, rather than Henry VIII all over again!    Even when we got on to William the Conqueror, the focus wasn’t on all the same old, same old stuff about the Battle of Hastings and whether Harold was or wasn’t shot in the eye, but on the Tower of London and the way in which the Normans imposed their authority on the country.  Yes, it was pretty daft when Danny was presented with a set of faux Norman era coins showing his own face on one side and a simplified version of the West Ham crest on the other, and when he dressed up as a knight and tried to drive a lance through a watermelon, but this was never going to be a serious documentary!   And the hunting laws – we also saw him shooting arrows in the woods – have played a fairly big part in English history.

He was so enthusiastic about it all!   What about the swearing and the “unusual” slang words and the wanting to hug everyone all the time?  Well, if he’d been putting it on to present a certain image, it might have been annoying; but he was just being himself.  I’m not suggesting that everyone should go around saying “fuck” in one of the most important churches in Europe (Saint-Chapelle in Paris), but maybe it’s not a bad thing sometimes to show that history’s not just for people talking in … shall we say “ a scholarly way”?

Then on to Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the most interesting couples in the whole of British royal history.   My one big moan about this programme was that it gave a very one-sided view both of Henry II and of Louis IX of France.  I appreciate that they were only spending a short amount of time on each person, and couldn’t go into too much detail, but they might have pointed out how badly Henry treated Eleanor!   I find it hard to have much sympathy over the whole “Revolt of the Eaglets” thing, because I just don’t like the man.  Anyway.  This is another neglected area of history – not just what was going on at home, but the extent of the Angevin Empire.  Thomas Becket got a mention as well, although only a passing one.

Danny was so interested in it all. And his take on the rebellion of Henry II’s sons against him was that they were “ungrateful little brats”, which in some ways did sum it up very well!  And humanised it.  Yes, this is history, these are kings and queens and princes and princesses, but it’s also about family fallings-out and family breakdowns.  A couple’s marriage breaks down, there are tensions between siblings, the kids want to take control of the family business, the parents are each accused of favouring one kid over the others … it’s like a soap opera storyline, isn’t it.  As I’m always saying, if schools taught people about all this, instead of making them draw pie charts about the daily lives of monks, everyone would be a lot more interested in medieval history!

Then, for something different, over to France, to learn about Louis IX. I read The Life of Saint Louis when I was 18.  I am not in the habit of reading medieval hagiographies, but I had to read it as part of my degree course.  The book does go on a lot about the Seventh Crusade, but it doesn’t really tell you about the role Louis played in persecuting Cathars and Jews and promoting the work of the Inquisition.  Louis is a big hero in France.  Like Isabella of Castile is a big heroine in Spain.  OK, let’s not get on to the thorny issue of the attitude of the medieval authorities towards anyone who didn’t toe the line in the religion department.  All Danny was told was that Louis was a very pious man who shunned luxury, and tried to help the poor and marginalised – which, to be fair, he did.  We also heard about how Louis obtained many supposed relics, including the supposed Crown of Thorns.  And how he was very into self-flagellation.

Almost 500 years after the English Reformation, the culture here has developed in a very different way to that of countries where most people are Catholic or Orthodox.  And our culture here is now very secular.  We tend to shy away from religious talk in this country.  That, as far as I’m concerned, is no bad thing; but, when we’re talking about the Middle Ages, we really can’t do that.  Even if you’re looking at the present day, rather than the Middle Ages, it can be quite a culture shock when you go abroad and see shrines by the side of the road, or religious images in hotel receptions and dining areas.  I don’t mean that in any sort of critical way, just that it takes some getting used to.

We got Danny dressed up in a brown shift, walking along like a penitent. And then he visited the Saint-Chapelle, where the historian accompanying him told him that Louis had been canonised, and that a vial of his blood was regarded as being miracle-working.  I got the impression that she genuinely believed this.  I’ve no idea what he actually thought about it all, but the magnificence of the chapel, with stained glass windows all round, and I’m guessing probably a strong smell of incense, was clearly quite dazzling and overwhelming, and, on top of that, being told that one of his ancestors had been canonised … it was a long way from West Ham and Albert Square, and it was really getting into a different sort of medieval mindset.    And you wouldn’t have got that in a programme fronted by someone who knew about history, because it wouldn’t have been new to them, and that was partly what made this programme so interesting.  That and the personal element, because we never forgot that, however many umpteen generations away, these actually were Danny’s ancestors.

Then back to England, for the sorry tale of Edward II. Son of the great Edward I, father of the great Edward III.  Lost the Battle of Bannockburn, upset all the barons, was deposed by his wife, Isabella the “She Wolf” of France, and her lover, and may or may not have been murdered by having a red hot poker shoved where the sun doesn’t shine and used to burn out all his innards.  OK, the red hot poker story probably isn’t true, but (whilst there’s the odd romantic novel that shows him escaping abroad) he did meet some sort of very sticky end.  He also had the bad luck to be king at the time of the Great Famine of 1315.

Was he romantically involved with Piers Gaveston and Hugh le Despenser, or were they both just close friends? Well, no-one really knows, but it’s quite likely.  The medieval re-enactment  bit in this programme involved a woman dressed up as Isabella shouting about having a husband who preferred guys.  OK, the way it was done was a bit silly, but it was really touching to hear Danny talking about how difficult it must have been for Edward, if he was gay but had to marry a woman to try to produce heirs, and indeed to forge an alliance with France, and seeing that he was clearly moved by it.  When you’re used to the Plantagenet soap opera, it’s easy to forget how it must all seem to someone hearing it for the first time, especially when it’s someone who’s found out that they’re directly descended from these people.

It was interesting that they chosen Edward II, rather than Edward I or Edward III.  Human interest over legal or military achievements.  The main reason that we hear so much about the reign of Henry VIII isn’t because of the importance of the Reformation on the development of Parliament and English culture – it’s because it involves a story of someone dumping their loyal partner of many years to go off with a younger, better-looking model, and that story resonates with every generation.

Speaking of Henry VIII, the programme then jumped on to the Tudor and Stuart eras. By this point, Danny’s direct line had long been detached from royalty – but travelled down through Elizabeth Seymour, sister-in-law of Henry VIII, and Catherine Tollemache, nee Cromwell, great-granddaughter of Thomas Cromwell.  First up, a visit to Wolf Hall, now associated with those ridiculously overrated books by Hilary Mantel.   This mainly involved Danny dressing up like one of Henry VIII’s courtiers, joking about codpieces, and being taught Tudor court dancing, singing and etiquette.   There’s so much on TV about the Tudors that this just didn’t have the same fascination as the earlier stuff, but he got really stuck into it all – and it was quite sweet when he kissed an effigy of John Seymour, Elizabeth’s father.  Then on to Helmingham Hall, seat of the Tollemaches, where he was joined by his wife and children and they all got dressed up.

They joked about how it was like one of those “And here’s what you could have won!” moments from Bullseye.  Maybe it was more like a real life version of one of those Edward Rutherfurd novels where two branches of a family tree go in completely different directions.    If everyone could all employ the services of professional genealogists with all the time and resources they needed, who knows what they’d find?  But this was great, because it was like a soap opera storyline and yet it was all real, and the fact that Danny Dyer was so into it all meant that the viewer couldn’t help but get drawn into it all with him.  I thought I’d be moaning about how silly this all was – I mean “Right Royal Family” is hardly the most promising of titles – but I genuinely enjoyed it.  Good stuff!

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.

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.

The Last Survivors – BBC 2

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I’d have said that there was quite a lot of attention paid to the Holocaust; but recent surveys have shown that over 50% of German schoolchildren have never heard of Auschwitz, 20% of French people aged between 18 and 34 have never heard of the Holocaust, 41% of American adults aren’t sure what Auschwitz was, and 5% of British adults don’t believe that the Holocaust took place.  Hopefully this is ignorance, rather than some sinister political forces manipulating history for their own ends, but it’s very worrying.  Ignorance can easily facilitate manipulation, and is best answered by education – and it was a shame that the BBC, put this programme, showing the testimony of some of the few remaining survivors living in Britain, over on BBC 2 and head-to-head with The Voice and Les Miserables.  But at least the programme was made, and shown – on Holocaust Memorial Day.  On the same day, a Polish far-right group held a demonstration at Auschwitz, at the same time as the official commemorations were taking place.  And all forms of hate crime seem to be on the rise.

We’re supposed to learn from history, but something’s going badly wrong somewhere.

The people interviewed, now mostly in their late 80s, had been children at the time of the Holocaust.  Some had survived Auschwitz, others has survived other concentration camps.  Some had been old enough, or convinced the Nazis that they were old enough, to be used for forced labour, rather than being sent to the gas chambers.  Others had been at camps which weren’t actually extermination camps.  One of them, the well-known cellist Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, had been saved from the gas chambers at Auschwitz at the last minute, when a chance remark about her musical studies had led to her being given a place in the Auschwitz Women’s Orchestra, which had saved her life.  One way or another, they’d all somehow survived, and come to Britain.  You’d think that living through such horrific conditions would weaken your constitution, for lack of a less Victorian way of putting it, but these incredible people were all hale and hearty, and extremely eloquent.

It was very personal, and that worked really well.  Statistics and pictures and film reels are effective and hard-hitting, but listening to someone’s personal story gets a message across in a way that nothing else does.  The stories of loss – even more than their own horrific experiences, they were telling their stories of loss – of the ordinary families, ordinary communities, which had been destroyed, of the relatives and friends who’d been murdered.

One man had never been able to find out what had happened to his little brother.  He himself had been out as part of a forced labour gang, and, one day, when he returned to his barracks, his brother and three other little boys had disappeared.  He said that he knew they must have been murdered, but part of him had never quite stopped hoping that his brother was alive somewhere: you hear these occasional stories of miraculous reunions.  And there was the man with the school photo of his class in Prague, taken in 1942.  He’d made it his mission to find out what happened to all his classmates, and had labelled the photo with stickers – red for those killed in the Holocaust, blue for those who’d survived.  There were a lot more red stickers than blue stickers.

Another man had kept trying to draw his murdered mother and sister: he had no photos of them.  He’d managed to produce a likeness of his mother, but said that he couldn’t get his sister’s face down on paper, so he’d drawn an abstract picture as a representation of him.  A well-known sculptor said that most of his sculptures had the face of his murdered father.  His younger sister had died in a concentration camp, and their elder sister had had to take her body outside and leave it on a pile of other bodies: there was nothing else to be done.  And no justice to be sought.  A man remembered seeing the flames from the chimneys at Auschwitz and, having seen his mother being taken away to the gas chambers, wondering which flame was her.

Why would anyone think that people would make this up?  And what is thing in Poland about trying to make it into some sort of competition?  Yes, there is an issue in that not much has been written about some of the groups affected by the Holocaust – the Roma and Sinti communities, gay men, people with physical and mental disabilities, for example.  More research and greater awareness is badly needed.  And no-one is denying the fact that the Nazis murdered many Poles who were not Jewish.  But what’s going on in Poland has a lot to do with the manipulation and misrepresentation of history, and it just shows how frighteningly easy it is for things to reach that stage.  This demonstration only numbered around two hundred people, but … that’s still two hundred people.

Many of those interviewed, although not all, were the only survivors of their families, and had presumably also been separated from friends, neighbours, and anyone else from their childhoods.  Most of them had married British partners, and had children and grandchildren.  How does that work, when someone close to you has been through such horrific experiences, and you’ve lived an ordinary life?

The partners seemed to cope quite well.  Or maybe they just didn’t want to say much, being of the stiff upper lip generation.  But the children were obviously struggling.  One woman said that she’d felt resentful as a child, because her mother had been too focused on trying to rebuild her life.  Another woman got frustrated with her father, whilst they were actually visiting Auschwitz, because he wasn’t expressing his emotions and he kept saying that part of the reason he was anxious was just that he was bothered about missing the coach.  She obviously adored him, and she then got tearful and hugged him; but she was obviously finding it frustrating.

The children and grandchildren seemed keener on expressing emotions about what had happened.  The survivors themselves said that that was something they couldn’t do.

It was interesting that several of them were involved in the arts, either as professionals or as amateurs – could that be a way of letting emotion out?  Anita Lasker-Wallfisch was defiant, saying that she wasn’t going to let people see her spilling her emotions all over the place.  Another woman said that she didn’t dare to cry, because, once she started crying, she’d never be able to stop.  The man who went back to Auschwitz said that he was crying inside, all the time.

There certainly seemed to be a consensus that, afterwards, they’d focused on rebuilding their lives and moving forward.

And also that they hadn’t wanted to revisit the places of the past – until now.  There were three return journeys.  One was the visit to Auschwitz, with the man whose daughter wanted him to express his emotions more.  His young granddaughter also accompanied them.  One of the women said that she found it difficult to see adverts for sightseeing trips to Auschwitz – on the hotel noticeboard, along with adverts for sightseeing trips to the Wieliczka salt mines.  It’s a difficult one.  I suppose it has sort of become a tourist attraction, and I remember being quite shocked to see people taking photos of themselves and their travel companions there.  I did take some photos of the site, but I certainly didn’t want any photos there with myself in them, and the fact that anyone did made me quite uncomfortable.  But I think it’s a very educational experience, and I do think it has to be open for people to visit.  There was nothing there that I found disrespectful or sensationalised.  I wish I could say the same of the Warsaw Ghetto: there was a souvenir stall there which was selling things that were in extremely poor taste.  Hopefully that stall’s not there any more.

Another was the visit by the man whose brother had disappeared, to consecrate memorial stones in his home town of Kassel.  It was the first time that he’d actually said memorial prayers for his brother, acknowledging that his brother was gone and saying that he was at least thankful that his brother had had a few years of a happy and loving childhood.  He also said that he hoped that people would stop to look at the memorial stones, but accepted that they wouldn’t.  You don’t, do you?  Names on park benches.  Blue plaques on buildings.  War memorials.  Statues in city centres.  But they’re there.  And Kassel was acknowledging what had happening.

There are a lot of Holocaust memorials in Germany.  The main one’s in Berlin.  This is the main German memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, I should say: there are also memorials to other groups.  They shouldn’t be separate: there should be one memorial to all the victims.  But there isn’t.  Anyway.  It’s an odd-looking memorial – a lot of concrete blocks.  Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, visiting it on the third of the return trips, her visit to Germany to address the German parliament, said that she’d rather have had a garden as a memorial.  But it’s there.

There was a lot of talk about “Germans”.  I know that sounds like stating the obvious, but … is that a hallmark of the wartime generation?   Things said or written now tend to refer to “Nazis” rather than “Germans”.  Neither term is entirely accurate, when talking about the perpetrators of the Holocaust.  In the immediate post-war era, every country other than Germany was presented entirely a victim, which was certainly not entirely the case.  And this is part of the Polish right-wing issue again.  And, conversely, all Germans were stigmatised – look at the carry-on when Bert Trautmann signed for City.  I don’t know what the right term is.  We haven’t really got one.

She spoke so well, saying that it’s understandable that today’s Germans do not want to identify with what happened.  Why should they: it wasn’t their fault.  But that it must never be forgotten.  There’s a lot of talk about “never again”, but look what happened in Cambodia, in Iraqi Kurdistan, in the former Yugoslavia, in Rwanda, in Darfur …

At the end, we saw one of the women dancing round her house.  She said that she’d been denied her youth, her teenage years, so she was having them now.  That was lovely.  The whole programme was very watchable.  Moving rather than harrowing.  I don’t know what the viewing figures were, but I hope they were good.  It’s just very unfortunate that the people who most needed to hear what was being said won’t have been watching.

 

Back in Time for School – BBC 2 (episode 4)

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Maybe I’m just getting very old and out of touch, but is it not a bit odd for a teacher never to have heard “Jerusalem”?  You’d think most people would have heard “Jerusalem” sung whilst watching, say, the Commonwealth Games, the Last Night of the Proms, cricket Test matches or rugby union internationals, surely?  Hmm. Other than that, we got farm animals running around the school grounds, slide rules, stink bombs (these were still going in the ’80s, not sure if they are now), and the replacement of history lessons by “social studies”.  No history lessons?  I’m traumatised at the very thought of that!  And, for the first time, we got the views of some of the children’s parents.

This fourth episode was about secondary modern schools in the 1960s.  I wasn’t keen on the mouthy new teacher, who, apart from claiming that she’d never heard of “Jerusalem”, only seemed to want to criticise – I’m not keen on the idea of religion in school assemblies myself, but, if you’re looking into life at a different time, or in a different place, you need to accept that it’ll be, well, different!  -whereas the kids and the other teachers seemed genuinely interested in learning about changes in schooling over the years.  However, fortunately, she didn’t feature very much.

Gender divisions have been a big feature of this series, and that continued in this episode, with boys being taught bricklaying whilst girls were taught secretarial skills.  Leaving aside the gender divisions, the whole point of this was obviously to train them for the workplace.  We are constantly hearing about employers moaning that schools today do not train pupils for the workplace. It’s an ongoing debate – what is the purpose of education?  So much of what you learn in school is of very little use to you in later life, and you end up forgetting a lot of it.  But is it important to learn it in the first place, to learn those studying skills, to have that broad base of knowledge?   And what about choice?  But how much choice was there anyway, before the economy became so much more service-based?  No rights or wrongs, but a lot of questions.

The food was horrible.  Yep.  School dinners.  Horrible!

We then got rural studies.  School farms.  Obviously this would have been more relevant in some parts of the country than others, but, again, it was all about training people for the workplace.  And, again, it was all about gender division.  The girls didn’t get near the farm.  I quite liked the idea of animals roaming about on school premises.  I’d have hated it in practice – I’m not good with animals – but it would certainly have been different!  The boys also got to play about with cars – although the BBC had to politicise this by harping on about how boys who went to grammar schools would have had far more chance of affording fancy cars than boys who went to secondary moderns.

The girls, meanwhile, were learning domestic science.  This was not to train them for the workplace, the days of large numbers of girls going into domestic service being long over, but to train them for marriage.  It was pointed out that around 25% of girls in Britain in the early 1960s married in their teens.  I have to say that I’d have been a disaster at this school!  No history lessons.  Animals wandering around.  And people expecting you to get married in your teens – which would have been quite upsetting if you felt that you were the fat girl whom no-one was going to look at twice!  Not to mention my dire culinary skills: I nearly set fire to our school home economics room on two separate occasions.  Honestly!  And, later, technical drawing, something else I can’t do.  Anyway.  The girls were not impressed at being told that the point of the cookery lesson was to impress a male teacher.  There’d been more gender equality in the episode on Victorian times.

We also got careers evenings, for the first time, and this meant that parents were brought in.  It was very interesting to hear one boy’s mother say that she liked the idea of him being taught a trade.  Most of the careers advice seemed to be about telling kids what sort of work was likely to be available than trying to encourage them to do what they wanted.  Then again, the careers advice at my school in the late ’80s/early ’90s wasn’t that great, either.  It was a bit of a joke that, whatever you said, the careers advisor would tell you to think about either law or personnel management!   But at least advice was being given.

We seem to be seeing a lot more of the boys’ PE lessons than the girls’.  The boys got to play football in this episode.  Lucky boys!  There was a lot of talk about the 1966 World Cup, which was considerably more cheerful than the talk earlier in the episode about the Cuban Missile Crisis.  The boys also got to talk about hovercraft.  Meanwhile, the girls got to learn technical drawing – the idea being that this could lead to careers in different fields, as the Sixties moved on.

Then, finally, we got on to academic work, with maths lessons involving the use of slide rules.  And then “social studies”.  Apparently, the idea was to replace lessons in the humanities subjects with what I’d always thought of as being an American idea.  Ugh.  No proper history lessons?  What a horrible thought!

Something different!  It hadn’t occurred to me, but there’d been nothing about pranks and practical jokes so far.  Kids in books were always playing practical jokes on friends and teachers, whether it was all the “tricks”, bought from a “trick shop” played by Alicia on the French teacher at Malory Towers, or the apple-pie beds and similar pranks played by Chalet School girls on their friends.  At secondary school, we used to do “jumper chases”.  Best done on a warm day!  Each kid in turn would remove their jumper.  Most teachers just let it go, but the maths used to get very stroppy about it!  At primary school, we used to make itching powder – which usually didn’t actually cause itching, but was still annoying when someone dropped it down your back.  A couple of us did try sticking signs on people’s backs, like in Enid Blyton’s Naughtiest Girl books, but the signs always fell off!

And we also had stink bombs, which the boys – the boys seemed to be getting all the fun in this programme – got to use.  One boy I knew – he was a right horrible kid! – decided to try using stink bombs at a religious studies lesson.  This wasn’t at school, but actually at a place of worship.  Everyone present at the time got a long lecture on the evils of desecrating the House of God.  OK, it wasn’t funny … but it kind of was!   Do kids still play with stink bombs, or have they got more sophisticated tastes these days?

Finally, at the end of the Sixties, the kids got to watch Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s moon landing, on TV.  Fifty years ago this year.  How’s that happened?  It only seems like two seconds since the fortieth  anniversary of it was being marked!  How can it be fifty years since 1969?  And the next episode – the week after next, with no episode this week for some reason – moves us on into the 1970s, which is getting frighteningly close to my time!  I started primary school at the end of the ’70s.  How is it all so long ago?!