A Lakeland Saga by Jeremy Collingwood

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The title of this book’s a bit of a misnomer – it’s the story of the Collingwood/Altounyan family, best known for the fact that the children of Dora, nee Collingwood, and Ernest Altounyan, were the inspiration for the Walker children in the Swallows and Amazons books.  Other members of the family were historians, philosophers, artists and archaeologists.  It isn’t really a “Lakeland Saga” – they were only at Coniston for part of the time.  But it’s still quite interesting.

It’s essentially a family history, and there are pages and pages about how X married Y, their children were A,B and C, this one had a sweet voice, that one had a moustache, etc,  which probably isn’t that interesting unless you’ve got a personal connection with the people concerned.  However, some of the stuff in it is genuinely fascinating – as well as Arthur Ransome, John Ruskin, Lawrence of Arabia and King Faisal of Iraq all feature, and the most interesting section shows the Altounyans, with their Armenian heritage, running a hospital in Aleppo and helping Armenian refugees fleeing the genocide.  Ernest Altounyan’s own uncle was a victim of the genocide.  It also gives a wonderful picture of historical, multicultural Aleppo, which has sadly suffered so much killing and destruction in the past decade.

There’s quite a bit about the Lakes too, especially Coniston, but “a Lakeland saga” it isn’t.  It’s quite interesting, though – I wouldn’t spend a fortune on it, but, if you can get a cheap copy or borrow a copy from a library, it’s worth a look through.

 

Beyond the Ghetto Gates by Michelle Cameron

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This, set in Ancona during Napoleon’s Italian campaign of 1797-99 is a fascinating book – something really different, about an important but often neglected part of European history.  Ancona was the first of several Italian cities in which Napoleon’s troops took down the ghetto gates, and ceremoniously burnt them; and we see that very powerful scene in the book, with almost all of the major characters present.

There’s an ongoing debate about Napoleon’s views on religious minorities.  Certainly he held prejudices against minority groups, but that doesn’t alter the fact that he gave civil rights to Jewish communities, and also to Protestant communities in Catholic-dominated areas where they’d been denied equality.  It’s quite strange to read a book which shows Napoleon as a hero, because that’s, obviously, really not how he’s usually seen in Britain; but he did bring about many changes for the better – and the effects of his actions are still felt today.

Napoleon does feature prominently in the book, but he’s only one of a rich cast of characters, mostly fictional, some real.  The protagonist, Mirelle, longs for more from life than marriage and motherhood behind the ghetto gates, but is being courted by the wealthy and influential widowed father of her best friend Dolce – a member of the real life Morpurgo family who played an important part in the events of the period.  Mirelle’s family run one of the world’s leading ketubah (Jewish marriage certificate) printing businesses, but, after her father and brother are murdered by a Catholic vigilante mob, the business passes to an unpleasant relative.  This is all based on the reality of the times: Ancona was the centre of the ketubah printing industry, and there were attacks on the ghetto by vigilantes.

Meanwhile, amongst the French army are their distant relative David, who takes a shine to Mirelle whilst Dolce takes a shine to him, and his Catholic best friend Christophe, with whom Mirelle embarks on a romance.  And we’ve also got the murderer, Emilio, devout wife Francesca, and their two young children.

Emilio is fictional, but Francesca and their daughter really existed – their significance being that they claimed to have seen the eyes in a painting of the Virgin Mary move. The painting plays a big part in the book.  Napoleon is strangely obsessed with it.  And then it gets stolen – which does get a bit silly, and isn’t based on fact; and the talk about the Stolen Madonna kept making me think about the Fallen Madonna with the Big Boobies.  The whole plot actually gets a bit chaotic at the end, with everything happening at once and some slightly unconvincing tying up of loose ends, but no book’s perfect and it does keep you guessing about exactly how things are going to work out.

There’s a lot going on throughout the book.  We see life in the ghetto, and we see how different groups of people grow up with prejudices against each other.  And we see – OK, the idea of the spirited young woman who wants a life outside the home pretty cliched, but it works – Mirelle wanting to run the printing business, but facing prejudice, led by the local rabbi, against the idea of a woman in a workplace.  We see how the changes in France have liberated Daniel, but we also see how both he and Mirelle struggle to find their way between their old lives and the new world.

A brief summary from Wikipedia:

 In 1763, some 1290 Jews lived in Ancona. During the reign of Napoleon between 1797 and 1799, the Jews were fully emancipated. The gates of the ghetto were removed and the members of the Morpurgo family became members of the city council. In 1814, after Napoleon’s defeat and the return of the city to papal dominion, some restrictions were put once again upon the Jewish community by Pope Leo XIII. In 1843, an old decree was revived by Fra Vincenzo Soliva, Inquisitor of Ancona, forbidding Jews to reside or own a business outside the ghetto and imposing other restrictions, but public opinion had already turned in Europe by then and the edict was cancelled shortly after until the revolution of 1848 emancipated the Jews once again.

I think it’s fairly widely-known that the word “ghetto” comes from Venice, but it’s still quite strange for a reader from the Anglophone world to be reminded that this was going on in Italy as recently as the end of the 18th century – that the Jewish communities of cities such as Ancona were literally locked into the ghetto at night, and forced to wear yellow insignia when leaving it during the day.  The combination of the Enlightenment and the Code Napoleon brought about change – and that led on to the debates about secularisation and assimilation, especially in Vienna and Budapest.  France continued to be seen as the European leader in terms of rights for religious minorities right up until the Dreyfus Affair, and it was the fact that Theodore Herzl was in Paris at the height of the Dreyfus Affair which really kick-started the Zionist movement, something which has been rather misrepresented in the media in recent months.  That all goes back to the Code Napoleon, and the idea that France should have been somewhere where that wouldn’t happen.

Anyway, that’s getting somewhat off the point, but, despite the mayhem at the end, this is a very good book, and worth a read if the 99p Kindle offer’s still available.

 

The Damask Rose by Carol McGrath

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This is the second in Carol McGrath’s “She-Wolves” series, with the main character being Eleanor of Castile, the first wife of Edward I.  As in her previous book, we also see events through the eyes of another character, and this time that’s a herbalist, Olwen … who sounds as if she should be Welsh but is actually English.

I can’t say that I’ve ever had a negative opinion of Eleanor of Castile, probably because I’ve always found the story about her sucking poison out of Edward’s wound (yes, all right, I know that it probably isn’t true) very romantic, and I’ve always found the story of the Eleanor Crosses very romantic as well.  However, she’s seen by many as greedy/acquisitive and as a neglectful mother, and her reputation also seems to have suffered from the “Black Legend” view of Spain which developed 300 years after her time.

Carol McGrath’s tried very hard to present her positively and provide explanations for some of her less attractive traits, in what’s a very readable and enjoyable book.  She’s also shown worked in the late 13th century obsession with Arthurian legends, which is interesting (I visited Glastonbury Abbey last year, and heard all about Edward and Eleanor attending the reburial of Arthur and Guinevere’s supposed remains!).  And readers in North West England will be interested to “see” the construction of Vale Royal Abbey, which, had Edward not spent the money intended for it on invading Wales, might have been one of the biggest abbeys in the country.

The only problem is that the book’s too short to cover such an eventful life, and it does sometimes feel a bit superficial, as we skim over major events in a few pages and don’t really get into how the characters are feeling about them.  But there are far worse criticisms of a book than wishing it’d been twice the length.

This is Eleanor’s book, not Edward’s.  Having said which, we don’t see anything of Eleanor’s life before the Second Barons’ War, by which time she was in her 20s.  But the point is that we don’t see the war with William Wallace, the expulsion of the Jews, the calling of the Model Parliament or the proclaiming of the future Edward II as Prince of Wales, all of which happened after Eleanor’s death.  Nor do we get the story about the “prince born in Wales, who did not speak a word of English”, which (obviously) would have happened in Eleanor’s lifetime; but, OK, it probably never happened at all!

We start with the Second Barons’ War, and Carol McGrath’s suggestion is that Eleanor’s later concern for acquiring estates dates from her being imprisoned by Simon de Montfort’s forces and wanting to ensure that she never faced poverty as well … which makes it sound as if she was kneeling in the dirt at Twelve Oaks, crying “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again”!  I’m not entirely convinced by that, but it’s a possibility.

Then on to the Ninth Crusade – where we get what’s probably the accurate version of the poison story, i.e. that it was a surgeon who saved Edward’s life and that Eleanor just stood around getting upset.  I like the poison-sucking version better, but never mind!

It’s certainly interesting to see Eleanor and Olwen’s time in the Middle East, and we also see them in Gascony.  And quite a lot of the book covers the wars in Wales.  We also get to see Eleanor and Edward’s close personal relationship, and court life.  And, of course, we see all the tragedies they suffered with their family.  Eleanor’s often criticised for leaving her children behind whilst she was travelling with Edward, and for leaving one of her daughters with her mother in Ponthieu, but Carol McGrath suggests that maybe she was frightened of becoming attached to her children because of all the losses she suffered.

Out of a probable sixteen pregnancies, only six children survived to adulthood.  The future Edward II was born when Eleanor, married at only 12, was 42.  They had a son called Alphonso who died when he was 10, and another son called Henry who died when he was 6, amid a tragically long list of stillbirths, miscarriages and early deaths.  Very sad.  Olwen, meanwhile, is unable to conceive at all with her first husband, but remarries, to an old sweetheart, after being widowed during the Welsh wars, and has a daughter with her second husband.

Damask roses don’t really feature, which is rather a shame because I love damask rose oil!  It smells so nice.  Oh well.

All in all, this is a very good and very well-researched book.  I just wish it’d been longer.

 

 

 

Anne Boleyn – Channel 5

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I’m not sure that we really needed yet another TV series about Anne Boleyn.  Her story’s been done to death (pun intended), and, consequently, most of the reaction to this has been either moaning that it’s old hat or else trying desperately to find a new angle on the story by talking about “othering”.  Obviously that’s not the fault of either the actors or the scriptwriters, but it’s hard to make a big impression when you’re covering a story than everyone’s heard a zillion times before.  There are so many neglected areas of history which Channel 5 could have chosen to cover instead.

On the plus side, this is a proper historical drama.  It’s no Versailles or The Tudors: it does actually stick to the real people and the real series of events.  Well, main events, anyway.  It’s also positive that it’s looking at things from Anne’s point of view, and that it’s showing her as a deeply intelligent woman who championed the Reformation, rather than just as a scheming tart who stole another woman’s fella.

However, the dialogue’s really rather naff.  It tries to be clever, but doesn’t always manage it.   Some of it’s overloaded with metaphors (there are a lot of metaphors, symbols and omens) – ” Ooh, Jane, if you don’t know the rules, you shouldn’t play the game” – and some of it sounds like someone trying to be Jane Austen but not succeeding.  Jodie Turner-Smith’s really doing her best with it – her delivery of some of Anne’s bitchier lines reminded me of Joan Collins in Dynasty – but it’s just not that well-written.  The Boleyns all get some good lines – George and Jane Boleyn both come across very well, George as his sister’s chief supporter and Jane as a thoroughly nasty piece of work, and Cromwell does too, but Henry’s character didn’t come across at all.  And what on earth was that scene with Anne kissing Jane Seymour supposed to be about?  Jane, incidentally, is presented as a simpering little ninny.  Oh dear.  I thought we’d got past that idea.

The costumes are great.  It’s nice to see Bolton Castle being used for most of the indoor shots: I’ve been there a couple of times.  And the series is all right: I’ve seen far worse.  But this subject’s been covered so many times before that any new series would need to be absolutely outstanding to make a really big impression, and it isn’t.

There’s been a lot of talk about the casting of a black actress to play a white historical figure.  There’s actually been a lot of talk about casting lately, and it’s getting a bit silly.  A non-Latina actress was pressurised into giving up the role of Maria in West Side Story; Russell T Davies said that straight actors shouldn’t play gay roles; the casting of British actress Cynthia Eriwo, rather than an American actress, as Harriet Tubman was criticised; people have questioned the casting of a Catholic actress as the Jewish heroine of Ridley Road; and, to cap it all, people moaned that Will Smith shouldn’t have been cast as Richard Williams because their skin isn’t exactly the same shade of black.  What next?  No-one should play a member of the Crawley family in Downton Abbey unless they’ve got a title?

Having said all that, I didn’t think it was appropriate to cast Helen Mirren, in her 70s, as Catherine the Great in her 30s, and that thing BBC 2 did with women playing male Shakespearean roles was daft.  So I suppose there are limits.  But let’s not get too hung up about “representative” casting, or we’re going to end up with roles being cast based on box-ticking rather on acting ability.  Just as long as there’s a level playing field.   If it’s OK for a black actress to play a white character or a gay actor to play a straight character, it’s OK for a white actress to play a black character or a straight actor to play a gay character, unless it’s a role where ethnicity or something else is a big part of the storyline.

What I’m not really getting is this waffle in some areas of the media about how choosing Jodie Turner-Smith because she’s a black actress, rather than just because she’s a good actress, is “identity casting” which is showing how Anne Boleyn was “othered”.  Er, what?   How long has “other” being a verb?  And no-one was “othered”.  Favourites and factions came and went at court, and, in Henry VIII’s time, that was complicated by the religious turmoil and the desire for a male heir.   When Anne lost favour, she didn’t have a party of supporters strong enough and loyal enough to stand up for her.  Nor did numerous other people who fell foul of Henry.  Joan of Navarre was accused of witchcraft, and Mary Beatrice of Modena was accused of bringing Jesuit priests to court to subvert James II.  No-one talks about them being, er, “othered”.

The problem is that so much has been said about Anne Boleyn that people end up scratching around trying to think of any new angle on her story.  It’s like some of the bizarre suggestions made in recent years about who killed the Princes in the Tower – everything there is to be said about the likely candidates has been said, so people come up with outlandish ideas just for the sake of saying something different.

Anyway, to get back to the actual programme, which has been rather overshadowed by the debate over the casting, it was, as I said, OK …  but this period in history’s been covered so many times, both in dramas and in documentaries, that it needed to be absolutely amazing to be memorable.  And it’s not bad, but amazing it isn’t.

Paris in Ruins by M K Tun

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Hopefully there will be triumph and definitely no ruin in Paris during the French Open, but it was a different story 150 years ago.  The Paris Commune, currently in the French news as the anniversary is marked – it collapsed on 28th May 1871 – has been rather romanticised over the years.  It’s even got an ’80s group named after it, which is rather confusing because my brain kept going “Baby, my heart is full of love and desire for you” whilst I was reading about shootings and arson, which was completely inappropriate 🙂 .  However, this novel, unusually, goes for the view taken by most of the international press at the time, i.e. that it was mainly about violence and anarchy, which is interesting.

We see the events of the Prussian siege of Paris and then the Paris Commune through the eyes of two young women from well-to-do families, who both become involved in war work.  The unfortunately-named Camille Noisette becomes a nurse at a hospital set up (and this hospital did really exist) at the Paris Odeon by the actress Sarah Bernhardt, and her brother’s fiancee Mariele de Crecy looks after young children at a creche set up by another of Camille’s brothers, a priest.  Other members of both families become caught up in events in various different ways, and not all of them survive.

The main message of the book is that atrocities were committed by all sides, that both the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune happened largely because of the egos of powerful men, and that it was innocent civilians who suffered as a result.  And poor Paris, which suffered terrible damage from bombing and arson. The Commune does still sharply divide opinion, but I was surprised that the book was quite so strongly against it.  It’s a bit wooden in parts, and some of the dialogue doesn’t flow very well, but it’s very well-researched and historically accurate, and a good read.

It starts with Camille being a bit of a rebel, and sneaking off to bars with her friend Andre (who she eventually marries).  I think most readers will assume that she’s secretly involved with the radicals, but, in fact, she’s working undercover and spying on them – especially on Louise Michel, one of the most famous figures of the Commune.  Like many other Communards, Michel was deported to New Caledonia.     But the spying story falls by the wayside, as Camille goes to work at the hospital.

I was a rather melodramatic little girl – you’d never have guessed that, would you 😁? – and, when I was really overdoing it, my grandad always used to say that I was being like Sarah Bernhardt.  At the time, I assumed she must have been a famous film star from the inter-war years, so I was rather bemused when I found out that she was a French stage actress whose heyday was long before Grandad was even born.  I know she did play in Northern England, more than once, so I’ve wondered if an older relative or friend – maybe my great-great-grandma, who seems to have been quite into theatricals – saw her on stage and raved about her, and that was why he had this bee in his bonnet about her, but I’ll never know now 😢,  But, because of that, I was quite interested to see her appear in this book, and to learn about the important humanitarian work she did at a very difficult time in Parisian history.

Meanwhile, Mariele and her mother attempt to escape and are captured by Prussian soldiers, in a slightly OTT bit of the book, but they make it safely back to Paris, and we see shy Mariele grow in confidence as she insists on helping out with the children.  There’s definitely a sense that both girls are rebelling against what’s expected of young ladies, but the narrative is vehemently opposed to the more radical approach taken by the Communards.  The emphasis is all on the taking of hostages, the attacks on the Church and the imprisonment of people for very little reason, and not much is said about more positive actions such as attempts to help the poor.

Certainly, the romanticisation of the Communards, like the romanticisation of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, is inappropriate, but I thought the book was a bit too biased against them and could have tried to give a more balanced view.   But point taken about unnecessary wars and unnecessary violence, and the same can be said about the Crimean War, the Austro-Prussian War and the Dano-Prussian War.

It’s not the best book I’ve ever read, but, as I said, it was well-researched and accurate, and really got me thinking.  Not bad at all.

 

Edward VII: The Merry Monarch – Channel 5

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  The Entente Cordiale wasn’t mentioned until the 79th minute of the 90, and the to-do over the People’s Budget wasn’t mentioned at all.  But we heard an awful lot about waistcoat buttons, champagne baths, and, of course, ladies.  However, even if there was way too much gossip and not enough serious stuff, this was a really lovely, positive portrayal of someone whose father said he was useless, whom a lot of puritanical courtiers and journalists said would make a rotten king, and who actually did a superb job, left the British monarchy in a very strong position ahead of what would turn out to be a difficult time for monarchies, and was genuinely popular amongst people of all backgrounds.  Good old Teddy!

We were told that Downton Abbey typified people’s images of the time of Edward VII.  Given that we tend to use “Edwardian” to mean 1901-1914 rather than 1901-1910, I suppose the fact that the first series of Downton Abbey was set during the reign of George V can be overlooked!  Did it typify people’s images of the period?  Well, I suppose it did if you were only thinking about stately homes.  The Edwardian era’s actually seen as a very positive time for everyone – strangely so, given that a lot of people were struggling at the time.  There’s even a song about it in Mary Poppins!  The positive image is partly because, compared to the horrors of the Great War, what came before has to seen like a golden era.  And it’s partly because the Victorian era, even by the 1890s, is seen as a very puritanical era, and people get really fed up of puritanical eras.  Charles II, another slightly naughty king, is remembered fondly because he came after the nightmare of the Cromwellian era.  But a lot of it’s because of Edward/Bertie.  He really is seen as a very positive figure.

I would like to have heard more about his peacemaking/diplomatic skills, which were of crucial importance to … well, to the whole world, really, given what lay ahead.  And about how his social circle included people far removed from traditional aristocratic circles.  But, hey, the stuff about champagne baths, watching Can Can dancers, leaving his bottom waistcoat open because it strained over his tum tum, and, of course, his mistresses, was all quite entertaining.  It was also good to hear the praise for Queen Alexandra, who had a lot to put up with it and did a wonderful job as Princess of Wales and then as Queen – although I’m not sure we needed to hear quite so much about her clothes and jewellery.

But, in between the gossip, we heard all about Edward’s interest in technology – he was on the receiving end of the first wireless message sent across the Atlantic, a greeting from another much-loved Teddy, President Roosevelt – and, most of all, his understanding of the need for the Royal Family to be visible, and how he was the one who established a lot of the pageantry that we still enjoy today.  And how, when he died, there was genuine grief across the nation and beyond, from people of all backgrounds.   He got it right.  And, considering how many people thought he’d get it all wrong, that’s particularly impressive.  As I said, good old Teddy!

 

 

 

 

 

Domina – Sky Atlantic

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  This wasn’t bad.  Given that Sky Atlantic aren’t exactly the masters of historical accuracy, I was prepared for all kinds of bizarre goings-on.  When we started with a bride-to-be, our heroine Livia Drusilla, being told to inspect a naked male slave so that she’d know what bits were where before the wedding night, and then overhearing her relatives discussing murdering the bridegroom, I thought, oh dear, here we go.  But, after that, it wasn’t OTT at all.  In fact, some of the second episode felt a bit like a 1970s sitcom, as a leading Roman patrician got in a strop because no-one’d told him the dress code for a party, and he’d been the only one who’d turned up in a toga.  At the said party, the women’d sat at one end of the room, bitching about the decor, and the men’d sat at the other, discussing chariot-racing.  This was after an earlier party, at which the host had explained to Octavian that their toilet was now connected to the aqueduct, so it didn’t smell like the old one did.  I’m not sure that Octavian needed to know this.

In between the parties, the political history was actually pretty accurate, as we saw Livia’s father back the losing side, fighting with Brutus and Cassius against Octavian and Mark Antony, and killing himself after their defeat at Philippi.  It’s a well-known part of Roman history, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone consider its effect on Livia before.  If people write about the women of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, it’s usually either “Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion” or accusing Livia and Agrippina of poisoning everyone.  This series is certainly something different.

Impressive array of local actors.  Young Gaius/Octavian/Augustus is from Bolton.  His older self is from Atherton.  His second wife is from Rochdale.  And his chief general is from Wigan.  In fact, young Gaius actually seems to be rocking a “Madchester” 1990 image, with the floppy black hair.  Just needs a hooded top and a pair of Joe Bloggs jeans instead of the maroon toga.

It was rather confusing, because we kept flashing backwards and forwards in time, but a lot of TV series, films and books do that now.  And the Julio-Claudians are confusing generally, because they’re all known by umpteen different names, all have the same names as umpteen other people, and keep changing their partners; but that’s not Sky Atlantic’s fault.

Our heroine Livia Drusilla, aka Julia Augusta, was Octavian (referred to in the programme, accurately as we’re in his early years, as Gaius, but I’m used to thinking of him as Octavian, and his official emperor name was Caesar Augustus)’s third wife.  She was previously married to Tiberius Claudius Nero, the one who got the dress code wrong.  Not to be confused with the Nero, who fiddled whilst Rome burned.  That Nero, the one who fiddled, was directly descended from Livia/Julia, via her son Tiberius, whom she was expecting with her first husband when Gaius/Octavian/Augustus ordered him to divorce her, at the same time as which divorced his own second wife (Scribonia from Rochdale), who was expecting their daughter, also Julia, who later married Tiberius.  Tiberius was Julia’s third husband.  She was previously married to Agrippa from Wigan.  And someone else (not at the same time).  I did say it was confusing.

Anyway, Livia’s a pretty interesting character, who was married to Octavian for over 50 years, held far more power than most other Julio-Claudian women did,  and, depending on what you read, was either a domineering dowager who went around poisoning people or else was a paragon of all the virtues.  There was a lot of talk in this first episode about women only being valued for childbearing and weaving, so I assume this is going to be a feminist take on things.

It wasn’t brilliant, but it certainly wasn’t bad.  I shall keep watching!

The Slaughterman’s Daughter by Yaniv Iczkovits

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This award-winning book has been described as “Quentin Tarantino meets Fiddler on the Roof”.  It’s not quite like that, but it’s certainly different.  Marks for setting a book in the Russian Empire in the late 19th century without it being centred on St Petersburg (I love St Petersburg dearly, but most people didn’t actually live there) and marks for writing a Jewish historical novel which isn’t about the Holocaust.  But it’s a bit weird, and there isn’t really much of a plot.

The theme, if there is one, is running away from it all.  If you go back a few generations, a lot of families have got a story of Uncle A who ran off (as opposed to emigrating in an orderly, planned kind of way) to America, or Cousin B who ran off to Australia, or someone who mysteriously disappeared from the records and was never spoken about, often leaving a spouse and children behind.  And it’s practically always a man.  In this book, it’s a woman.

Rather than St Petersburg, we’re in Motal, which (thank you, Wikipedia) was a “shtetl”, a small village with a mainly Jewish population (like Anatevka in Fiddler on the Roof), in Belarus.  Well, it was in Russian Poland at that time, then in Poland between the wars, then Belarus.  And we have a Manchester link here 😉 , because it was the birthplace of Chaim Weizmann, the future first president of Israel, who spent three decades living in Manchester.  I know that people needed to know that.  All books should have Manchester links.  Obviously.

Motal has a problem with husbands running off.  This is a double problem, partly because it leaves families without their breadwinners, and partly because, under Jewish law, deserted wives are unable to remarry, even after many years, unless their husbands are either definitely known to be dead or else provide a written document of divorce.  There are a lot of minor characters, and all the men, for some reason, have double-barrelled first names, so it’s all rather confusing; but the main point is that the husband of one Mende does a runner, and Mende’s sister, one Fanny, decides to run off to find him.

Fanny is regarded as a bit strange anyway, because, as the title of the book indicates, she’s the daughter of a ritual slaughterer (i.e. someone who slaughters animals for food in accordance with the laws about kosher meat), and, unusually for a woman, she learnt the slaughtering trade too. And she gets involved in various adventures with men who’ve all left their villages due to being conscripted into the army.  The Russian Empire, like the Ottoman Empire, required different demographic groups to provide a certain number of boys for military service, where, if they weren’t members of the state religion, they’d be put under pressure to convert.   Fairly early on, she gets attacked by bandits, and kills them with the ritual slaughter knife which she carries around.  Then she gets chased by members of the secret police, who seem to have come out of a Carry On film.

It’s a very strange book, and, as someone who prefers “ordinary” historical fiction, I wouldn’t normally read something like this.  However, as I said, it’s very difficult to find books that are set in the Russian Empire but aren’t about aristocrats or revolutionaries in St Petersburg.  And it did make some interesting points about wanting to escape life in a small village, especially under the many legal restrictions that the population’s under.

The main problem with it is that anyone who’s not familiar with the background is going to find it incredibly difficult to follow.  I do actually like it when books assume that the reader knows the background and don’t patronise me by explaining it.  However, I do accept that not everyone has studied Eastern European history and culture, and that the average Anglophone reader may not be familiar with the Pale of Settlement, the Polish partitions, the Khmelnytsky Massacres (big gold star for using the transliterated Ukrainian version of the evil Khmelnytsky’s name, because people sometimes use the Polish version and that really annoys me) or the use of the nickname “Iron Tsar” for Nicholas I.  There are also a lot of Yiddish and Hebrew words, and references to some religious practices which are now only followed by ultra-Orthodox communities and which most people will not have come across.

A glossary would have been useful.  Give people a chance, eh?   Especially in the light of the Black Lives Matter protests, a lot of people are trying to broaden their reading horizons by choosing some books about different cultures, but I can imagine some readers being rather put off by the use of a lot of terms with which they aren’t familiar, without any explanatory notes.  Yes, I know there’s Google, but even so!

Anyway, if you fancy something different, this is certainly different!  But it’s not going to be to everyone’s taste.  If you read it and don’t get something, please let me know, because I absolutely love giving people lectures on 19th century Eastern European history, but I have terrible trouble getting anyone to listen 😁!

 

Make-up: A Glamorous History (final episode) – BBC 2

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I do love a good American Dream story!  Max Factor, born Maksymilian Faktorowicz in a small town outside Lodz, started work at the age of 8 because his family were so poor, sailed steerage to Ellis Island to escape the pogroms, moved to LA because he was so taken by “the movies”, and pretty much created the modern make-up industry.  Amazing.  Meanwhile, his half-brother became a Chicago gangster who worked closely with Al Capone!  The programme didn’t actually mention the gangster brother, but I thought I would!

I do not love 1920s fashion.  It seems to have been designed for women who were no more than a size 6, and had no tummy, backside, waist, hips or bust.  On top of that, it involved miniscule handbags.  What a larger-sized female who couldn’t leave the house without carrying everything but the kitchen sink with her, i.e. someone like me, was supposed to do, I have no idea.  Just look uncool, I suppose 😢!  But, hey, at least women of any size could choose what sort of make-up they wore, and the 1920s/1930s was the era in which it became affordable for everyone.

It’s important for everyone to be able to choose a look which works for them.  The current Coronation Street storyline, in which Nina was badly beaten up because of her choice of clothes, make-up and hairstyle, based on the horrific murder of Sophie Lancaster in Bacup in 2007, is reminding us how prejudiced people can be just based on someone else’s look.  We’ve still got a long way to go, but the inter-war years were the period in which we at least really started to move towards each person choosing what worked for them.

But to get back to the point …

…. this was another fascinating episode, as we saw the make-up/cosmetics industry roll on into the days of mass marketing, getting people in white coats to convince you that it was all good for you, and setting up all those counters which still tend to be the first thing you see when you walk into a department store. On the one hand, women were rebelling, choosing their own looks, and having their hair cut short – despite schools suspending girls who turned up with short hair, employers sacking women with short hair, and clergymen preaching against the evils of having your crowning glory cut off.  On the other hand, there was all this advertising making you feel that you didn’t look right.

And, of course, there was the obsession with the cinema!  A lot of this was about film star looks.  And a lot of it was about the actual science of make-up, and how people were influenced by the idea that this was all good for you.  But I think the main theme was that, after the Great War, women were increasingly rebelling against the control of society and the patriarchy, and how changing hairstyles, styles of clothing and trends in make-up all showed that.

Like the previous two episodes, it said so much about the society of the day, and how trends involving hair and clothes and make-up were a part of that.  This really has been a great series, and I’m only sorry that there’ve only been three episodes of it.  Well done, Lisa Eldridge and BBC 2!   Good stuff 🙂 .

Great British Railway Journeys (series 12) – BBC 2

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

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

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