Monkman & Seagull’s Genius Adventures – BBC 2


This would probably have worked better as a school programme than on prime time TV.  There was a definite sense of Bill & Ted (well, a much more intelligent version of Bill & Ted, given that the two presenters were former University Challenge contestants) and a lot of dressing up (Lucy Worsley would approve).  But it was genuinely entertaining, there was a lot of driving through the beautiful British countryside  (which I can’t wait to do again), and it was great to hear people being so positive about British history in general and the Industrial Revolution in particular.  I couldn’t believe that the cotton industry was only the second item on the agenda though.  Who talks about the Industrial Revolution and doesn’t start with the cotton industry?!  Cotton was King.  Everyone knows that 🙂 .

Eric Monkman and Bobby Seagull were rival contestants on University Challenge, and have somehow become TV presenters.  They got to go on a road trip to lots of interesting places, whilst Simon Callow explained what was going on – which would have been a lot better had he not kept going about the “Industrial Revolyution”.  There is no “y” in the word “revolution”.  It really was irritating.  Meanwhile, Eric and Bobby got to play around in pedal boats and picnic on mountains, although, disappointingly, they weren’t able to go up in a hot air balloon because it was too windy.  You’d think that the BBC could have let them go back another day!

The first episode concentrated on the period from around 1750 to 1800, and they started with marine chronometers.  Not nearly as exciting as flying shuttles, spinning jennies, water frames and mules, obviously, but, fair enough, it was pretty useful for people on ships to know where they were going.  Shipwrecks are always presented in books as being quite exciting, with people being stranded on desert islands or dramatically rescued, or Wreckers helping themselves to stuff which has washed up on beaches in Cornwall (why is it always Cornwall?!), but the loss of life, and also of cargo, was horrific.  This was a major breakthrough.

Then we did move on to the cotton industry – hooray!! – with a visit to lovely Cromford, in the Peak District, where Richard Arkwright, inventor of the water frame, operated his mills.  I’ll be here all day if I start waxing lyrical about the importance of the cotton industry, but, as we all know 🙂 , Cotton was King.  And it became King because of all those crucial inventions in the 18th and early 19th centuries.  The points about the development of the factory system and the decline of the domestic system seemed quite ironic given that lockdown means that many of us have had to switch from working in a workplace to working at home.  Are we now seeing the rebirth of the domestic system?  It’ll be interesting to see how things pan out.

From there, on to Watt’s steam engine.  I’m a historian, not a scientist, and the workings of steam engines don’t interest me that much, but the huge effect of the steam engine does, very much.  It’s hard to overstate the importance of the developments of this period – and, later, we moved on to Richard Trevithick’s steam locomotive.  Stephenson’s Rocket‘s coming next week!

Next up came weighing the planet.  I couldn’t get excited over the development of weighing technology, but I accept that it was important.  And it meant that we got some lovely views of Scottish mountains.  There was a lot of talk about the significance of the Scottish Enlightenment at this time.  People usually go on about Adam Smith and “The Wealth of Nations” when discussing the Scottish Enlightenment, and, of course, Smith was important, but equally so were other people and what they did.  The Encyclopaedia Britannica!   When I was a kid, we got a set of the 1985 edition.  I loved it!  I was so upset when it was decided to discontinue the printed version.

We also got Joseph Priestley’s work in “discovering” oxygen. Priestley was a fascinating figure.  This programme just talked about his work in terms of oxygen, but he was involved in so many other things that you could make a programme, or even a series, just about him.

And then, before the steam engine, we heard a lot about hot air balloons.  I’m not sure that hot air balloons were all that important in world history, but, fair enough, people were rather obsessed with them in the late 18th century.  We were informed that balloon pioneers in France considered sending prisoners from the Bastille up in balloons, because no-one would be bothered if it all went wrong and the prisoners met a sticky end (charming!), but decided not to, because anyone who made a successful balloon flight would become a celeb and they didn’t want that to be a prisoner!

It was all a bit flippant, and, as I said, might have worked better as a school programme, but it was such a joy to hear these young men being so enthusiastic about the Industrial Revolution.  No flat earthers going on about how industrial processes have destroyed the planet.  No Guardian readers shrieking in horror about the great work of British inventors being praised, and the crucial role that British inventions played in world history being emphasised.  Just praise and enthusiasm for the Industrial Revolution.  Love it.  Absolutely love it!



The Co-operative Revolution: A Graphic Novel (Facebook group reading challenge)


I have to admit that I don’t really understand the fashion for graphic novels and film adaptations of them.  They make me feel as if I’ve gone back to primary school and am reading “Mandy” or “Nikki”.  However, not wishing to shirk a reading challenge 🙂 , I decided to make it as appealing as possible by finding one about local history.  Well, at least, that’s what I was expecting.  In the end, only part of it was about the Rochdale Pioneers.  The rest of it was about, well, everything from jellyfish to Richard Dawkins to FC Barcelona … and how to change the world by making biscuits in Crumpsall, which is certainly an interesting idea.  And the prospect of a spaceship travelling from Rochdale to Mars, which is an even more interesting idea.  I suppose I did enjoy reading it, and it gets a big gold star for mentioning the Cotton Famine, but graphic novels just aren’t for me.  A page of pictures doesn’t say anything like as much as a page of words, and I didn’t feel like I’d read very much.  But, to be fair, I enjoyed what there was.

There were a few pages of cartoons (sorry, graphics) about the Rochdale Pioneers, and how they famously set up the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society in Toad Lane in 1844.  The author (author? artist?) got rather carried away with going on about the “corrupt, dictatorial” order, but I didn’t mind that because it meant that he went on about the Peterloo Massacre and the Chartists as well as the actual issues of dodgy shopkeepers ripping people off.  As everyone knows, I love to talk about the Peterloo Massacre and the Chartists … nearly as much as I love to talk about the Cotton Famine, which also got a mention.  Minor black mark for referring to Angel Meadow as “Angel Meadows”, but never mind.

However, it then went on about other co-operative movements, which I hadn’t really been expecting.  Some of this involved pictures.  Some of it involved things that were handwritten rather than typed: I’m not quite sure what the idea of that was. But it was quite interesting.  FC Barcelona.  Indian snake catchers.  Bees, of course.  And Portuguese men o’war, which are apparently made up of different parts which all work together as a co-operative … or something like that.  And a lot of comments about nature and Darwinism and Richard Dawkins, and how it’s better to operate as a co-operative than to work on the principle of the survival of the fittest.  I think it would have been better to have stuck to the Rochdale Pioneers, New Lanark, et al, TBH, but I think that people who are into graphic novels are probably more likely to be scientifically-minded than historically-minded.  Then there were more cartoons, this time showing a spaceship heading off from Rochdale to Mars to mark the 200th anniversary of the establishment of the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society.

By this point, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or just to put the book down – but then, hooray, at the back, there was a nice historical timeline.  No graphics, no spaceships, no jellyfish – just a proper historical timeline, including interesting facts such as the fact that the Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS) Factory in Crumpsall was the first biscuit factory in the UK to introduce an 8 hour day, and the first ship to sale the length of the Manchester Ship Canal was the CWS’s SS Pioneer.  I really enjoyed reading that bit, but it did rather prove that, with all due respect to the writers and readers of graphic novels, I am better with the ordinary printed word!

A Weaver’s Web by Chris Pearce


Oh dear. The author of this book thinks that Middleton Road is full of creeks, and that the population of Regency-era Manchester existed solely on potatoes and lived in fear of a Vulgaria-esque child catcher.  He also thinks that Methodist ministers are addressed as “Father”, Methodist chapels have stained glass windows and ornate altars, millowners are classed as aristocrats, and “well-bred” Georgian girls worked as housemaids.  And, yes, it is supposed to be a serious historical novel: he claims that he spent ages researching it!   The basic plot isn’t bad, and the section on Peterloo’s actually quite good, but I don’t think I’ve ever come across so many inaccuracies in a single book before.  I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry!

I don’t like being negative about things – I’m sure the author put a lot of work into this – but it was just cringeworthy. The language was all wrong, for a kick off.  I didn’t expect someone writing in the 21st century to sound like Georgette Heyer, but having characters in the early 19th century referring to their mate James Johnson as “Johnno”, or saying “You’re still in the 18th century.  It’s not a problem these days”, or talking about “citizens” (unless they’re in France!) was just plain silly.   Not to mention “wow” and “holler” and various other expressions that just did not belong in a book set in the 1810s.  Even the names were wrong: the name Albert wasn’t used in the UK before Queen Victoria’s marriage.  And no-one ever refers to Manchester as “the city”.  If you live locally, it’s “town”.  If you live a bit further out, it’s just “Manchester”.  OK?!

It’s a shame, because the general idea wasn’t bad at all. It started with a handloom weaver in Middleton, determined that he was going to remain working independently and not be forced into working in a factory.  Very interesting premise for a book, especially one incorporating the Peterloo Massacre.  Middleton was obviously chosen because of the connection with Samuel Bamford.  I’m still rather put out about the way Bamford was portrayed in the Peterloo film: he came across much better in this book.   However, the comments about eating nothing but potatoes, battling against the frequent gales (?) and hoping that the factory agents coming from “the city” would fall into a creek – on Middleton Road?! – were just bizarre.

Bringing in the growth of Methodism was a good idea, but surely anyone, however little interest they may have in religion, knows that Methodists do not have fancy church buildings and address their ministers as “Father”?!   Bringing in Hampden Clubs was also a good idea, but rather spoilt by the fact that our hero, one Henry, went off to spend all his money on prostitutes after the meeting, and convinced his family that he’d dropped the said money in a puddle … whereupon they all solemnly went off to search every puddle in Middleton for a pile of coins.  What??

One of Henry’s kids then ran away to “the city” to get a job in a factory, and, eventually, the rest of the family moved there too. There then followed various strange scenes involving some kind of child catcher – I can only think that the author had got the Industrial Revolution mixed up with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – who went around town trying to catch kids to work in factories, and chaining them up.  Meanwhile, our pal Henry, by dint of stealing and gambling, managed to set up his own factory, and thus became an aristocrat (the word “aristocracy” was frequently used to describe millowners).  The rags to riches storyline, again, was a good idea, but it was executed very poorly.  It also involved a gentlemen (i.e. millowners!) versus players cricket match.  That would have worked fine in a village setting, but not in the centre of a big industrial city!

However, things did not work out for Henry. Apparently this was supposed to remind the reader of The Grapes of Wrath.  One of his kids was transported to Australia.  He managed to arrange for him to be brought back, but was set upon by highwaymen on his way to Liverpool to meet him at the docks, and then it turned out that the kid wanted to stay in Australia.  This was a bit far-fetched, but it made more sense than the child-catcher and the creeks.  Then his wife, who couldn’t cope with having to socialise with all the “aristocrats”, was put in an asylum.  Again, good points about the harshness of the criminal justice system and the treatment of mental health problems; but it all got rather ridiculous.  The wife was eventually rescued from the asylum by one of the sons, who pretended that he wanted to hire one of the inmates as a prostitute and then hid his mum under his coat.  As you do.  And then a group of Luddites burned down the factory.

I can see how it could have worked really well.  A lot of the important issues of the time were brought into the story.  There was the idea of someone thinking they’d made it and then everything crumbling to bits.  And the section about Peterloo, which was the reason I read the book in the first place, really did work fairly well.  But so much of it was just utter twaddle.  It was self-published because a load of publishers turned it down.  The author claims that he can’t understand why it was turned down.  Oh, to be that confident!

I don’t like being overly critical of someone else’s work, but I paid good money for this, and, to put it mildly, it really wasn’t worth it.   Oh well.  I suppose it gave me a few laughs!  But give this one a miss.