The Secret Life of Albert Entwistle by Matt Cain

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   This is another one for Pride month #pridenotprejudice; but I was going to read it anyway, because it’s about a postman in Farnworth.  Well, it’s set in a fictional Lancashire town called Toddington, but it’s very obviously Bolton (BTW, if anyone should happen to read this and be unable to remember the name of the posh department store which closed down, it was Whitakers.  Thank you, Google.), and Albert’s postal round is “the Flower(s)Estate”, which is the Harper Green area of the Farnworth area of Bolton.  It’s that bit you go through if you’re trying to get to the northbound M61 from Whitefield/Radcliffe without going on the M60.  “Toddington Hall’ is Turton Tower, I think – could be Smithills, but the Second World War bunker where teenage Albert used to meet his boyfriend is definitely up near Turton Tower, .

OK, so to get back to the point 😀 , Albert Entwistle is a closeted gay man who’s about to turn 65.  He appears to have no living relatives, and has no friends – which, poignantly, we learn is because he’s always been frightened to get close to people, in case they realised that he was gay and rejected him, or, before same sex relationships between men were legalised, it even resulted in his imprisonment.  As with a lot of things in life, a lot of this goes back to bullying at school.  It’s also, as is often the case with LGBT people, because of the attitude of a family member – in Albert’s case, his late father.  The only things really going on in his life are his cat, his job and Coronation Street.  Then his cat dies, and he’s told that his employers have a policy of compulsory retirement at 65.

Albert decides that it’s time to turn his life around.  He finally comes out as gay, makes friends with Nicole, a 19-year-old single mother who’s got boyfriend trouble, and decides to try to track down his high school sweetheart – a man named George, whom we later find out was arrested by Albert’s dad, a policeman, whilst Albert ran off and left him to his fate.

Some of it’s really very moving, especially Albert’s reflections on thinking that no-one could love him because he was gay, and the flashbacks to discussions he had with George about why their relationship should be seen as wrong.  However, some of it’s a bit OTT.  The day after Albert tells his colleagues that he’s gay, he arrives at work to find that four of them have dressed up as the Village People and the building’s been decorated with rainbow bunting.  However supportive you might want to be of a colleague who’s waited until the age of 64 to come out, would anyone actually do that?!

He then learns that George was working in the Gay Village – i.e. the Canal Street area of Manchester – at one time, and he and Nicole set out to try to find him.  It turns out that George has moved to London and is a drag queen – and, unlike Albert, has always been out and proud and a campaigner for gay rights.  Drag queens were really big in Manchester when I was a kid in the ’80s, thanks mainly to the wonderful and much-missed Foo Foo Lammar.   I don’t see why they had to say that George had moved to London, but maybe it was just to extend the story: finding him so close to “Toddington” would have been too easy.

We then learn that Albert’s dad knew about him and George, and blackmailed him into ending the relationship by threatening to prosecute him otherwise.   Of course, once Albert finds George and explains this, they get back together and presumably live happily ever after.  And Nicole’s relationship with her boyfriend also gets sorted out, and they presumably live happily ever after as well.

The author’s slightly overdone several passages involving George thinking that he’s doing this for all gay men who had to hide their true selves, all gay men who were ever imprisoned, anybody whose life’s been cut short, etc etc.  And the ending’s a bit cheesy and predictable.  But, all in all, it’s a moving story.  It’s a very Northern story, too – Albert, Nicole and George would all fit right into Coronation Street!

Not bad at all, and an important reminder of the issues faced by gay men – including the fact that, even after relationships between men were legalised, the age of consent was higher than that for heterosexual relationships and remained so until 2001 – and the impact of those on people’s mental health and daily lives.  Please always be kind to others ❤️🙏.

White Houses by Amy Bloom

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Marking Pride month #pridenotprejudice, this is a review of a novel about Eleanor Roosevelt’s relationship with the journalist Lorena Hickok.  No-one’s entirely sure whether they were lovers or just very good friends, but some of what’s written in Eleanor’s letters strongly suggest the former*.  They were both fascinating characters, Lorena as someone who rose from a very poor background to become a groundbreaking journalist, one of the first female sports reporters and also working on some of the major news stories of the day, and Eleanor as someone who was really ahead of her time in terms of her views on equality.  Also, given that history is full of dutiful political wives who turned a blind eye whilst their husbands played away, I rather like the idea of Eleanor doing her own thing just as FDR did his.

Unfortunately, I didn’t really love this book, told in the first person by Lorena.  It was too short for me to get into it properly, and it jumped about between 1945 and various other points in Lorena’s life, so it never really flowed.  Also, the author’s admitted that some bits of it were completely her own invention, notably a section in which Lorena ran off with a circus (seriously).  She’s also invented a gay cousin of Eleanor’s, called Parker Fiske, who goes around using rude words in Yiddish.  Why would an upper-class WASP use rude words in Yiddish, and why invent storylines and characters when writing a book which was supposed to be about real people?  And, whilst some of the sarcastic observations about the rich and famous are amusing, others just seem shoehorned in to reflect the author’s interests, rather than Lorena’s.

All in all, it was OK, but I didn’t really get why it attracted so many rave reviews.  Books that jump about in time so much never seem very coherent to me.  And making up storylines is fair enough if you’re writing about a medieval character for whom there are no sources for certain times of their life, but not for someone whose life story is known – and showing her going off to join the circus, like a Blyton or Streatfeild character, was just very odd indeed.

* “Hick darling, Oh! how good it was to hear your voice, it was so inadequate to try & tell you what it meant, Jimmy was near & I couldn’t say ‘je t’aime et je t’adore’ as I longed to do but always remember I am saying it & that I go to sleep thinking of you & repeating our little saying.”

“Dearest, I miss you & wish you were here I want to put my arms around you & feel yours around me. More love than I can express in a letter is flying on waves of thought to you.”

This was a relationship between two very big personalities, and a book about them could have been brilliant.  This one just wasn’t, though.

 

 

 

Gentleman Jack (series 2) – BBC 1

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Hooray!   Finally, we’re back to having some decent “period drama” to watch on a Sunday evening.  Other than sport, Sunday evening TV has been dire for weeks.  So welcome back, Anne Lister and Ann Walker, and Shibden Hall.

This must be an extremely demanding role for Suranne Jones, because Anne Lister is in practically every scene.  And she spends half those scenes striding about very energetically, in between corresponding with her ex, dealing with her business affairs, managing her household, catching up with her relatives, dealing with Ann’s relatives and actually spending some time with Ann!

Even when she’s taking time out from all of that, she’s addressing the viewer.  That’s a reminder that this is an adaptation of Anne Lister’s diaries – and another result of that is that some of the other characters sometimes seem a bit caricatured, because we’re seeing them through Anne’s eyes, not in a more balanced, rounded way.  Having said that, a lot of Dickensian characters and even some of Austen’s characters are deliberately caricatured, so it’s something that doesn’t seem out of place in a drama set in the 19th century.

It would have been nice to see more about Ann Walker, though.  Anne Lister seemed to be very comfortable in her own skin, even if other people weren’t always very comfortable with her personality and behaviour, but Ann Walker suffered badly from depression and anxiety.   It’s thought that that was partly because, unlike Anne Lister, she found it a struggle to reconcile her faith and her sexuality, and that’s something which it might have been interesting for the series to explore, especially with all the talk at the moment about the upset caused by conversion therapy.

However, it’s just great to have a decent period drama in the Sunday 9pm slot again, at last, and particularly great that it’s a northern drama – OK, it’s Yorkshire and not Lancashire or the Lakes 🙂 , but Rievaulx Abbey looked mighty fine in the scenes set there, and it’s always good to see the hard-working, world-leading 19th century industrial north on screen – and that it’s female-led.   And there’ve even been stories of people saying that the first series helped them to accept themselves.  No-one’s even making a huge big deal of the fact that this is a series about a same sex relationship: the comments mainly seem to be about Anne’s constant striding (she really does do a lot of striding!) and the locations used for filming.

It’s not exactly relaxing watching, because Anne is on the go practically all the time!   Even the Rievaulx Abbey sketching party scene was a bit hectic, because Anne was striding about whilst the others were sketching!   But I wasn’t bored for a single moment, and nothing about it was unconvincing either.  A really good hour’s TV.  Welcome back, Gentleman Jack!

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie (2021 film)

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  Mancunian kids of my generation grew up thinking that drag queens were incredibly cool.  That was largely thanks to the late, great Frank “Foo Foo” Lammar, one of the most well-known and popular figures in Manchester in the 1980s, always working hard to raise money for charity and always in the local press.  When Foo Foo sadly died of cancer in 2003, Sir Alex Ferguson gave one of the readings at his funeral: that’s how cool he was.

So it would never occurred to me that there was anything strange about being a drag queen.  There were the TV drag queens too – Danny La Rue was very popular back then, and then there were Dame Edna Everage, and, later, Lily Savage.  However, I suppose it’s one thing for established drag queens and another for teenage boys wanting to become drag queens; and, in this film adaptation of the stage musical, set in Sheffield (is it me or are films about boys trying to break away from macho stereotypes always set in northern cities?) in 2017, sees 16-year-old Jamie trying to fulfil his ambition of becoming a drag queen but being picked on by school bullies and rejected by his homophobic dad.   It’s aimed at teenagers and it’s absolutely full of tropes and cliches – the camp gay boy is best mates with the swotty Asian girl,  the teacher (they only seem to have one teacher)’s grumpy, the mum’s supportive, the dad isn’t – but it’s really very watchable.

And, at the end, of course, Jamie turns up to the school prom in a dress, his best mate puts the bully in his place, all the other kids support Jamie when the teacher says he can’t go in because he’s breaking the dress code, and in they all go and dance the night away.

Made me feel so old, though.   I remember when Sarah Lancashire and Shobna Gulati were being cast as the glamorous young girls, not the downtrodden mum and honorary auntie!   Kids messing about with mobile phones at school all the time, a big fuss about the school prom (in my day, only American schools had proms, and the only proms you got near here were the sort you walked along at the seaside), and I kept wishing we could have some decent ’80s music instead of today’s stuff 🙂 .

It seems to be mainly aimed at teenagers, as I said, and it does come across as being a bit didactic – we’re told a million times about how important it is to be yourself, and Richard E Grant gives Jamie, who appears to be extraordinarily ignorant about anything that happened in the pre-internet age, a lesson about the fight for gay rights in the ’80s and ’90s.   Speaking of history, someone really needs to tell the scriptwriters that Emmeline Pankhurst would not have had the slightest problem with girls getting glammed up for a school prom.  Do you ever see pictures of Emmeline looking anything other than fabulous, except when she’d just come out of prison?

But most of the points are important and, for the most part, well-made, even if they are laid on with a trowel.

And they finish up by taking group selfies at the prom and WhatsApping them to their mums.  I feel like Methuselah …. 🙂 …

 

Pose (Season 3) – BBC 2

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This is the third and final series – or “season”, as our American friends say – of Pose.  It’s going to cover the ongoing difficulties caused by the attitude of religious organisations towards the LGBT community, an area in which, nearly 30 years after this is set, sadly little progress has been made.  And it’s also going to revisit the story of the body in the trunk in the wardrobe: I was really hoping that they’d decided to forget about that, but it seems not!

Well, it’s now 1994, and the gang have reunited to … er, watch O J Simpson being chased by police.  Has anyone ever actually rung their friends to ask them to come round and eat popcorn whilst watching live coverage of a police car chase?!   Oh well, whatever, it worked as a plot device to get everyone together!

The first series, set in the late ’80s, was generally quite upbeat, as we saw people making new lives and forming surrogate families in the ballroom scene in New York, but the second series, set in the early ’90s, was dominated by the effects of the AIDS pandemic.  This series has also started on a downbeat note, as the community continues to lose people to AIDS, others struggle to cope with living with HIV, and a number of major characters turn to drink and drugs.   Meanwhile, the ballroom scene’s becoming increasingly commercialised, and that’s detracting from the community spirit and support that it’s always provided.

However, we’ve got the house mothers doing a superb job of trying to hold it all together – supporting the people who need it, and reminding everyone else of the need to stand by their friends.  A lot of the focus is on the older characters this time, and M J Rodriguez as Blanca, Dominique Jackson as Elektra and Billy Porter as suffering Pray Tell really are putting in very strong performances, as we jump from home scenes to hospital scenes to ballroom scenes.   The 1994 music’s a bit too late for me 🙂 , but never mind!

This has already been shown in America, but I’m not going to try to find out in advance how it ends.  However, I gather that it does end on a positive note, although some characters aren’t going to make it to the last episode.  It’s difficult to find a balance between being too upbeat and being too downbeat when telling the story of a community that’s faced a lot more than its fair share of problems, but this has been really good.  It’s a shame that there isn’t going to be a fourth series, but the producers have said that they feel that this is the right time to stop.  All the best to everyone involved in whatever they do next.

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

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This book’s received a lot of attention, because it’s about the Spanish flu pandemic and, although the author began writing it in 2018, to mark the centenary of the pandemic, it ended up being published in early 2020, just as the Covid pandemic hit.  A book about a pandemic will be the last thing that some people want to read: others will find it intriguing.  It also seemed like a good book to review during Pride month, as it includes a same sex romance – rainbow pic instead of my usual pic to show support for Pride.  I’m afraid that I automatically assumed that this was going to be between the doctor and the nurse, but it was actually between the nurse and the orderly.  When I say “romance”, it’s only very brief, because they only know each other for a few days.  There are no happy endings in this book, but, if you can take all the misery, it’s well worth a read.

I don’t care for the style of writing – it annoys me very greatly when people write speech without using speech marks – but the intensity of it’s fascinating: the entire book only covers three days, and almost all of it’s set within one very small room.  The main character is Julia Power, a nurse in charge of a maternity/Spanish flu ward at a Dublin hospital, and the other two prominent characters are Bridie Sweeney, an orderly, and Kathleen Lynn, a doctor who was a real person and was well-known as a republican activist and suffragist as well as for her medical work.

There are a lot of talking points about the book – the Spanish flu and any parallels that readers may draw between that and the Covid pandemic are the obvious ones, but also everything that the book shows about what went on in institutions run by the Catholic Church in Ireland at the time.  It was nothing I hadn’t heard before, but it didn’t pull any punches, it portrayed nuns extremely negatively, and I’d be interested to know how the book’s been received in the Republic of Ireland.

During the course of the book, we’re told that the Catholic Church mistreats orphans in its care, allowing priests, nuns and lay staff to abuse them, putting them to work at an early age and taking their wages, and even sending young girls to stay with “holiday fathers” (a euphemism for paedophiles).   Disabled and illegitimate children in its institutions are neglected, and unmarried mothers are virtually imprisoned and forced to work to pay for their “care” whilst they were expecting.  And it takes adolescent daughters away from widowed fathers on the grounds that it’s immodest for girls to live with a man with no adult female present.   It’s also blamed for Ireland having a far higher rate of death in childbirth than the rest of the UK, by making the use of contraception taboo and encouraging women to have at least twelve children, and for women suffering a difficult labour being forced to undergo horrific processes such as the sawing in half of their pubic bone, as the priority is to avoid damage to the womb and never mind any other bits.

All of this is based on evidence given by people who were in the institutions concerned, so it’s not been made up, but I’d be interested to know how the book’s been received in the Republic of Ireland, because it really is very heavy on all this.

Also, those who participated in the Easter Rising are repeatedly described as terrorists who were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people, and those who supported it but weren’t arrested as being cruel for tormenting injured Great War veterans.  I’m not saying that this isn’t a valid viewpoint, just that I wouldn’t have expected to “hear” it from Irish characters created by an Irish author.  Kathleen Lynn is presented positively, but her role in the Easter Rising – she was the chief medical officer for the “Irish Citizens’ Army” –  is rather vaguely explained away as being because she thought it might bring about improved conditions for women: she mentions her plans to set up a hospital for women and children, with her friend (and probably her partner), the gloriously named Madeleine ffrench-Mullen – something that did actually happen.  When she’s arrested, the emphasis is on the fact that men are arresting a female doctor: the fact that this is about the Easter Rising is rather skimmed over.  That’s not what I was expecting.

To get back to the Spanish flu, If you’re looking for happy endings, or just any sort of happiness, this is not the book for you!  Of the five expectant mothers admitted to Julia’s ward, three die of the Spanish flu, one survives but her baby is stillborn, and the only one who goes home with her baby has got a violent husband waiting for her.   Julia’s brother has been invalided out of the Army due to shell shock (which doesn’t actually sound right to me – shell shock wasn’t a reason for being discharged during the Great War) and refuses to speak.  Dr Lynn is arrested and imprisoned.  The only person in the book who’s ever cheerful is a hospital porter, and we eventually learn that his singing and joking are just his way of trying to cope with his grief at losing his wife and children in a typhus epidemic.

The only bit of good cheer is that Julia takes the baby of one of the women who died.  This is after the doctor says that he probably won’t survive more than a few months as he’ll be handed over to Evil Nuns, who’ll neglect him as he’s illegitimate and has a hare lip.  An Evil Nun kidnaps him whilst Julia’s briefly out of the room, but Julia manages to rescue him.  The Evil Nun tells her that people will probably assume he’s the result of an incestuous relationship between her and her brother.

Oh, and be prepared for extremely graphic descriptions of difficult childbirth.   The medical information is fascinating, though, as are the general observations about the Spanish flu, including the public notices.  There’s a lot of talk about wearing masks and avoiding close contact, and the book repeatedly makes the point that saying that people should stay at home, and rest in bed if feeling unwell, isn’t very practical when people have got to work.  Some of the blame game stuff going on is very reminiscent of the patronising comments about the “hard work” of people in areas where Covid infection rates are low – mainly rural areas with low population density, and or areas where most people are able to work from home.

Don’t read this if you’re feeling down, because it’ll make you feel a million times worse!  But, if you can cope with all the misery, it’s a very interesting read.

Little and Lion by Brandy Colbert

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  (Facebook group reading challenge.)  OK, we’ve got a black, Jewish, bisexual heroine (Little/Suzette), her white, Jewish, straight, bipolar stepbrother (Lion, short for Lionel), her half-black, half-Korean, hearing-impaired male admirer (Emil), her lesbian best friend (DeeDee), the pansexual Latina girl whom both Little and Lion fancy and who’s been disowned by her religious mother for having an abortion (Rafaela), and the girl with whom Suzette had a secret relationship at a posh (lacrosse-playing) boarding school in Massachusetts (Iris).  And throw in a bit of Beverly Hills 90210: we’re in an upmarket part of Los Angeles, where schoolkids have swimming pools at their homes and drive around in their own cars.

Incidentally, it’d been years since I’d read a modern American teenage book: I read all the Judy Blumes and Paula Danzigers many moons ago, but it *was* many moons ago!

My initial reaction was that the author’s main aim was, in a very well-intentioned way, to make the cast as diverse as possible, and that the plot was going to be secondary to that; but, to be fair, it wasn’t, and the main characters were well-drawn.  However, it kept rather confusingly jumping about between the past and the present, and I could have done without it using so many swear words in the narrative (which stops seeming cool when you’re about 12).  The Suzette storyline generally, although far from entirely, worked quite well, though.  A lot of it was about the anxieties that teenagers experience about how others will react to them being “different” to the majority – whether that’s ethnicity, religion, sexuality, disability, having a mental health condition, or anything else, and especially when it’s more than one of those things.  And just *being* a teenager is complicated.

The Lionel storyline was more problematic.  It was great to see an author tackling the issue of mental health conditions in young people, and also saying straight out that the side effects of the tablets can end up making you feel worse than you did to start with.  However, I don’t think it was handled too well.  First of all, Suzette was sent away to boarding school so she wouldn’t have to cope with Lionel’s illness, and then he came off his tablets and told her but not their parents, so she was stressed out and feeling guilty and didn’t know what to do.  So the way it came across was that Lionel’s medical condition was causing huge problems for Suzette.  This book’s aimed at secondary school kids.  It’s not giving a very helpful message to young readers who may have mental health condition themselves.

I very much appreciated the fact that the author didn’t take the Everyone’s A Racist/Homophobe culture war approach that you come across so often these days, and which is neither true nor helpful, and also the way that she steered well away from tropes.  A lot of books show stepfamilies as having problems, but everyone in this family got on brilliantly.  And a lot of books show teenagers clashing with their parents, but these parents were lovely.  And there was never any concern that they’d react badly to Suzette being bisexual: she knew they’d be fine with it.  A posh Massachusetts boarding school might well have been shown as being full of girls whose families all belonged to country clubs which only admitted WASPs.  It wasn’t.  And it didn’t have a culture of homophobia either.  And some authors would have said that Suzette’s mother had been denied opportunities in life because she was black.  Not at all: she was a successful woman with a degree from Wellesley.

What we did get, and which was very well-written, was the uncertainties and anxieties of being part of a minority group.  In Suzette’s case, three minority groups.  Not everyone’s prejudiced against any minority group, but, sadly and indisputably, some people are, and it’s not always obvious who they are.  If a security guard was watching her in a shop, was that because it was his job to watch everyone, or is it because she was black?  If someone looked at the Star of David on her necklace, was it because they were anti-Semitic, because they thought it was weird that a black girl was wearing a Jewish symbol, or just because they thought it was a pretty necklace and they were admiring it?   And what about Lionel – how were people going to react to finding out that he was bipolar, having just been told that he was off school because he was “sick”?  Would they treat him differently?

What was she supposed to do when someone said something like “Black people aren’t supposed to be good at swimming”.  Pull them up on it or ignore it?  That was an interesting scene.  What do you do when someone says something like that about a minority group?  If you do pull them up on it, are they going to accept that it wasn’t an appropriate thing to say, or are they going to tell you that you’re over-reacting and they didn’t mean anything by it, or that it was a joke and you’ve got no sense of humour, or that you don’t understand English (or American, in this case) irony?

But the main issues were with Suzette herself.  There was a lot of talk about how in Los Angeles it was OK to be yourself, whoever you were, but Suzette hadn’t told people that she was bisexual … although that was because she wasn’t 100% sure herself.  At school, she hadn’t told anyone that she was Jewish, even though she was sure about that. (Lionel and his father were always Jewish: Suzette and her mother converted.)

And we learned that she and Iris had kept their relationship secret, but that a group of other girls had found them together, a homophobic minority of people had had a go at them and that Iris (for unknown reasons) gave them the impression that she’d taken advantage whilst Suzette was drunk, and that Suzette let everyone believe this, leaving all the other girls to think that Iris was some sort of sex predator.  That was problematic.  Suzette was the heroine, and presented sympathetically.  But the way she’d treated Iris was appalling, and neither the character nor the authorial voice seemed to think that she should be apologising for it, instead of thinking that it was all about her and spending her summer holidays trying to work out whether she preferred Emil, whom she’d been dating, or Rafaela.  Even her mum just said that she was sure Iris’d forgive her, rather than pointing out it wasn’t really very nice to let someone get a reputation for being a sex pest just because you didn’t want to tell people that you were bisexual.

The other thing about Suzette that didn’t work was her religion. That was the one “identity” that felt as if it was put in to tick a box – and that was a shame.  The specific issues faced by “Jews of colour” were covered in the local press here during the Black Lives Matter protests last year: several people spoke about problems they’d faced because people tend to have an image of a Jewish person as being white, and I don’t know why the author chose to create a black Jewish character but then write so unconvincingly about the religious side of her character.  We were told early on that she was very religious and that Judaism was very important to her, whereas Lionel wasn’t really bothered about it, but not once did we not once see her attending a service or marking a religious festival, or having any sort of issue with the fact that none of her three potential partners shared her religion.  I could have handled that, but we also saw her turning up at a picnic with prosciutto and cheese – on challah bread! – and then eating grilled shrimp!   What on earth?

As for Lionel, he said he’d start talking his tablets again, and the book concluded by saying that that meant that everything’d be OK.  And Suzette, even though she was really keen on Emil, decided to go back to the boarding school.  Well, I hope that she told everyone that they’d got it wrong about Iris!

I quite enjoyed reading an American teenage novel for the first time in 30-odd years.  I loved those Judy Blume books!

 

Harlot Queen by Hilda Lewis

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To mark LGBT history month, a novel about the much-debated issue of Edward II’s relationships with Piers Gaveston and Hugh le Despenser the younger.  Now, why is there no equivalent word to “mistress” for a male lover?   “Master” just doesn’t work in this context: you wouldn’t talk about Catherine the Great having a lot of “masters”.   You can say “paramour”, or just “lover”; but Hilda Lewis, born in 1896, rather charmingly describes first Gaveston and then le Despenser as “the king’s sweetheart”.  I’ve always liked the word “sweetheart”.  So much nicer than “partner” or “boyfriend/girlfriend” 🙂 .

As a slight aside, it’s been suggested that a statue of Anne Bonny and Mary Read, two 18th century female pirates thought to have been lovers (or, if you prefer, sweethearts), be put up on Burgh Island in Devon.  But the parish council have rejected it, and a statue relating to the local pilchard industry has been suggested instead.  Seriously?   On whose planet are pilchards more interesting than female pirates?!

Anyway, to get back to the book, it says something rather nice about the late Hilda Lewis that she, born the year after Oscar Wilde’s trial, and writing in a style very much of her generation (like Jean Plaidy’s books, it seems very dated now, but I quite like it), in a book published in 1970, starts with a pillow talk conversation between Edward and Gaveston. And she makes it quite clear that, whilst Edward had rotten taste in men and very little common sense himself, this was a true romance … much more so than Isabella’s relationship with Mortimer, to whom she firmly refers as a “paramour” rather than a “sweetheart”.

So, were Piers Gaveston and Hugh le Despenser Edward II’s “sweethearts”, or was he just good friends with them?  Well, like Hilda Lewis, and I think like most people, I’m convinced that both of them were his lovers, and also that people weren’t particularly bothered about that, just about the fact that both of them were seen as greedy, disrespectful, and in receipt of a lot of money, power and influence to which they weren’t entitled.  But that was Edward’s fault, not theirs, and, whilst neither of them were very attractive characters, it was rather unfair that they got the blame: they didn’t force him to give them anything.  The same thing happened with Alice Perrers, the mistress of Edward III. Having said which, the Despensers, both father and son, were pretty nasty pieces of work.

Hilda Lewis is rather mixed in her sympathies, but she’s generally pretty sympathetic towards the “Harlot Queen”, Isabella, known to English historians as “the She-Wolf of France”, and I assume that the title of the book’s meant to be ironic.

It’s fascinating how much these three extra-marital relationships, Edward’s with Gaveston and le Despenser, and Isabella’s with Mortimer, influenced the history of England at this time.  Edward annoyed all the barons, and indeed the rest of the royal family, by handing so much power and money over to Gaveston, and, later, to the Despensers – and the Despensers were also downright cruel, not to mention stealing other people’s land.  Both of his lovers ended up being killed by the barons.  Of course, there was a lot more going on than that – he was totally humiliated by Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn, he was unlucky in that the country was hit by poor harvests and outbreaks of disease, and, as the book reminds us, he inherited huge debts from his father.  But I doubt he’d have been anything like as unpopular had it not been for the way that the Despensers put everyone’s backs up – and he let them.

Then there was Isabella’s relationship with Mortimer.  This one’s particularly interesting, because most kings have had lovers, but few queens have done, and certainly not so openly.  And plenty of kings have been overthrown, but, with the odd exception – Tsar Peter III of Russia being the obvious one – not usually by their own wives!   But she made exactly the same mistake as Edward did, letting her lover become too powerful and wind up all the barons … and he ended up going the same way as Edward’s lovers did.

How much of it was about these relationships, and how much of it was just part of the general tide of history, the clashes between kings and barons?  I think that the signing of the Magna Carta’s become such an iconic moment in English history, and even in world history, that we tend to forget everything else that went on – the Provisions of Oxford and the wars between Henry III and the de Montforts, Edward I and the Model Parliament, and Edward II and the “Lords Ordainers”.  And even the overthrowing of Richard II by Henry IV.  People tend not to have strong opinions about Henry IV, but there is this very strong feeling against Isabella – because she was a woman, and because she overthrew her husband.

Hilda Lewis’s sympathies do seem to jump about a lot.  At first, she’s sympathetic towards Isabella, and very critical of Edward and Gaveston.  But she shows how much the relationship means to Edward, and then suggests that maybe Gaveston isn’t that bad after all.  No sympathy for either Mortimer or the Despensers, and she turns against Isabella, but then she shows sympathy for Isabella again.  But then that probably reflects public opinion at the time.  Fickle, as always   The only people who don’t get criticised at all are Edward III and Philippa: she’s very keen on them 🙂 .

The history in this book is generally pretty accurate, which is wonderful.  I really can’t be doing with people who write about real historical figures but twist it all to suit themselves!   But then, at the end, she has Isabella living in seclusion and never seeing her grandchildren, which isn’t what happened, and she also goes for the “Fieschi letter” storyline (the Fieschi letter having been sent to Edward III by an Italian monk, suggesting that Edward II survived and escaped).  The book includes the well-known story that Edward II was murdered by having a red hot poker stuck up his backside, which a lot of historians now no longer believe … but then it suggests that that wasn’t true, and that Edward escaped, and lived as a monk, and that he and Isabella met up in old age.

It’s unlikely.  But history is full of legends about people who were said to have died but allegedly haven’t.  And, hey, false news and conspiracy theories have been going on since the dawn of time.

In summary, this is a very readable portrayal of a complex series of complex relationships – the marriage of Edward II and Isabella, who did have their moments, the relationship between Edward and Gaveston, the relationship between Edward and the grasping Hugh le Despenser, the relationship between Isabella and the power-hungry Mortimer, the loving relationship between Edward III and Philippa of Hainault – and how they and the history of England all got tangled up together.  Good read!

 

 

It’s A Sin – Channel 4

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I’m fairly sure that this is the first TV series to be named after a Pet Shop Boys song.  I’d assumed that “It’s A Sin” was going to be the theme tune, but, disappointingly, it wasn’t – although we did get plenty of other amazing ’80s music throughout this first episode.  More to the point, it’s, rather strangely, the first British drama series to focus on the AIDS pandemic of the 1980s.

Unlike Philadelphia and the Mark Fowler EastEnders storyline in the early ’90s, this didn’t start with someone having already been diagnosed with HIV and or AIDS, but with four young gay lads leaving home to start new lives in London, in 1981.  All hopes and dreams, bright lights and parties, pubs and clubs.  Well, for three of them, Ritchie, Roscoe and Ash, along with their friend Jill, anyway.  The fourth lad, Colin, was shy and quiet and sat in watching TV.  I’m glad that Colin was there.  Not everyone can be confident and outgoing.

And it was good fun: they had good fun.  It was much lighter than I’d expected it to be.  I knew that there was a storyline involving a confrontation between Roscoe and his homophobic religious family and I was expecting something like the very emotional scene in Pose which saw Damon being physically thrown out of the house by his stepfather and having to sleep on a park bench.  Instead, Roscoe just told them where to shove it, and was next seen having a wonderful time partying the night away in gay bars, going through one bloke after the other.

Sadly, there are probably more Damons than Roscoes, but Russell T Davies has spoken very movingly of wanting those who died of AIDS to be remembered for the joy of their lives and not just for the tragedy of their deaths, and also of wanting to pay tribute to the friends, relatives, medical staff and activists who supported them.

Boys just wanna have fun … and it’s all so poignant, because we know what lies ahead, and we know that some of these young lads are not even going to see their 30th birthdays, and that those who do are going to be mourning the loss of some of the people closest to them.  Towards the end of the first episode, Colin’s colleague was hospitalised with a mysterious illness … and, as soon as we saw the lesion on his face, we knew what it was.  But, in (by then) 1982 none of them had any idea.  Then he died.

In the next episode, we’re – ironically, given that this was filmed before the Covid-19 pandemic –  going to see how some of the characters refuse to believe that AIDS exists, and think that it’s a bizarre rumour spread by homophobic sections of the media, or else think that it’s been released deliberately by a Soviet laboratory.  Russell T Davies has talked about people trying to raise awareness being thrown out of gay pubs and told to take their leaflets with them.  It’s difficult to accept that there’s a deadly disease out there.  Until you start hearing about people dying from it.

Speaking of filming, most of it was filmed in Manchester, Bolton and Darwen, and it’s co-produced by Nicola Shindler from Whitefield.  There – that’s got my local plugs in!   We will apparently see the characters walking round a shopping centre in Eccles.  I know that people really need to know that.

The series starts in 1981, the year of the first death from AIDS in the UK. I was only 6 in 1981, and I can’t actually remember when I first became aware that HIV and AIDS existed.  We saw a character reading a newspaper article about a “mysterious illness” with no name.  That was in September 1982.   HIV wasn’t even identified until 1983.  But I do remember exactly when I first became aware of just how serious the AIDS situation had become, and that was in the summer of 1985.  Rock Hudson had pulled out of Dynasty due to ill-health, and, after it’d initially been given out that he had liver cancer, it was announced that he had AIDS.

He sadly died a few months later, aged 59.  As ever, a story about a big name celeb made a lot more headlines than a story involving ordinary people, but it was quite a pivotal moment, because he was the first really famous person to say that he had AIDS.  My friends and I were absolutely obsessed with Dynasty at the time, and older people obviously knew him as one of the world’s leading film stars, and it did raise awareness of what was happening.  What it couldn’t do, at that stage, was change attitudes and educate people.

In fact, there was quite a lot of controversy, because his character had snogged Krystle Carrington, and people were genuinely concerned that he might have infected Linda Evans, who’d been unaware of his condition.  When you think that we’ve spent most of the last year being told not to get within 6 feet of anyone who’s not in our household/bubble, those fears in 1985 don’t seem as strange as they would have done a couple of years ago.  At that time, even medical professionals were saying that it was inadvisable to kiss – as in full-scale kiss, not a peck on the cheek – someone who was HIV positive.  Most people didn’t believe some of the wilder scare stories, that you could catch it from toilet seats and that sort of thing, but there was a lot of scaremongering going on.

That was 1985. By late 1986/early 1987, everything had changed: it seemed as if everyone was talking about HIV and AIDS.  There was the big government campaign, with the pictures of tombstones.  It was horrible, but it did frighten people into being more careful and that will have saved a lot of lives.  “Hands, face, space,” sounds like something you chant during a nursery school game.  “AIDS: don’t die of ignorance” scares the hell out of you.

And the famous pictures of the Princess of Wales opening an AIDS hospice, and hugging and shaking hands with patients without wearing gloves, did a lot to dispel fears that you could catch it just from casual contact.  But there were still people who thought you could.  The Mark Fowler storyline in EastEnders, in 1990, probably did more to educate people in the UK than anything else did, because it went into so much detail.  Like a lot of people who were teenagers at the time, I certainly learnt more about HIV and AIDS from Mark Fowler than I did from any other source.

EastEnders were, as well as educating people about HIV and AIDS, making the point that anyone could catch it.  The character of Mark wasn’t in any of the high risk groups.  It was difficult: if they’d done the storyline with a gay character, people would have said that they were going along with the idea that it only affected gay men, and they were trying to avoid that … but it’s odd that, even now, none of the British soaps have “done” a storyline in which a gay male character’s been diagnosed with HIV.

Tony Warren, the late creator of Coronation Street, did address the AIDS pandemic in his novel The Lights of Manchester, though.  I read that in 1992.  A gay man moves from Manchester to San Francisco, and is gloriously happy there because he feels a sense of belonging in a city with such a big gay community. Some years later, he comes home for a visit and tells his best friend that his address book’s now full of crossings out, that there are hardly any names left on some pages, and that it’s pure good luck that he hasn’t contracted HIV himself: he hadn’t been careful because, at the time, he hadn’t known that he needed to be.  It’s a shame that that never made it on to TV: it was a very powerful conversation.

Then, in 1993, Tom Hanks won the Best Actor award for Philadelphia; and that was how far things had come.  Going back to 1986, we’d had James Anderton, the infamous “God’s Cop” Chief Constable of Greater Manchester, saying some really horrendous things about people who had AIDS.  Graham Stringer, who’s now an MP but was then the leader of Manchester City Council, had a right go at him.  By 1993, I don’t think a public figure would have said what Anderton did … but even then, when Arthur Ashe died, having contracted HIV from a blood transfusion, remarks were made about how he was a victim, in a way that someone who’d contracted it from sexual contract or shared drugs needles wasn’t.  Did Philadelphia, in which we saw characters expressing those attitudes even as they saw the Tom Hanks character suffering, help to change opinions?

The power of books, films and TV.  And music.  I was supposed to be seeing the Pet Shop Boys at the Manchester Arena last May.  The concert was rescheduled for this May, which, at the time, seemed like light years away: the pandemic was going to be over and done with by Christmas.  Yeah, right.  I don’t think It’s A Sin was ever meant as a campaigning song, but Red Letter Day must have been.  And Jimmy Somerville’s Read My Lips (Enough is Enough) actually demanded more help for HIV/AIDS patients.  The first episode ended with Smalltown Boy.  Do people who weren’t ancient enough to have been around in the ’80s and ’90s know these songs?   And was that Juliet Bravo that they were watching on TV in one episode?

Yes.  The power of TV.  I hope that this series achieves what Russell T Davies wants.  It’s been 40 years since the first death from AIDS in the UK, and a series like this is long overdue.

The Madonna of Bolton by Matt Cain

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I read this (well, apart from the fact that it was on a 99p Kindle offer) partly in honour of the forthcoming Manchester Pride weekend (although the stupid virus has put the kibosh on most of it), and partly (the author being almost exactly the same age as me) as an excuse for a big nostalgia fest about growing up in the North West in the ’80s and early ’90s … never missing an episode of either Coronation Street or Dynasty, reading teen pop magazines, and wearing hooded tops, telling everyone you were obsessed with Madchester music, and hoping that no-one would ever, ever call you either a stiff or a townie.  My entire class once wasted half a Latin lesson discussing how uncool it was to be a townie.  I have no idea why the teacher let us do this.

It’s a novel, but based closely on the author’s own experiences of growing up as a young gay man in Bolton, the issues he faced, and his obsession with Madonna.  How big was Madonna in the ’80s?!  I remember going round to my then best friend’s house for tea on the day that the Like A Prayer video was shown on TV in the UK for the first time, and it was *such* a big deal!   He rather overplays the northern working-class stereotypes; the fact that the book’s written in the present tense is a bit annoying; and the Madonna thing comes and goes rather than being the central theme as the title suggests; but it’s very thoughtfully-written and genuinely moving.

We see how our main man, Charlie (aka Matt) struggles badly due to being bullied at school, and how he feels that he doesn’t fit in either there or at home.  But we’re told that he finds that going to the gay bars and clubs in Canal Street (the heart of the Gay Village in Manchester) makes life a lot easier, which is rather lovely.  We try to be a welcoming city where everyone can be themselves ❤ .  Then we see him go off to university … and then move to London, which is a shame, as I thought the book was going to be set in Bolton.

His life gets in a complete mess, as he struggles to find his place in the world, but it all works out in the end   It could really have done with being a bit longer, to explain it all properly, but it all works out in the end.  And, when he finally meets Mr Right and they get married, the ceremony takes place at Bolton Town Hall and not in London.  Hooray!   And – see what I mean about overdoing the stereotypes?! – they even have Lancashire hotpot at the reception.  This is a really lovely book, and, especially if you can get it on the 99p deal, it’s well worth reading.