Dark Tides by Philippa Gregory


  I always swear blind that I’ll never read another book by Philippa Gregory … and then I do.  This one, despite being the sequel to the dreadful “Tidelands”, is really quite interesting, until the end where it becomes utterly farcical.  All the main characters in it are fictional, so she can’t do too much distorting of the facts – although there are a few really amateurish blunders, surprising from someone who’s actually got a degree in history – and it covers quite a range of locations and themes.  We jump about a lot between London and New England, and also spend quite a bit of time in Venice.  The last few chapters are just silly beyond words, but most of it really isn’t bad.

Also, it raises the interesting question of what happened to old Roundheads.  The Yorkists hung around like a bad smell for years, plotting comebacks.  The Jacobites were still trying to make a comeback over 50 years after the Glorious Revolution.  Then they somehow got turned into a romantic Lost Cause, as did the Confederates, and as to some extent did the Spanish Republicans.  But what about the Roundheads, who won the war but lost the peace?   I suppose it’s a difficult question, because … well, who *were* the Roundheads?   Very few people set out in 1642 to execute the king, set up a republic, and try to force religious extremism on an unwilling country: most of them would have had aims similar to those which were actually achieved by the Whigs in 1688.  However, in this book, we see a former Roundhead soldier living in New England, only to become disillusioned there by the treatment of the Native Americans.

A lot of loose ends aren’t tied up, so I assume that a further sequel’s planned.  I’ll say I won’t read it, but then I will.

Amateurish blunders.  The wife of a knight or baronet is Lady Surname.  The daughter of, say, an earl is Lady First Name.  Mixing them up is a common mistake, but a poor one.  Illegitimate children cannot just be legitimised by their parents marrying years after their birth: it’s not that easy.  No-one has ruined their life if they discover immediately after the marriage ceremony that their new spouse is a bad ‘un: they just need to get the marriage annulled.  And Italians would not have been going on in 1670 about how the English were all obsessed with drinking tea!   Tea only started to become popular in England in the 1660s.

The story.  In the previous books, our “heroine” Alinor, a widow with two children, was tried as a witch after having an affair with a Catholic priest in disguise, by whom she’d become pregnant.  As you do.  This book, set 21 years later, finds Alinor and her daughter living and working in London, whilst her son has been working as a doctor in Venice.  But then a Venetian noblewoman turns up with a baby, and says that the son’s drowned and she’s his widow and this is their child.  And then the former priest turns up, having given up the priesthood, and says that he wants to marry Alinor so that their child can be his heir.  But where is the child?   There are two children, who’ve been brought up as the twin offspring of Alinor’s daughter Alys (who’s been abandoned by her husband).  Is one of them actually the child of Alinor and the priest?  Er, we don’t know.  Alys claims that her mother miscarried, but it all seems a bit dubious, and the mystery’s never really cleared up.  Presumably that’s been left for a future sequel?

Meanwhile … actually, the more I think about it all, the sillier it seems, not just the last few chapters but most of it!   But it didn’t actually seem that bad at first.  The Venetian noblewoman tries to seduce both the ex-priest and Alys.  Then she says that she’s got a load of valuable antiques left to her by her first husband, and needs help to bring them to England and to flog them to rich courtiers.  So the ex-priest helps her.  Then agrees to marry her.

Meanwhile, Alinor, unconvinced that her son is dead, dispatches her granddaughter Sarah to Venice, to look for him.  There are some genuinely interesting bits about life in Venice – the position of the Jews in the ghetto, and the denunciation process – but it all gets rather farcical as it turns out that he’s not dead after all, but is in prison, having been denounced by his wife and the bloke who was helping her with the antiques, with whom she was having an affair … but who then falls in love with Sarah.  Furthermore, most of the antiques are forgeries. Then it turns out that the son is now working on the leper island, from which no-one ever escapes.  But Sarah miraculously rescues him, and he, she and the antiques bloke all roll up at the church in London just as the bisexual widow is marrying the ex-priest.  All is exposed.  Oh, and the antiques bloke is the baby’s dad.

Hurrah!  The ex-priest is saved (not that he really deserves to be).  Er, no.  It is declared that the bisexual widow’s marriage to Alinor’s son was unlawful because she’s a Catholic and he’s a Protestant.  She and the ex-priest are both Catholics, but are both pretending to be Protestants.  So that’s OK.  So this marriage stands.  And the ex-priest declares that he’s ruined.  Er, even though the marriage hasn’t been consummated, so he could soon get it annulled. I did say that it got farcical, OK?!

In between all of this, we hear about Alinor’s brother, the aforementioned former Roundhead now living in America.  Those sections are much better, and considerably less farcical.

It’s actually not as bad as it sounds!  It does turn into a farce towards the end, but, for a while, it isn’t bad.


Ridley Road by Jo Bloom


  A TV adaptation of this will be shown later this year, and, although it doesn’t look as if it’s going to bear much resemblance to the book, I thought I’d read the book anyway.  In the early 1960s, our heroine Vivien moves from Manchester to London, where she finds that all the people she knows there, some old family friends and a young man on whom she’s very keen, are involved in the 62 Group, a militant Jewish group working to counter the threat of the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement.  She also learns that her late father was involved in its predecessor, the 43 Group.

It’s not a particularly well-written book, but it’s well-meaning and it tells an important story.  There’ve been some deeply unpleasant incidents recently: we’ve had thugs from Bradford coming over to predominantly Jewish areas of Manchester to vandalise cars and shout abuse at people, a Labour councillor in Blackburn making comments which aren’t even fit to repeat, and even worse incidents in London and other parts of the South.  Some of the actors have spoken about the importance of the plotline, and I’m sure that Red Productions will have done it justice.

In the book, Vivien’s boyfriend Jack is a journalist who infiltrates the National Socialist Movement and helps to bring its leaders to justice, whilst Vivien works at a hairdressing salon.  Bearing in mind that this is set  in 1962 – and the book is based on real life events – that’s probably fairly realistic, but the TV series has got Vivien also being at the heart of the action and the danger, presumably because the idea of a strong female character was more appealing than one who was on the sidelines.   And there’s a lot of danger – there’s considerable violence in the book, as the two groups clash at rallies, and young Jewish men and young black men are badly beaten up.

There’s a Swinging Sixties vibe to it all as well – the salon at which Vivien works is in Soho, and there’s quite a bit of talk about hair and clothes and music.  And that does contrast sharply with everything that Jack’s finding out about what the neo-Nazis are up to.  There are an awful lot of minor characters, and a rather unconvincing plot about an aspiring musician who fancies Vivien and follows her around.

It’s not brilliant, as I’ve said, but it’s worth reading because it draws attention to the periodic rise of extremist elements in society, and their attacks on minority groups.   I’ll certainly be watching the TV series.  In the meantime, if you fancy giving the book a whirl, it’s currently on offer at £2.99 for the Kindle version.


The Foundling by Stacey Halls


The idea of a book about a child left at the London Foundling Hospital, which took in thousands of babies between 1741 and 1951 and was one of the most popular charities in Georgian England, was fascinating; and I did enjoy reading it.  However, much as I’d love to say that it was brilliant, especially as it’s by a local and relatively new author, there were holes which you could have driven a double decker bus through in practically every aspect of the plot.  The characters were well-drawn, and the descriptions of Georgian London worked well, but the detail of the plot was just ridiculously improbable.  It was a shame, because the general idea, the basic plot, really was good.

The Hospital was so popular that far more women wanted to leave babies there than there was capacity for, so a lottery system was operated.  If a baby was accepted, the person leaving him/her was given a number, and could leave a token to be attached to the baby’s records, and could them reclaim them if their circumstances changed.  Otherwise, boys would be trained for apprenticeships and girls for domestic service, and the hospital governors really do seem to have done their best for them.

In this book, in the mid-1740s, an young East End woman called Bess, a shrimp seller, had become pregnant after a one night stand with a merchant called Daniel, whom she’d only met once before.  She’d then heard that Daniel had died.  She left her baby daughter at the Hospital, and returned six years later to reclaim her, only to be told that the child had been reclaimed the day after she’d been left, by a woman giving Bess’s name.

Bess found out (through a series of highly improbable events) that the woman was Daniel’s widow, Alexandra, who lived in seclusion.  I initially assumed that this was because she was frightened of going out in case people realised that the child wasn’t hers, but it turned out that she was agoraphobic because her parents had been murdered by highwaymen in front of her, and that she’d married Daniel after meeting him for two minutes whilst he was at her aunt’s house and offering him her dowry.  Bess then (through another series of highly improbable events) got a job as the child’s nursemaid … then ran off with her.  And it kind of all worked out OK for everyone in the end.

Well … as I said, the characters were well-drawn, the descriptions were good, and the basic idea of the plot, the poor woman forced to leave her child and the wealthy woman who lived in seclusion (although the highwaymen thing was a bit melodramatic) was great.  Both Bess and Alexandra were convincingly written, as were a host of minor characters, and the descriptions of the different parts of London really were good.  The scene where Bess left the baby was fascinating, especially when you think how many real women actually went through that sad procedure.

But … the detail of the plot was just ridiculous, and it came across as being very amateurish.  How did Alexandra know about the baby?  Her sister had just happened to be in the pub where Daniel and Bess had met for the second time, and had seen them go off together. As if a well-to-do upper-middle-class Georgian woman would have been in a seedy pub.  And, of all the pubs in all the world, the same one as Daniel and Bess, on one of the only two occasions on which they’d met,  When Bess had arrived at the Foundling Hospital, this sister had just happened to be there too (for reasons that weren’t even explained – it was a popular charity at the time, but there was no mention given of her being a patron, or having any other reason to be there), had recognised her from one brief glance nine months earlier, had followed her home, without Bess or anyone else wondering why a posh carriage was rolling through a poor area of the East End, had asked an apparently unsuspicious neighbour her name, and had then told Alexandra.

Then, instead of coming up with some plausible story about a widowed cousin who’d died in childbirth, Alexandra had sent her servants out on errands, and then told them that, in the hour or so that they’d been out, and having shown absolutely no signs of pregnancy, she’d given birth.

The entire book was like this.  I could go on and on, but I don’t want to sound as if I’m pulling it to pieces, because, as I said, I did enjoy it, and it is by a new and local author; but nearly everything that happened was completely implausible.  A few tweaks, and it would have been fine.  Claiming that the baby was a relative’s orphaned child.  Saying that one of Daniel’s drinking buddies had seen him with Bess, and had then seen her again and realised that she was pregnant.

And point taken about trying to be multicultural, and some good points were made about Bess’s best friend, who was black, worrying that her children would be kidnapped because of the fashion for having little black boys as pages.  However, Jews in London in the 1750s would not have been speaking Yiddish, it’s highly unlikely that there’d have been any Serbs in London in the 1750s and, if there had been, they wouldn’t have had Ukrainian surnames, and Anglican church congregations are not generally predominantly Spanish and Irish.  That really was poor.

Great idea.  Poor execution.  It was just all so implausible – when it could so easily have been so good.  I feel bad for saying that, but it was hard to take it seriously when everything that happened was so unlikely.  And it could so easily have been so good.

London: 2000 years of history – Channel 5 (episode 3 – gin and sewage)


There is a vile stench in the House of Commons. It’s so bad that people are having to cover their noses. Meanwhile, the well-being of the working-classes is being completely ignored. I’m talking about 1858, obviously. I wouldn’t normally watch a programme about sewage (!), but, by talking about the railways, the “Great Stink” during the exceptionally hot summer of 1858 and the long overdue introduction of a proper sewerage system for London, this made some very good points about the importance of health and sanitation in history. I really want to write about Edwin Chadwick and James Kay Shuttleworth, and I’m having to make a huge effort to make myself write about London instead! There was also a lot of talk about gin and shopping. Not a hint of politics, and not much talk about economics. This was definitely different.

This episode actually started with the Great Fire of London, and the rebuilding of the city afterwards. This was pretty familiar stuff, but it then moved on to the growing division of London between the wealthy West End and the working-class East End, and how areas that weren’t affected by the fire lost out during the rebuilding; and then, in early Georgian times, grand houses for the well-to-do were built in the Mayfair area. Whilst the ton were living it up, the poor were turning to gin. OK, that’s a ridiculous generalisation – and it’s Channel 5’s, not mine! – but the expression about gin being the quickest road out of [any city you care to name] lasted well into the 19th century, and there was a particular increase in gin consumption in the first half of the 18th century, blamed for an increase in anti-social behaviour, until the Gin Act of 1751 made gin more difficult to obtain.

There followed some discussion of the development of the West End as a shopping area. It was also mentioned that London was full of professional criminals, and the need for security provided the impetus for the building of professional docks. So London was full of drunks and criminals. I’m not saying that: Channel 5 said it 😉 . And then on to the Industrial Revolution. I get extremely excited at any mention of the Industrial Revolution, but most people are familiar, from Bill Sikes drowning in a ditch if nothing else, of the pollution which it created, and of the appalling living conditions associated with it. I want to write about Engels now, but I’m trying hard to stick with London, seeing as that’s what the programme was about!

Then something I’d never really thought about very much – how, in the early days, the government intervened to stop railways from going right into the centre of London. So we have to get off at Euston or wherever, and get the Tube to wherever we want to go. It actually went on the technicalities of railway-building in rather a lot of detail, but, hey, some people probably found that interesting! The point was that the railways were moving out to areas beyond the city centre, meaning that people didn’t have to live close to where they worked.

Finally, the Great Stink, which I thought was probably the most interesting part of the programme. I’m not sure what that says about me! But vast numbers of people had died in a number of cholera outbreaks in the 1830s and 1840s, and it took a while for people to realise that that was because of drinking contaminated water, and not because of “miasma”. Even once doctors had provided clear evidence, the powers that be weren’t very interested. Sewage, slaughterhouse waste and industrial effluent continued to be dumped in or on the banks of the Thames. And nothing was done … until the very hot summer of 1858 created the “Great Stink”, and, with the smell in the House of Commons having become unbearable, a proper sewage system was finally built.

I feel like saying that the lesson from this is that, if we want anything done, we need to stink out the House of Commons! Seriously, though, this programme got from the 1660s to the 1850s without making even one reference to the Glorious Revolution, the War of the Spanish Succession, the Jacobites, the Seven Years’ War, the Napoleonic Wars, the Great Reform Act of 1842 or the Corn Laws. Instead, it talked about gin and sewage. And, do you know what? It was really interesting! Well worth a watch.

London: 2000 Years of History – Channel 5


Whilst I appreciate Channel 5’s attempts to get away from the stuffy- professor-sat-behind-desk image of history programmes, there were way too many incongruous shots of modern-day London in this. Romans did not travel around on red buses, and Alfred the Great certainly didn’t buy his armour at Rigby & Peller.  At least, I don’t think he did 🙂 .  It certainly wasn’t boring, though – the Romans, Boudicca’s revolt, the Saxons, the Vikings and the Normans were all packed into one short episode, complete with hi-vis jackets, skeletons in cardboard boxes, boat trips and quarrying.

The idea seemed to be to get as far away from the professor-behind-desk image as possible, and it really was taken to extremes!   As well as all the shots of high-rise buildings, crowded streets and 21st century public transport, we got Rob Bell hanging around a Kentish quarrying site in a hi-vis jacket and hard hat – the excuse for which was that the stones for building London’s Roman city walls had come from somewhere nearby – and Dan Jones (whom I keep getting mixed up with Dan Snow, for some reason), in addition to walking past Rigby & Peller, going on a high speed boat trip along the Thames.  Whilst the blokes got to do the action man stuff, Suzannah Lipscomb was left to look at a skeleton which had been brought out of a cardboard box for the purpose, but, hey, maybe that was her choice.   We also got some shots of artwork, ranging from the Bayeux Tapestry to – seriously, Channel 5?! – Vikings in horned helmets.  And there was a lot of talk about Crossrail – although, to be fair, that was because the work on Crossrail’s enabling archaeologists to see things that have been buried beneath London’s streets for centuries.

If you ask someone to name an English city which they associate with the Romans, they’ll probably say Chester or York, or Colchester. Even I’d probably say Chester rather than Manchester;  and I don’t think many people would say London.  But, of course, Londinium was a very important Roman city, and it was fascinating to hear all about the basilica, the forum, the huge government buildings, the amphitheatre and the baths which once stood on the sites which are now Leadenhall Market and the Guildhall, and to be reminded that the idea of the Square Mile dates back to the building of the Roman city walls.  We also got to see wax tablets and a skeleton dating back to Roman times … although we also got to see a lot of quarrying machinery which didn’t.   And were reminded that the Romans built a swing bridge, which was rather exciting.  Even if they didn’t have red buses.

Then Boudicca’s revolt. Ah, now there was a woman who got on with things, instead of dithering about like modern politicians do!  Not that I’m suggesting that we should all go around massacring people and burning London to the ground, obviously – but she was a definite example of deeds, not words!   And then, as the programme reminded us, London rebuilt itself from the ashes, before being deserted as the Roman era came to an end, and pretty much lying dormant until the building of Saxon Lunden (see, the Northern pronunciation of the city’s name is the one that’s historically correct!), in the area that’s now Aldwych.  The Saxons apparently spent a lot of time looking at stalls in Covent Garden.

But then along came the Vikings – cue a lot of dramatic film and pictures depicting Viking longboats making their way up the Thames, although the presenters might have explained that the idea that the Vikings wore horned helmets isn’t actually true!   Dan Jones, once he’d finished his high-speed boat trip along the Thames and was striding along Bow Lane, explained that Alfred the Great moved the Saxon Londoners from the Covent Garden area and inside the safety of the old city walls, but it was unfortunate that he was walking past Rigby & Peller at the time.  Sorry for being immature, but that made me laugh!

There wasn’t time to give too much detail, and, of course, London was playing second fiddle to Winchester at this time, but it might have been nice to’ve heard a bit about the Anglo-Saxon governmental structures and the forming of a united England, rather than going straight on to the Norman Conquest. I’m going all Whig historian here, but the programme did seem a lot more interested in invasion and blood and guts than what happened in between waves of invasions!

But, in many ways, the history of London, and of England, up to this point was one of invasion after invasion.  I thought about saying that things settled down after that, but, of course, they didn’t, because there were so many internal conflicts – although it looks as if the next episode is going to start by focusing on the Black Death.  They’re certainly packing plenty of blood and guts into this.  I would like to’ve had more actual history and less action – does Dan Jones never actually sit down?! – but I think they’re trying hard to show that history is all around us and that it shouldn’t just be associated with middle-aged men in suits sat at desks covered in lofty tomes.  Whatever else this was or wasn’t, it was definitely all go!

I feel like I should whinge about the fact that Channel 5 is devoting four hours (minus numerous advert breaks) of TV solely to London, but I suppose I wouldn’t be saying that if it was a series about Rome or Paris or Vienna, so I won’t!   But a few more shots of historic sites and fewer shots of modern London really would have been better!  Overall, though, an entertaining hour (minus adverts)’s viewing.