Ridley Road by Jo Bloom

Standard

  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.

 

Mental Health Awareness Week

Standard

This is Mental Health Awareness Week 2021.  It’s certainly been a strange old year, and one that’s been extremely tough for many people. We are currently awaiting confirmation, later today, that we will be allowed to hug our relatives and friends as of next Monday.  This will apparently involve making “informed personal decisions”; and Scientific Experts are advising that “hugs should be selective, short, and avoid face-to-face contact”. The restrictions have been necessary, but did you ever think you’d live in a world where you had to wait for permission from the authorities to hug your own relatives and friends, and instructions on how to do so?!  In the meantime,  big virtual hugs for anyone who wants them ((virtual hugs 🙂  ))!

Obviously everyone’s experiences will have been different, depending on their personal circumstances and the ways and extent to which the pandemic has impacted on those, but hopefully we’re now well on the way back to some sort of normality.  However, sadly, the same can’t be said of India, Brazil and many other countries, and, as keeps being said, no-one’s really safe until everyone’s safe.  But we’re out of lockdown now, and, hooray, that means that weekend outings to the countryside and the seaside after a week of being trapped with work are back on.  And I want to raise a very large glass to the Victorians and the Edwardians for providing us with our wonderful public parks, without which, whilst waiting to be let out of lockdown, I’d have gone even madder than I already am.

The theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is “nature”, and the Mental Health Foundation have explained that this is because “going for walks outside was one of our top coping strategies and 45% of us reported being in green spaces had been vital for our mental health” and “even small contacts with nature can reduce feelings of social isolation and be effective in protecting our mental health, and preventing distress”.  Too true.  I don’t know how I’d have managed if I hadn’t been able to go for walks round the local park during the lockdowns, especially the first lockdown when we weren’t supposed to be going more than a few miles from home.

It’s funny how, when I can’t bear the noise of dogs barking or engines revving, I find the sound of birdsong very relaxing.  And best of all are the flowers.  Especially daffodils!   I’m a bit obsessive about daffodils.  The start of the first lockdown coincided with the daffodil season, and being able to see the daffodils and then the bluebells and the blossom really did make it a lot less difficult to cope with everything.

It was so hard not being able to go to the Lake District, though, or to Blackpool, or the Peaks, or the various National Trust, English Heritage and other properties which I usually visit.  I’m extremely grateful to the National Trust, English Heritage and Windermere Lake Cruises for getting things open again as soon as they were able to, even if it was with limited numbers!  I even had a full week in the Lakes last summer, for the first time ever, and having that time there, rather than being in a rush on a day trip or a weekend break, was wonderful.  We’re very fortunate to have so many lovely places within relatively easy reach.  And they really have helped in what’s been a tough year.

Just a few little (well, little-ish) rants here, though.

Firstly, I know all the reasons for lockdown, but it’s been particularly hard on people in densely-populated urban areas.  We haven’t got a lot of green space.  We’ve got high proportions of residents who haven’t got gardens.  And, being densely-populated and having a lot of people in jobs which can’t be done at home, those of us in the old industrial heartlands of Northern England, the Midlands, the central belt of Scotland, South West Wales, and Belfast, were the ones put under additional travel restrictions in the autumn.  It was really hard for us – not helped by media outlets showing pictures of crowds in public parks and tut-tutting.  Yes, of course we were in the public parks.  Where else were we supposed to go?  We’re very lucky to have a very big and very lovely public park near us, and I’m extremely grateful for that, but, more than once, it got to a point where I felt like re-enacting the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass.  Hopefully, the days of lockdowns are over, but it was pretty frustrating.  And as for those local councils which decided to lock all the public toilets …

Secondly, about annoying people who spoil things for others.  Yes, I’m sure a lot of people think I’m incredibly annoying, but at least I don’t make a lot of noise or mess … which is more than can be said for dog-owners who let their horrible dogs bark their heads off and or jump up at other people, bikers who rev their engines so loudly that other people can’t hear themselves think, or anyone who drops litter.  Please, folks, clean up after yourselves, keep the noise down and keep your dogs under control.  Other people do not want your “precious fur baby” (how I hate that expression) jumping all over them or barking so loudly that they can’t hear themselves think.

OK, rant over!  Oh dear, that got a bit longer than I’d intended!   But having access to open spaces is very important.  Yes, you can walk along the pavements, but it’s not very relaxing when you keep having to stop to cross a road or wait for someone to reverse out of their drive, and looking at cars and houses isn’t quite the same as looking at trees and flowers.  And nature’s always there – whatever’s been happening over the past year, the seasons have come and gone as usual, the flowers have come and gone as usual, and the baby animals have been born as usual.  Turn, turn, turn.  There’s something rather reassuring about that.  Something a bit frightening, too, as you watch the months slip-sliding away, but, mostly, something reassuring.

It’s hard to find the time, when you’ve got work and housework to do, and there are traffic jams and queues everywhere, but finding that bit of time to “connect” with nature really is worth it.

If anyone’s read this, thank you!   Enjoy the flowers, enjoy the trees, enjoy the birdsong … but, if you are struggling, please ask for help.

 

Britain’s Most Historic Towns: Manchester – Channel 4

Standard

This was one of the best programmes I’ve seen all year.  There should be programmes like this on every day.  On every channel.  At prime viewing time.  What more could anyone ask for than to watch a TV programme which says that “Manchester is as great a human exploit as [ancient] Athens” (Disraeli), talks about Manchester “pumping the rich blood of economic vitality and revolutionary identity around Britain” and points out that Frederick Douglass was “fascinated” by Manchester because of the number of people here working to change the world for the better?  And it showed a picture of Old Trafford.  (OK, OK, it also showed a picture of the Etihad, but never mind that.)  And it talked about the Cotton Famine.  The Cotton Famine was my dissertation topic.  I get very excited when people talk about it.

We got Peterloo.  We got the Anti Corn Law League.  We got the Manchester to Liverpool Railway (the Huskisson incident was not mentioned).  We got Engels and Marx meeting up at Chetham’s (the fact that Engels’ office was in what’s now Kendals, which always amuses me, was sadly not mentioned).  And, of course, we got the suffragettes.  I just need to mention for the ten billionth time that I went to the same school as Christabel Pankhurst and her sisters.  Then, at the end, we were shown a picture of Marcus Rashford.  Marcus, being a very modest young man, is probably rather embarrassed at being mentioned alongside the likes of Richard Cobden, Elizabeth Gaskell, Emmeline Pankhurst and the organisers of the meeting which sadly ended in the Peterloo Massacre, but I thought that that was rather lovely.

This really was brilliant.  Alice Roberts was so enthusiastic and so totally biased in favour of all the radicals and reformers of 18th, 19th, 20th and now 21st century Manchester.  I got all excited, like I did when I was a teenager reading books by Asa Briggs et al about the role of Manchester in the Industrial Revolution.  Yes, I really, genuinely am that sad and that weird.  Always have been, always will be.  Indulge me, OK.  Christmas has just been cancelled.  I needed cheering up.  This cheered me up.  So has United beating Leeds 6-2.   Well, somewhat.

We started off with canals, cotton mills and railways – and a drone flying over the city to take pictures.  This was obviously filmed recently, but they managed very well with social distancing – Alice Roberts met various historians, but only one at a time, and they stood well apart.  Then we heard about the difficult conditions under which the mill workers lived and worked, and then moved on to the mess which was the constituency system pre 1832, and, of course, the electorail system too.

That, obviously, brought us on to Peterloo.  We heard about the radical press here, notably the Manchester Observer, and then about the Massacre itself. If Mike Leigh hadn’t made such a mess of the film, we might hear a lot more about Peterloo: I’m still narked about that.  Anyway.  Even now, we get people saying that it wasn’t really a peaceful protest, or that it wasn’t really that bad.  This, using documents from the time, kept in the wonderful John Rylands Library, made it quite clear that, yes, it was a peaceful protest, and, yes, what happened was that bad.  We heard about the Peterloo Relief Fund set up to help the injured and the families of the dead.  And we heard about the “fake news” put out about it all.  It was all very, very much on the side of the peaceful protesters.  And quite rightly so!

Strangely, there was no mention of the Chartists.  That was a very odd omission.

However, we did hear about Richard Cobden and the Anti Corn Law League.  Possibly a teensy bit of political agenda pushing here, the only bit of the programme I wasn’t keen on.  Or maybe I imagined it.  But let’s ignore that, and focus on the fact that the Anti Corn Law League eventually succeeded in bringing down food prices – at a time when, even during the Potato Famine, landowners were only interested in keeping prices up, and never mind the fact that people were going hungry.   And, oh, how I wish that the Free Trade Hall had never been sold off and turned into a hotel!  It’s such a big piece of our history. We used to have school Speech Day in there.  It was always very boring, very hot, and at the same time as a crucial match at Wimbledon, but the fact that it was in the Free Trade Hall rather than the school hall was rather exciting.

On to Marx and Engels, and the interesting point was made that Elizabeth Gaskell probably did more to draw public attention to “the condition of the working classes” than Engels did.  Lucky Alice Roberts got to visit her house, and also Chetham’s Library: both are sadly closed to the public at the moment 😦 , thanks to bl**dy Tier 3 regulations.  Charles Dickens also got a mention, but I find Hard Times unspeakably annoying.  Mrs Gaskell’s books are much better.  And, yes, they would have reached a far wider audience than the Engels book did.  Both them were rather patronising, quite honestly, but those were different times.

Then on to the Cotton Famine.  I’ve just read an utterly ridiculous book which claimed that everyone in the Lancashire textile areas supported the Confederacy.  It also said that the Confederacy only had six states, when it had eleven, so the author was clearly pretty clueless.  And he said that Prince Albert was gay, which seemed a rather odd comment.  But it annoyed me that a supposed history textbook has gone on sale spouting such rubbish.  Yes, there was some support for the Confederacy, but the general feeling in the Lancashire textile areas (I’m saying “textile areas” because it was a whole different ball game in Liverpool) was pro-Union because of the slavery issue.  Whether the war was actually about slavery or about states’ rights is a debate for another time, but there’s that famous letter sent to Abraham Lincoln from “the citizens of Manchester”, and the equally famous reply.  And there’s a statue of Lincoln in the city centre … close to where one of the Christmas markets should currently be being held.  Given the damage done to the regional economy by the Cotton Famine, that was a very big thing.

We were also told that Frederick Douglass was fascinated by Manchester. Well, of course he was.  Anyone would be 🙂 .  But I love the fact that he was.

And then to the suffragettes.  Emmeline Pankhurst, of whom there is, finally, now a statue in town.  Alice spoke to a woman who’d actually changed her surname to Pankhurst!   That’s rather extreme fangirling, but it’s fascinating that someone does find Emmeline Pankhurst so inspirational that she’d do that.  And we saw the Manchester – First in the Fight” banner which now lives in the People’s History Museum.

First in the Fight!   “We are a city of changemakers.”  “Greatest Hits of Radical Movements.”  I actually Googled Alice Roberts to see if she had Manchester connections, but, as far as I can see, she hasn’t.  She was just being gloriously pro-Manchester.  We take all this as a compliment, obviously!   We are very proud of being involved in the Repeal movement and the Suffragette movement and everything else.  And, as I said, I thought it was rather lovely that that picture of Marcus Rashford was shown.  We’re having a tough time at the moment.  But we’ve had tough times before.  We’ve come through those and we’ll come through this.

And this programme was brilliant.  Not that I’m biased or anything …

 

 

The Madonna of Bolton by Matt Cain

Standard

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.

 

Manchester Happened by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (Facebook group reading challenge)

Standard

This is a collection of short stories by a Ugandan author living in Manchester, about the experiences of Ugandan immigrants in and around our city.  If you know the area, you’ll recognise all the street names 🙂  :when the author first moved here, she lived near Platt Fields Park.  I’m not normally keen on short story collections, but this one works really well because it makes the point that everyone’s experience is different.  The author herself is from a middle-class family who suffered at the hands of Idi Amin, and some of the stories are about upper-middle-class Ugandans who grew up in big houses with servants, and were sent to Britain by parents who felt that there were few opportunities in Uganda and that a degree from a British university would set them up for life, but fully expected them to come back after a while … which most of them didn’t.  That’s probably not most people’s typical image of immigration from East Africa to Britain, but the book is making the point that there can’t really *be* a typical image.

The stories in the second half of the book are mostly about Ugandan people who’ve settled in the Manchester area going back to Uganda, either permanently or to visit – and finding it difficult, especially if accompanied by a partner and children who’d never been there before.  Once you move away, to a different society, can you go back?   This isn’t something which is often discussed.  There used to be the idea of, say, moving from southern Italy to America to make your fortune and then moving back, but migration to Britain has historically been permanent, unless it was for a particular job or course of study.  It’s interesting reading.

It’s a lovely book.  The style of writing’s very informal, which isn’t really for me, but that’s an observation, not a criticism.  There’s no agenda, very little politics, and plenty of humour.  It’s just telling the story of the different experiences of different people.  It’s very positive: the characters’ main quibble about Manchester, and Britain in general, is the weather!   And, whilst it’s specifically about Ugandans in Manchester, so much of it applies to any group of immigrants moving from any one place to any other place – getting used to a new home and a new way of life, and trying to find your place in amongst two different cultures.  And that place is going to be different for each individual person.

Within most waves (for lack of a better word) of immigration, there are people from different countries.  That does seem to be being forgotten.  How often do you hear anyone talk about “the Ugandan community in Manchester” or “the Ugandan community in Britain” (unless they’re talking about Ugandan Asians, which this book isn’t doing), rather than “the black community” or “the Afro-Caribbean community”?  There are people from different regions and cultures within those countries, and, within those sub-divisions, from different socio-economic classes.

If we’re looking at immigration into Manchester in the 19th century, are we going to take the story of a person leaving rural Ireland because of the potato famine, a middle-class German professional coming here for work reasons, a working-class Bessarabian Jewish person fleeing a shtetl because of the pogroms, a middle-class Austrian Jewish person leaving a Viennese suburb because of concerns about prejudice and an Italian person moving away from the Mezziogiorno because of poverty, and talk about  “the white immigrant experience” or even just “the immigrant experience”?  No.  And we shouldn’t be doing it with immigration in the second half of the 20th century or in the 21st century either, and that’s what she’s saying.  In one of the stories in this book, a white British woman is concerned about how her Ugandan husband’s family will receive her when she goes to Uganda for the first time, and is told that, yes, she’ll be seen as an outsider, but no more so than if she were black British or Nigerian.  The cultures are completely different.

There are people who want to move permanently and people who intend to return.  There are people who move to a new country as children, people who move as young adults, and people who move as older adults: I’ve known families where siblings have had completely different experiences because the younger ones have gone to school in the new country but the older ones haven’t.   And there are people who want to assimilate into the culture of the new country, and people who want to continue to live by the culture of the old country – there’s a story about the Manchester born and bred son of a Ugandan man and a British woman choosing to go to Uganda for an adult circumcision ceremony – and prefer to socialise only with people with the same heritage, and want their children to do the same.  People even within one nuclear family can feel completely differently.

There may also be many different waves of immigration within a community.  In this book, we’ve got, amongst others, a war veteran who moved here in the early 1950s, an upper-middle-class girl who moved here in the 1980s, and a family who came here as illegal immigrants in the 2010s.  There’s also one story told from the viewpoint of a dog, which I could have done without, but never mind!

There’s a lot of general human interest, as well – like the story about the woman who found out that her husband had another wife back in Uganda.  And, whilst it’s specifically about Ugandan people, a lot of it’s about the general issues of settling into life somewhere completely different.  It took the man who came here in the early 1950s a while to realise that you could tell a lot about someone’s background from their clothes and from their accent.  So much of it would apply to any minority group, such as being in a crowd of people and looking around for someone whom you can tell or sense is from the same cultural group as you are.

And the positivity’s great.  One of the big problems we’ve got at the moment is people who seem to think that the way to prove how “woke” they are is to abuse Britain or America or France or any other Western country.  Those sort of keyboard warriors really won’t like this book, because it doesn’t do that!   That then puts other people’s backs up, and just creates more problems.  Another problem is people who expect everyone from a particular ethnicity or culture to act in a particular way, and abuse them when they don’t, as we’ve seen with the Guardian‘s racist attacks on Priti Patel.  As this book shows, everyone’s different, and everyone has their own way.

But most people want to belong, and that can be very challenging when you’ve moved to a new country.  Which way do you go?  Integrate and assimilate?  “Stick to your own kind,” to quote West Side Story.  And, if you’ve only moved temporarily, how easy will it be to fit in when you go back?  The answers are going to be different for everyone: you can’t generalise.  Books like this, where the focus is narrow, where it’s about people from one country moving to one city, are a very effective way of reminding us of that.

There used to be a lot of immigration novels.  OK, most of them were about people moving to New York, but there were also plenty about people moving to British cities. They seem to be increasingly rare these days, though.  That’s a shame.  This is a great book.  It’d be good to see more like it.

Back To The Future The Musical – Manchester Opera House

Standard

Great Scott – it’s Back To the Future, The Musical!  I’m absolutely delighted that Manchester is the first place in the world to get to see this new stage adaptation of one of the greatest cult films of the ’80s, and indeed of all time; and what an absolutely amazing spectacle it is!  1.21 gigawatts of spectacle, in fact (sorry, that had to be said!).  Flying cars, flashing lights and lightning strikes. I’ve never heard so many men yelling and screaming at a musical: it’s usually only we ladies doing that 🙂 .If you’re looking for Les Miserables, you’re not going to get it: apart from the original songs from the film, the music isn’t really that memorable. But, if you’re looking for Back To The Future and you’re not sure that it’s going to work on stage – believe me, it does!  If you’re worried that someone’s going to spoil a sacred bit of your ’80s childhood – it’ s fine, they’re not!   And, yes, the DeLorean flies!

It’s a bit surreal when you stop to think that we’re now going back further to get to 1985 than Marty’s going to get from 1985 to 1955.  It’s especially surreal if, like me, you’ve never entirely got out of the 1980s.  But the story works for any age. When you look beyond the sci-fi/time travelling elements, it’s a story of learning to stand up for yourself, overcoming bullying, trying not to worry that people are going to laugh at you for not being cool or trendy, and making a success of things by being yourself and doing what interests you.  That’s pretty inspiring in any decade. I think that the musical actually gets that side of it across better than the film does.

And it is definitely entertaining. I’m not someone who usually gets excited about special effects, but this is really something. It’s on a 12 week debut run at the Opera House, the 5th night of which happily coincided with my birthday, and I believe that people are travelling from all over the UK and even from the US for the chance to see it; but it’s going to run and run. When this baby hits 88 miles per hour …

Obviously, you can’t do everything on stage that you can on screen. For a kick off, you can’t spend 3 hours slapping make-up on people to make them look 30 years older, so, in the scenes in the 1980s, the McFly parents look around the same age as their kids 🙂  – but just try to ignore that! There’s not much skateboarding, and (hooray!!!) there are no dogs. George falls out of a tree, rather than being hit by a car.   Also – and it’s killing me to say this, because I am a child of the ’80s, and I got quite upset when it hit me that no-one much under 40 will even remember 1985 – there are things which worked in the ’80s which just wouldn’t work now.  References to Libyan terrorists, and indeed any terrorists, have been removed … and, thinking about it,  it’s kind of weird that they were considered suitable at the time, TBH.  And Doc Brown’s bemusement on learning that Ronald Reagan the film star is now the President of the United States, which was hilarious in 1985, falls a bit flat now.

However, I’m pleased to say that the Thought Police haven’t been allowed to get to it and take away the ’80s and ’50s feel of it. I know there’s been some whingeing about recent musicals being made of An Officer and a Gentleman and Pretty Woman, from people saying that they’re sexist, but can we just accept that times change and that you can’t and shouldn’t try to change the past to match? Lorraine being impressed by first Marty and then George rescuing her from the unwanted attentions of Biff, largely by walloping him, works in the context of the 1950s. And, whilst no-one is more paranoid about their weight than I am, the thing about original 1985 Lorraine being fat and new model 1985 Lorraine being slim works in the context of the 1980s.  Talking about the prospect of “a coloured man” becoming mayor is the language that would have been used in the 1950s – and, of course, Goldie, who starts off sweeping the floor in a café, does indeed work his way up to the position of mayor, and he does it through his own hard work, without anyone having to change to change history for him!  I don’t know if anyone now would make a film in which a girl fancies a boy whom she’s unaware is her son. And even a friendship between a teenage boy and an older man might be considered dangerous territory now – which is a shame, because Marty and Doc Brown are such a great team.  But we’re not writing the story for 2020.  It was written for 1985.  And it’s largely been left as such.  Good.

So, yes, this is Back To The Future, and this is the 1980s!  As I said, it’s quite strange when you realise that, to younger members of the audience, the ’80s clothes, hairstyles and music, and things like the ’80s phone and TV in the McFlys’ kitchen, look like something from history.  It’s like when you’re walking round a museum and you see stuff that you remember using.  Most of it’s set in the 1950s, of course, though … and people who are 30 years older than me will probably feel exactly the same about the ’50s as I  do about the ’80s!  The music and dancing are part ’80s and part ’50s. And there’s a lot of music and dancing, because, well, it is a musical.  In fact, it had a bit of a feeling of Grease about it, because, as they couldn’t show scenes in as many parts of town as they did in the film, quite a lot of it was set in the high school attended by teenage George, Lorraine and Biff.

The new songs aren’t that great, as I said, but the original songs are still great, and the new ones are lively and upbeat even if not very memorable.  I’m a purist and a traditionalist and I would normally howl with indignation at the slightest suggestion that the main attraction of a musical was anything other than the music, but this is an adaptation of a particular film and so the special effects were always going to be the big thing.  And, if you’re looking for special effects, then, yep, you are going to get them, big style!  There are a lot of flashing coloured lights.  There is dry ice.  It has actually been made to look as if the car is going through time.  Well, OK, we don’t actually know what time travel looks like, but you know what I mean!  And, yes, all right, all right, we now know that 2015 was not an age of flying cars, but we didn’t know that in 1985. There is a flying car at the end, because, where we’re going, we don’t need roads!

It’s more than that, though.  It’s genuinely very funny – the comedy element is great.  And it’s genuinely inspiring.  Because you can’t do as much on stage as you can on screen, there’s more about the characters.  Or maybe I’m just getting old – and, yes, that is part of it.  When you’re a kid, it’s all about Marty.  When you’re older – and birthdays always make me feel like Methuselah – you feel much more for young George, shoved around by the school bullies, never able to stand up for himself, and hiding his love of sci-fi and the stories he’s writing because he’s convinced that people are going to laugh at him.  And you feel much more for the original version of adult Lorraine, who’s turned from a lively, vivacious teenager into an unhappy woman, turning to food and drink for comfort.  Well, unless you were a Biff-type kid at school, but, if you were, you probably won’t be reading anything written by me.

This is a brilliant fantasy time travel story.  And it’s a brilliant comedy, because of the way that Marty accidentally messes up the past and then has to try to sort it out, and because of all the time travel jokes such as Lorraine thinking Marty’s called Calvin Klein because that’s what the name tapes on his underpants say.  But, when you think about it more deeply,  it’s a story about the shy, uncool kid, who’s got zero self confidence and gets pushed around by bullies, becoming Mr Happy and Successful.  And it’s about Doc Brown’s years of trying to invent something that works finally paying off.  And I love that.

Oh, all right, it’s about the flying car, as well!  Because, where we’re going, we don’t need roads …

 

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

Standard

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!

Coronation Street reaches its 10,000th episode tonight – ITV

Standard

10,000 episodes, and very nearly six decades! I’ve known long-serving characters such as Ken Barlow, Gail Platt/Rodwell and Rita Fairclough/Tanner all my life, and I’ve known younger characters such as Sarah and David Platt all *their* lives. I know them better than I know a lot of people I actually, er, know.  There’ve been so many iconic characters that it would take a fair while to go through the names of even a few of them. Hilda Ogden, Jack and Vera Duckworth, Elsie Tanner, Ena Sharples, Bet Lynch, Ken and Deirdre Barlow, Mike Baldwin, Annie Walker, Betty Turpin/Williams, Roy and Hayley Cropper … and that’d just be for starters.  Even Prince Charles has been in it!

I discuss Coronation Street with my family. I discuss it with my friends. When I was a little girl, I used to discuss it with the other kids in my class at primary school (for some bizarre reason, I vividly remember everyone getting hysterical over the episode in which Fred Gee put Bet Lynch down in a cow pat). Now, I discuss it with the other people in my office.

When the Metrolink system opened, in 1992, notices went up all over town telling people to watch where they were going and remember what happened to Alan Bradley. If windy weather’s forecast, one of the local Facebook sites will inevitably show a picture of a map with pictures of Gail’s face all over it (gales, gails, get it?!).  There was even an opinion poll, years ago, which showed that the most popular choice for Lord Mayor of Manchester would be Alf Roberts.  And there was, of course, the legendary occasion on which “Deirdre goes back to Ken” was flashed up on the scoreboard at Old Trafford, mid-match, and the crowd started chanting Deirdre’s name.  Nobody dare tell me that Coronation Street isn’t special!  And they said that a “kitchen-sink drama”, with characters speaking with Northern accents, wouldn’t last …

The appeal’s partly due to the local connections, obviously.  I love it when I spot scenes filmed at Heaton Park, or at the church which I can see from my study window.  I like trying to work out where any scenes filmed away from the main set are taking place.  I once nearly barged into Kym Marsh with my trolley in Tesco!  Hey, I even went to the same school as the actress who played (still plays, technically) Emily Bishop.  And my dad went to the same school as the actor who played Dennis Tanner, who has the dubious honour (the character, not the actor!) of being bumped off for tonight’s special episode. Poor old Dennis!  But the appeal goes way beyond that – and it goes way beyond the local area, too.  Obviously 🙂 .

It’s not realistic.  Soap operas can’t be, because no-one lives, works and socialises exclusively within such a small geographical area.  And you certainly don’t get that much drama in any one street.  How many murders have there been in the last few years?!  But no-one really wants to watch reality – a programme in which everyone got up, went to school/work, came home, had tea, watched telly and went to bed wouldn’t really make for very riveting viewing.

Yet it is reality, as well. And it must be a great challenge to find a balance. Critics can’t half moan! If not much happens, it’s boring. If too much happens, it’s OTT. If everything’s too comfortable and cosy, it’s unrealistic and irrelevant. If there are too many hard-hitting storylines, it’s miserable and it’s not entertaining. But they generally get the balance right. The comedy’s always there. And I know that not everyone’s been comfortable with plots such as Aidan Connor’s suicide, David Platt’s rape, Bethany Platt’s grooming or even Sinead Osbourne’s death from cervical cancer, but they’ve brought about a huge response and helped a lot of people. Hayley Cropper genuinely helped to change attitudes towards transgender people. At a time when the Church of England is still going on about how relationships should be between heterosexual married couples, Coronation Street‘s got a gay vicar who lives with his boyfriend. Important points are being made – the most recent ones being the dangers posed by not having children vaccinated against measles, and the issues of coercive relationships.

It’s the characters more than the plots, though. We know them. We’ve known many of them for years. Coronation Street’s never been super-cool, like Neighbours and Home and Away were in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. And it’s never been glamorous. Back in the day, we all used to fancy Jeff Colby from Dynasty and Bobby Ewing from Dallas. No-one fancied Kevin Webster or Curly Watts, or even Terry Duckworth. Or, if they did, they never said so!  But that’s the point. It’s not the in-crowd. It’s your old mates, whom you’ve known since you were a kid, with whom you’ve laughed and cried, celebrated and commiserated, and with whom you’re comfortable.

It’s an institution.  Like all institutions, it has its bad patches as well as its good ones.  The Royal Family have their ups and downs.  And I remember when, in the late 1980s, some people were saying that the grass at Wimbledon should be replaced by hard courts – perish the thought.  But the bad times pass, and on we go.  I want to write a list of memorable moments, but there are just too many – happy, sad, funny.  And there’ll be many more to come.  Happy 10,000th episode, Coronation Street!  You’ve been part of my life all the way, and I hope you always will be.

The Peterloo Affair by Lucinda Elliot

Standard

This can be quite accurately described as a Regency romance, although it couldn’t be further removed from the images that that term conjures up. That made me think about how wide of the mark general perceptions of the Regency era are. Thanks to Georgette Heyer & co, the word “Regency” suggests dashing young men in breeches dancing with elegant young ladies in long frocks, at glamorous balls in spa towns or stately homes. However, the Regency was a time of war, unrest, riots, repression, lack of representation, assassination, unemployment, food shortages and high prices for what food there was.  Today, we mark the 200th anniversary of the killing of eighteen people, with hundreds more injured, as they attended a peaceful parliamentary reform meeting in our city. The response of one of the most authoritarian governments our country has ever known was to introduce even more measures aimed at repressing attempts to improve the rights of ordinary people.  It was a far cry from the world of the Bath Assembly Rooms.

This book traces the romance between two people, from a fictional village somewhere on the north east side of Manchester, who were both at St Peter’s Field that day. It’s not the greatest book ever – although it did amuse me by using words like “dandyprat” and “rumpskuttle”.  And it would have benefited from more careful editing: the piece de resistance was when the name of a character called Jimmy Thribble was mistyped as “Jimmy Riddle” (I am not making this up).  But it’s not bad, and it’s got the additional merit of having a woman as the main character: a disproportionate number of those injured at Peterloo were female. For 99p on Kindle, it’s worth a read.

We can’t know whether or not women were deliberately targeted, but we do know that the proportion of women injured, relative to the number of women attending, was considerably higher than that for men.  Women who became involved in political protest risked particular hostility from the authorities – don’t get me started on religious and political leaders who seemed to think that women speaking at Abolitionist meetings was more shocking than the institution of slavery itself – and also, as this book shows, from elements within their own communities.

The community in this book is that of an unspecified and presumably fictional village, seven miles out of town and, given the references to Middleton, Harpurhey and Oldham, presumably on the north east side of town. Our heroine is a young woman called Joan. Her social background’s a bit confused/confusing. The family are working-class, and, due to the socio-economic problems of the time, they struggle to afford food and clothing.  However, Joan and her friends seem to have, or at least have had, access to lots of romantic novels.  And we never actually see anyone doing any work: they seem to have a lot of free time.  And their parents seem very worried about what the neighbours will think about everything!

However, the author’s got it right in that they’re not factory workers.  Not that many people at Peterloo actually worked in mills: it was a Monday, and, whilst a lot of what would now be called self-employed people took “Saint Mondays” off, it was a working day for people in factories.  It’s estimated that over a third of those there were handloom weavers, and many of the others were artisans – shoemakers, tailors etc. .

The language is also a bit confused: the author’s tried to write some but not all of the dialogue in dialect, so we sometimes get “thee” and “thou”, and sometimes don’t; and she sometimes gets the dialect completely wrong – “fash” is a Scottish or Geordie term, not a Lancastrian one! Whilst I’m moaning, there are some irritating grammatical errors, such as the use of “her” rather than “she” and “who” rather than “whom; and the “Jimmy Riddle” thing is just ridiculous!  And the Six Acts were a response to Peterloo, not a cause of it!

OK, enough moaning.  It’s really not bad at all!  Joan and her pal Marcie – how many people in Lancashire in 1819 would have been called Marcie?! – are unimpressed with women’s lot in life, and have decided that they’re going to steer clear of men and become some sort of doctors, treating people with herbs. A term like “wise women” might have been better, but, OK, credit for emphasising the lack of choices for women at this time. Their intentions don’t last very long, when Joan gets involved with a handsome Irishman called Sean and Marcie gets involved with Joan’s brother. Sean actually does have traits of a typical Regency romance character, having a terrible reputation for loving girls and leaving them. One of his exes even went mad as a result: even Sense and Sensibility didn’t go that far 🙂 . However, the way it’s written isn’t too Mills and Boon-ish to be taken seriously, and we learn how Sean’s wild behaviour was triggered by what would now be recognised as PTSD after his experiences during the Napoleonic Wars. Joan dumps him at one point, but, after he’s badly injured at Peterloo, realises how much he means to her, and it all ends happily.

OK, OK, it’s not the greatest plot ever; but we do see the people of the community, led by Joan’s father and Sean, becoming involved in calls for reform, we see their struggles at a time when the Corn Laws are making the price of food very high, and, in particular, we see the insistence of Joan and Marcie and the other girls in the area that women should join the local contingent going to hear Orator Hunt speak at St Peter’s Field.  The part of the book is the section covering the day of the Peterloo Massacre itself is excellent: the events of the entire day are extremely well-described, and it’s worth reading for that alone.

It’s Joan’s story, rather than the story of Peterloo, but the reform movement and the social and economic conditions of the time are very much a part of it; and, as I’ve said, the sections covering the events of 16th August 1819 are very well done, even if some of the rest of the book isn’t.  For 99p, it’s worth a read.

Councillor Luthfur Rahman, executive member for skills, culture and leisure, Manchester City Council, said: “The Peterloo Massacre was a significant moment in Manchester’s history and in the campaign for democracy in the UK. It’s important we don’t forget and that we remember the sacrifices of all those who went before us in the name of democracy and peace.”

There are a lot of events taking place today and over the weekend to mark the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre.  I hope they get the nationwide coverage that they deserve.  There’s been considerable controversy over the importance and impact of Peterloo.  When there’s controversy over something, it’s usually a pretty sure sign that it’s something important.

 

More about the historical background – Peterloo.

Ann the Word by Richard Francis

Standard

Shakers are a lot more interesting than Transcendentalists.  They do not worry about cold showers or manure.  More importantly, there’s the local connection.  Whilst obviously I knew that Shakerism originated in Manchester and Bolton, even I wouldn’t have claimed that “American’s most important and successful utopian community” had been deeply influenced by a fight over potato prices on Shudehill.  I’m not sure that I’d have claimed that Ann Lee, the first leader of the Shakers, was the most influential working-class woman since Joan of Arc, either – although I can see the point.  This isn’t a particularly good book, and it says nothing about the influence that Shakers had on architecture, furniture and education, not to mention bonnets, but it makes some very valid points about how the authorities couldn’t handle the idea of a religious community being led by a woman.  And it goes into quite a lot of detail about the geography of 18th century Manchester – which will probably mean nothing to New Englanders, who are presumably the intended audience, but is very interesting if you’re me.

To be fair, it’s meant to be a biography of Ann Lee, not a book about Shakerism; and she died before the Shakers had established their reputation for being skilled farmers, craftspeople and educators.  It’s a shame that something wasn’t said about that, though, especially as the author was quite negative about Shakerism.  OK, it’s hardly most people’s thing, but each to their own!  There aren’t many sources about Ann, other than those written by people who lived and worked with her, so most of what the book says about her time in America is just an account of conversions of different people, and it reads like a novel, with a lot of dialogue and detailed accounts of who took whose arm and who got upset and so on.

The part about her early life in Manchester is much more interesting – probably because there were virtually no sources about it, so it’s mainly about Manchester!  There’s an account of the Forty-Five, and also an account of food price riots in 1757, notably the one on Shudehill – along with comments about how this was all linked to working-class assertiveness.  If you go back to the Civil War era, and look at the Levellers and the Diggers, there’s certainly a link between working-class assertiveness and radical Protestantism: I’d never really thought about it in connection with the Shakers, but it’s a fair point.

Ann was born in Toad Lane, which is now Todd Street – by the side of where Cathedral Gardens, Chetham’s and the National Football Museum are – and, of course, that was the heart of town in those days.  The Infirmary, where Ann worked as a cook, and the “house of correction”, where she was imprisoned for a while, were all in that area.  So was the grammar school, which the author annoyingly doesn’t mention!  The descriptions of town in the mid-18th century are the best part of the book!   Ann’s early life is interesting, too, especially how she suffered from what would now be recognised as depression and eating disorders, and spent some time in an asylum: it was after that that she really got into the religious stuff.

There are also references to Shakers in the Cheshire area – mainly in the Marton area just north of Congleton.  There’s a really nice café there: I sometimes stop at it on my way home from Little Moreton Hall and Biddulph Grange!  And a reference to groups of “prophets” meeting in Great Budworth.  There’s a nice ice cream place there.  Sorry, food on the brain!

The parts about her life and work in America are, as I’ve said, mostly about converting different people: there are a lot of names, which I doubt will mean anything even to someone who’s very au fait with Shakerism.  However, the accounts of how the Shakers were persecuted by the authorities are fascinating, and disturbing.  They were accused of being British spies, this being the period of the American Revolution, and, as they refused to swear an oath of allegiance because they said it was against their faith, many of them were imprisoned.  Suspicion about a woman leading a religious group meant that Ann was horrifically persecuted. OK, there’d have been hostility towards anyone seen as claiming to be some sort of Second Coming, but Ann was seriously sexually assaulted.  It wasn’t just the authorities: the Shakers were attacked by mobs as well.  Think about the treatment of the Yazidis by ISIS.  Was the treatment of the Shakers by other Christians so different?

It’s not the greatest of books, but I very much enjoyed reading what it said about 18th century Manchester, and it made some very good points about hostility towards the idea of women as religious leaders.  It also said a lot about attitudes towards religious minorities in both Britain and America – not just Catholics and Jews, but minority Protestant groups as well.  I think we tend to forget that it’s only very recently that that’s changed, and there are still some issues now.  Anyway, I think that’s enough reading about New England Utopian groups – on to something else now!