Great British Railway Journeys (series 12) – BBC 2

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

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

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

Great Continental Railway Journeys – BBC 2

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I was so excited to see a new series of this – I didn’t realise that one had been recorded pre-lockdown – in the TV schedules, and found it particularly interesting that much of the first episode was spent talking about the Spanish Civil War … largely with reference to Michael Portillo’s dad, who came to Britain as a Republican exile.  Scores of men from North West England fought in the International Brigades, and Spanish relief/aid committtees were set up all over the region; but no-one ever talks about it.  I remember once getting quite excited during a mid-1990s episode of Neighbours in which Karl Kennedy’s dad gave Billy and Toadie a lecture on the International Brigades!  It’s a subject that’s rarely discussed – except in connection with George Orwell, and we saw Michael visiting a Republican trench outside Huesca with Orwell’s son.

We also saw Michael visiting Salamanca, Avila and Madrid, all of which I’ve been fortunate enough to visit, and Zaragoza, which I haven’t … yet.  And a border railway station in the Pyrenees, used as an escape route by Jews and Allied soldiers fleeing Occupied France during the war.  No-one spells Zaragoza the old English way, “Saragossa”, since Real Zaragoza had that good run in the mid-1980s.  And no-one spells Marseille with an s on the end since they got to the European Cup Final in 1991.  This is an interesting linguistic phenomenon.  It should be investigated.

Anyway.  Michael, resplendent in a yellow jacket, purple shirt and vermilion trousers – I wonder if he dresses like that when he’s not filming – started off in Salamanca, with a Bradshaw’s guidebook (everyone knows that George Bradshaw was from Salford, yes?) from 1936.  We did hear a bit about the general history of Salamanca, but this was a very personal episode and the focus was on Michael’s late dad and his time as a professor at the university there: we even saw the index cards which Franco’s government had kept on Luis Portillo Perez.  Oh, and sliced ham.  Then lovely Avila, famed for its association with St Teresa.

And then on to Madrid.  We saw quite a lot of the architecture of Salamanca and Avila, but Madrid’s too big to cover in one segment of one programme, although we did see some of its highlights.  And, again, we heard about Portillo snr.  Michael stood in front of Picasso’s “Guernica” and talked about how his parents would never have met had it not been for the bombing of Guernica.  To be fair, he did talk about the devastation it caused, as well, not just its role in his own family history!  The lady at the Museum Reina Sofia said that “Guernica” was the most important painting of the twentieth century.  There’s certainly a good case for saying that.

Then it was on to Zaragoza, capital of Aragon … and we got a mention of Ferdinand and Isabella.  Things got a bit more light-hearted here, with the requisite making-an-idiot-of-himself segment, this one involving Michael trying to join in with the Aragonese Jota dance.  But then we returned to the subject of the Civil War, with the visit to the trench at Huesca.

Finally, after a journey through some lovely countryside, Michael ended up at the Franco-Spanish border station of Canfranc, opened in 1928, at which time it was the second largest station in Europe.  It’s not used much now.  That’s rather sad.  I do love those grand old railway stations!

And I love Spain.  We’ll get back there.  One day!   I’m not sure when this was filmed, but who would have guessed that, by the time it was filmed, going to Spain and indeed travelling by train at all would have largely vanished off the menu?   Let’s just hope that this doesn’t go on for too much longer.  In the meantime, especially with so many repeats on TV due to the disruption to filming caused by the pandemic, it is wonderful to have a new series of this lovely programme!   Thoroughly enjoyed this first episode, and looking forward to the episodes to come!

Great Asian Railway Journeys – BBC 2

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I appreciate that Thailand doesn’t like “The King and I”, but, without it, I wouldn’t have read up on King Mongkut and King Chulalongkorn, and then I wouldn’t have got so excited over hearing the many mentions of them throughout Michael Portillo’s journey across Thailand.  Michael clearly felt the same: we were even told about the involvement of Louis Leonowens in the Anglo-Thai teak trade.  He doesn’t half get to go to some exciting places for these railway programmes!  This new series has already taken us through Hong Kong and Thailand, and we’ve got Vietnam to come.

“It’s pointless trying to apply the values of the 21st century to the 19th.”  Hooray, someone on the BBC who talks common sense.   And, hey, someone on the BBC who gives a balanced view – that, in the 19th century, China thought it was superior to the West, and the West thought it was superior to China.  Six of one and half a dozen of the other.  Make that man director-general!

This was in relation to the Opium Wars, for the first episodes, which were in Hong Kong.  We went from the Opium Wars to the transformation of Hong Kong from a backwater to one of the busiest ports in the world, to the dark days of the wartime Japanese occupation, to the handover in 1997 (how on earth was that 23 years ago?), and right up to date with the current protest movement.  And we also went back in time, especially in the beautiful rural areas – you think of Hong Kong in terms of skyscrapers, and it was lovely to see how much more there is to it.  We saw a beautiful family temple in one of the villages.  And there were cups of tea.  That was good.  There should always be cups of tea.

It did get quite political … there was quite a bit of talk about Sun Yat-sen, the provisional first president of China, having spent time in Hong Kong, and that moved on to claims that the protesters’ ideas are similar to his.  The series is not including mainland China, but I don’t know whether that’s simply due to its size or whether there might have been issues filming there – or whether the BBC just wanted to show us Thailand and Vietnam, two countries which don’t feature on TV as often as China does.

Various strange things were included.  Hong Kong included bouncing up and down on a pole to make noodles, and Thailand included a snake farm.  Thailand also included elephants, which are much nicer than snakes.  An elephant hospital, in fact, because elephants are sadly sometimes injured by landmines laid in the Thai-Myanmar/Burma border area as part of the ongoing internal conflict in Myanmar/Burma.

Thailand looks so, so interesting.  OK, OK, a lot of that’s because I get excited every time the kings from “The King and I” are mentioned, but even so!   We heard about the religious traditions, the foods, and the arts and crafts.  We saw beautiful, lush countryside, and stunning Buddhist temples – as well as one temple, built in Chulalongkorn’s time, which looked bizarrely like a Northern European church.  We heard about the history of the Lan Na kingdom, now part of Thailand but previously an independent state in the north, and about Atyutthaya, which was the capital of Siam until it was destroyed by the Burmese in 1767, after which the old Siamese kingdom collapsed, and the new one, under the present Chakri dynasty, was established.

On a more sombre note, we also saw the Death Railway – the one featured in a very different film, “The Bridge on the River Kwai”.  Around 90,000 civilian forced labourers and 12,000 Allied prisoners of war died constructing it, and we saw Michael visiting a cemetery there, where many of the Allied dead are buried.

But then it was on the modern Thai capital, wonderful Bangkok, and the Royal Palace there.  Well, the outside of it, anyway!  Sadly, King Mongkut, Rama IV, didn’t really dance the polka with Anna Leonowens in there, or indeed anywhere else.  He was, however, interested in astronomy, and we saw his observatory at Phetchaburi.  We also saw some photos of him.  And some pictures of Yul Brynner.

Then on to the holiday resort of Hua Hin, where – this journey through Thailand was gloriously royal-dominated! – we got to see a royal summer palace, which Michael was escorted round by one of the present king’s nieces.

It wasn’t all about royalty.  We also saw some snakes.  Rather too close for comfort!  And Thai boxing – where the instructor said that worldwide interest in the martial arts of the Far East was influenced by the “Kung Fu” TV series and film (which I never watched, although I know that Justin from North and South was in it!) and “The Karate Kid”.

However, the main theme of the programme is railways, and it was King Chulalongkorn, Rama V, who brought the railways to Thailand … although King Mongkut allegedly got interested in them after receiving a model train set from Queen Victoria!  They came to Hong Kong slightly later, for one reason or another, but by 1911 you could travel all the way from Britain (well, apart from 35 miles or so by ferry to Calais!) to Hong Kong by train.  Get to Moscow, get on the Trans-Siberian (which I’ve always rather fancied) to Beijing, and then change at Beijing for Hong Kong.  What would have been better, that or the longer voyage by sea?  Still trying to decide that one, but I am very much looking forward to seeing the episodes still to come.  Bring on Vietnam.

This is great: it really is.  Unless it’s in connection with The King and I, how often does Thai history and culture get mentioned on British TV?  Unless it’s in connection with the Vietnam War, how often does Vietnamese history and culture get mentioned on British TV?  We don’t even hear much about Hong Kong these days, unless it’s the protests.  This series is so informative, and so entertaining.  Great stuff!

 

 

Great British Railway Journeys, the Battle of Cable Street – BBC 2

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I really want Michael Portillo’s job. As well as the current series of Great British Railway Journeys, we’ve got Great Asian Railway Journeys and another series of Great American Railroad Journeys coming up, and we’ve not long since had Great Australian Railway Journeys.   And, as well as seeing some fascinating places, he also gets to meet some fascinating people, like Beatty, 102-year-old East End matriarch and veteran of the Battle of Cable Street.

Like the Jarrow Crusade, which took place the same month, and the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass, four years earlier, the Battle of Cable Street showed how ordinary people, many of them living in extreme poverty, and labelled as troublemakers by the authorities, came together to stand up for themselves. In this case, especially with the use of the “No Pasaran” slogan famously used during the Siege of Madrid (I’ve recently acquired a book about British volunteers in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War, but haven’t had time to read it yet), it also showed how well aware people were of what was going on in Germany, Spain, Italy and elsewhere, and how determined they were to prevent it from happening here. What a wonderful lady – 102 years old, broad Cockney accent, so very eloquent. We need so much to listen to the stories of people like her whilst they’re still here to tell them.

The Jarrow Crusade’s already been covered during this series, and it’s an interesting take on the 1930s, talking about that and the Battle of Cable Street, and also about seaside resorts, the development of television, the growth of car production and the popularity of the cinema, as well as the horrific poverty caused by the Depression.  I’m in the middle of reading a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and every single thing it says about the 1930s is doom and gloom.  Awareness of the Battle of Cable Street was raised about a year ago by, of all things, an episode of EastEnders, in which Dr Legg talked about how he met his future wife there. Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists planned to march through the East End. Locals protested to the Home Office, to no avail, and the marchers were given a police escort. Demonstrators built barricades to block their way, all sorts of things from stones to rotten vegetables to the contents of chamber pots were thrown, and the marchers were forced to turn back.

The police then clashed with the demonstrators, and around 150 people were arrested … but it’s the demonstrators who are remembered as heroes. Let all those who claim that the working-classes don’t understand anything about politics watch this, and learn … and, hey, also learn that there was a time when left-wing groups, which were heavily involved in organising the resistance to the march, actually opposed anti-Semitism.  And how wonderful was Beatty, talking about her experiences that day – how horrified she was actually to see Oswald Mosley in the flesh, how many people turned out to resist the march, how determined she was to play her part.

Many different sections of the community came together to organise the resistance to the march. People can do a lot when they pull together – whereas, now, too many people seem interested only in hurling abuse at others, making nasty generalisations about anyone who doesn’t agree with them, or turning everything into party politics and point-scoring.

We could really do with getting back to the more community-minded culture of the 1930s.

Michael said that it’d been a privilege to meet Beatty.  It was also a privilege for viewers to hear what she had to say.  I love these programmes so much!   You wouldn’t think that watching an ex-politician going around on trains could be so interesting, but it really, really is!

 

Great British Railway Journeys (series 11!!) – BBC 2

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The North has spoken: hear the voice of the North! We’re in the 1930s in this latest series of Michael Portillo’s wonderful railway programme, which I am always so pleased to see in the TV schedules, and we’re in the beautiful North East. We got, packed into the space of half an hour, Newcastle’s bridges, Durham cathedral, greyhound racing, fish and chips and artwork – but the most important part was the first stop, the visit to Jarrow, best-known (with all due respect to the Venerable Bede) for the Jarrow Crusade of 1936. There were a number of hunger marches during the inter-war years, but the Jarrow Crusade – led by a woman from Manchester (had to get that bit in!) – is the one that’s really gone down in history. Strangely, this is the first time that I’ve actually seen one of the famous Jarrow Crusade banners in the flesh, so to speak. Like the banners carried at Peterloo, and on the suffragette marches, it was hand-made, and a lot of work went into it. There’s something fascinating about those banners. The ones carried during the Jarrow Crusade are such iconic images of the Depression.

The banners were in neutral colours, because none of this was partisan.  No-one was trying to score political points, to oppose anyone else.  Everyone was trying to work together.  I wish we saw more of that now.  People seem to want to politicise everything now, even something like the Australian wildfire crisis.  We so badly need to get back to working together.

The Jarrow Crusaders were refused support by the London-based leadership of all the main political parties, and by the trade unions.  There’d been some trouble at some previous hunger marches, and there were concerns about infiltration by communist agitators about whom everyone was paranoid about the time … and the authorities were more concerned about that than about the plight of Jarrow, where, following the closure of the shipyard which had been the town’s main employer, unemployment stood at 80% and child mortality at 11%.  There’d been hopes that a steelworks could be opened in the area, but it hadn’t happened – not least because British iron and steel bosses objected to the American investment that was on offer.  The BBC mentioned that the Bishop of Jarrow blessed the crusade, but didn’t mention that the Bishop of Durham denounced it.

However, there was heartwarming support at most of the places where the marchers stopped along the way.  They were given accommodation, food and clothing, and cobblers worked through the night to repair their shoes.  That included local branches of all the political parties, despite what the leadership said, as well as other local organisations.   People can be wonderful.  Sadly, the Crusade didn’t really bring about any action at the time, and it was, as the local historian whom Michael spoke to said, the war which rescued Jarrow’s economy; but it did do a lot to raise awareness of the issues faced by communities left behind by deindustrialisation.  Unfortunately, 84 years later, we’re still not dealing with these issues, and the dismissive attitude of many in the London bubble towards areas affected has got worse rather than better.  Long live the spirit of the Jarrow Crusaders, and well done to BBC 2 for highlighting it in this opening episode.

What else?  Greyhound racing in Byker.  No reference to Byker Grove!  A lot of talk about fish and chips – a very important subject!  Artwork in Spennymoor – and I’m going to show my age and say that, whilst I associate Byker with Byker Grove, I associate Spennymoor with George Courtney 🙂 .  And we saw Michael staying at a lovely railway hotel.  So many of the best hotels in the country started off as railway hotels.

There are a lot of railway programmes around at the moment.  Michael Buerk’s been talking about Victorian railways.  Chris Tarrant’s been talking about the importance of railways during the First World War.  There’s something fascinating and romantic about railways.  Well, past railways, anyway!  I’m so glad to see this back for yet another series, and this was a great start to it.

Great Australian Railway Journeys – BBC 2

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I really want Michael Portillo’s job. He gets paid for reading historical books and going on exciting railway journeys all over the world! And he seems to have become rather a cult figure: there were people in Australia holding a Michael Portillo lookalike competition. Seriously.

Whereas most British TV programmes about Australia focus on Sydney and Melbourne, this showed us the “Ghan” railway journey from Adelaide to Alice Springs to Darwin, featuring cute baby kangaroos, camels, and some thought-provoking discussions about the effect that the building of telegraph wires had on 19th century Australia. The most interesting bit, though, was about Aboriginal storytelling. As with the griots mentioned in the foreword to Alex Haley’s “Roots”, the idea of a trained human memory and just how much information people can recall and recount, and pass down the generations, is absolutely fascinating. The days of the epics and the bards are long gone here: we write everything down, or put it in our mobile phones. But the Aboriginal storytelling culture lives on. No other culture in the world can match that.

The paintings were brilliant too, but it was the storytelling that particularly interested me. We heard a lot about Aboriginal traditions and lifestyles in this first episode, and we also heard “Stolen Generation” stories about the horrific removal of mixed-race children from their families, and the effect that that’s still having now. Michael Portillo’s programmes are about a lot more than railways. But, in terms of the history of the railways, we were told about the competition between Queensland and South Australia to build railways across the Northern Territory, and also about how important the coming of telegraph wires to Australia was: before then, it was taking three to four months to get information between Australia and Britain, when information could be passed between Britain and the US in a few hours, at a time when most white Australians had family and friends in Britain, as well as the political ties.

Wildlife featured as well. Kangaroos! Camels. Apparently there are 200,000 feral camels in Australia. They were introduced there as beasts of burden … and went forth and multiplied.  Less excitingly but more importantly, cattle. And there was so much room, so much space … miles and miles of space.

Then, at the end, Michael attended an Anzac Day commemoration in Darwin.  As I said, this is about much more than railways.

All in all, a very watchable hour’s TV. But, however interesting the subject matter, it’s the presenter who makes or breaks programmes like these, and Michael definitely makes them. He’s an important reminder, amid all the abuse and nastiness that we’re doubtless going to have to put up with on our television screens and on our social media over the next six weeks, that politicians, whether or not we agree with their views, are just human beings like the rest of us. And he comes across as being a very nice one.  These railway programmes have been going since 2010, and may there be many more of them!

Heaton Park on Great British Railway Journeys – BBC 2

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All right, it was only for a few minutes, but I was very excited about it!  Several generations of my family have spent numerous hours of their lives in Heaton Park.  My primary school was (and indeed still is) next door to the park.  We used to have Sports Days there.  In the second year infants, we had a “nature table” on which we proudly displayed leaves, twigs, pine cones and assorted other things which we’d carefully collected during walks there. When we were in the juniors, we went there to do “educational” things like drawing pictures of Heaton Hall, although we were far more interested in rolling down hills and throwing bits of grass at each other.  At weekends, my sister and I would sit on “the lions”.  Everyone who grew up round here remembers sitting on “the lions”!  When we were older, we took our little cousin there.  I still go there a lot: I live within walking distance.  It’s rare for me to be there for more than a few minutes without seeing someone I know.  I watch all Michael Portillo’s railway programmes, and this one felt like the series was coming right to my doorstep.

In last night’s episode, Michael arrived in our great and wonderful city at Victoria station, and then visited the Manchester Art Gallery – not so much to look at the art as to discuss the 1913 attack on the gallery by three suffragettes.  Yes, all right, all right, damaging artwork is not ideal, even though the idea was only to damage to glass casings, but campaigners for women’s suffrage had tried to make their point by peaceful means, and got nowhere.  This particular attack took place on the day after Emmeline Pankhurst had been given a three year prison sentence.

Oh, and you could see my favourite cafe, The Vienna Coffee House, in the background, as Michael was going into the art gallery.  Sadly, he didn’t pop in for a drink and one of their highly recommended cakes, salads or sandwiches afterwards, but I’m just giving it a mention even so 🙂 .  I’ve been going there ever since it first opened.  It’s extremely nice.

Michael also visited the site of St Peter’s Fields, where, of course, the Peterloo Massacre took place on August 16th, 1819.  The Free Trade Hall was built on the site in 1850s, and, in 1905, was the scene of the famous incident in which Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney heckled Sir Edward Grey, and were later, after refusing to pay a fine, carted off to Strangeways.  That was really the start of the militant phase of the suffragette campaign.  Michael talked about all of this, and also visited the Pankhurst family’s former home, now a museum and a women’s community centre.

With last year’s centenary of (some) women finally being given the vote, and this year’s forthcoming bicentennial of the Peterloo Massacre, there’s a lot of focus at the moment on Manchester’s history as a city – in fact, I’m going to say the city – which took the lead in the fight for democracy in the UK.  I am so, so proud of all this, and very pleased to see this part of our city’s history being covered in this lovely series.

I’d assumed that he was visiting Heaton Park – to which he travelled from town on the Metrolink – to see the Heritage Tramway, and that we’d be hearing all about how, back in the 1870s, the new Manchester to Bury line had to be diverted through an expensive tunnel because the Earl of Wilton, who owned the park and the hall before selling them to the council in 1902, refused to let it go through his land.  However, instead of focusing on selfish aristocrats, the visit to Heaton Park was all tied in with Manchester’s history as the city which promotes the rights and needs of the ordinary people.  Hooray!  (Although it was rather a shame that the tramway didn’t get to appear on TV.)

There’s a well-known local garage called Grimshaws.  Well, it’s now officially called Pentagon, but everyone still calls it Grimshaws.  I used to take my car there for MOTs, when I was in my old job.  Anyway, the garage developed from a bicycle shop owned by one William Grimshaw, who, when he wasn’t selling bikes, also sold gramophones, and was known as the “Gramophone King”.  In 1909, he heard the famous tenor Enrico Caruso sing at the Free Trade Hall. We used to have our secondary school Speech Days at the Free Trade Hall. They were horrendously boring, but being in the Free Trade Hall was always exciting.  I’m still annoyed that the council sold the Free Trade Hall off to be converted into a hotel.

Anyway, to get back to the point, the enterprising Mr Grimshaw recorded the concert (you’d never get away with doing that these days!), and then played the recording on a gramophone at Heaton Park a few days later.  This was the first time a gramophone concert had been held in the open air in this country.  40,000 people turned up!  And – despite our “lovely” climate – the idea soon caught on.  More concerts at Heaton Park, and William Grimshaw was also asked to hold gramophone concerts at other parks, first locally and then nationally.  There was no way that most people would have been able to go to concert halls regularly, and there wouldn’t have been that many tickets available anyway; but this brought music to the masses, and out in the fresh air which Edwardians were so obsessed with.  And it all started here.  Brilliant!

It was very exciting indeed – well, it was for me! – to see Michael sat on a bench on the path where you go up from the lake towards the hall and the farm centre.  And the aerial shots were amazing.  I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen aerial shots of Heaton Park before.  They looked so good!  And then he went out in the lake in one of the lovely rowing boats which are available to hire.  The far side of the lake, the wooded area, is just land, and behind it’s a car park, but, when I was a kid, I liked to pretend it was one of those islands that people got stranded on in Enid Blyton books, and that I was going to go there and have a big adventure.

I’d like to say that I used to play tennis there as well, but, being a fat and unfit kid, I was always better with imagining and daydreaming than exercise.  Oh well.  However, we heard all about the importance of the park in the changing role of women, as the Victorian era gave way to the Edwardian era, and how women would go to the park to cycle and to play tennis.  And, even better, to attend suffragette rallies held by the Pankhursts!  I’ve mentioned about fifty million times that I went to the same secondary school as Christabel, Sylvia and Adela Pankhurst, haven’t I?  We heard that crowds of up to 200,000 people (I’m sure I’ve heard 50,000, but I’ll definitely go with the figure of 200,000 given in the programme!) attended the great Heaton Park suffragette rally of 1908.  It didn’t mention the fact that suffragette activists burnt down the Heaton Park bowling pavilion … but they did.

I’m not going to say anything about burning down a bowling pavilion 😉 , but, had I been around in 1908, I’d like to think that I’d have been at that rally.  Had I been around in 1909, maybe I’d have been at the gramophone concert.  I did go to an Oasis concert at Heaton Park a century later, in 2009!   I have spent so much time in that park over the years!  Very, very exciting to see it featured in this lovely series.

Great Canadian Railway Journeys – BBC 2

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Next Monday’s episode is about one of my favourite cities in the whole wide world, Vancouver 🙂 , and  Thursday’s episode is going to finish in another place that I’m very fond of, Quebec City; but last night’s episode was about Prince Edward Island and I’m not passing up an excuse to write about Anne of Green Gables.  It also discussed people who’d sailed from Wester Ross to Nova Scotia – let’s just get The Proclaimers in there 🙂 .  I think Thursday’s episode’s also going to cover the Acadian Expulsions, but that will probably involve Evangeline and I’m not writing about that for anybody.  It’s like Uncle Tom’s Cabin: you feel under some sort of moral obligation to think it’s wonderful, whereas it actually just makes you want to throw up.  The Green Gables books, on the other hand, genuinely are wonderful, and it was lovely to hear people saying that they felt that Anne, Gilbert & co were the soul of Prince Edward Island.

We started in Pictou, Nova Scotia, where Michael Portillo was shown round the Hector, a ship which carried some of the earliest emigrants from the Scottish Highlands to Canada, in 1773.  OK, the programme didn’t actually say that they sailed from Wester Ross, but they probably did!  It did say that around 15% of Canadians have Scottish ancestry, and we saw a lot of tartan signs, and people playing the bagpipes and dancing Scottish reels.

It was, however, rather frustrating to hear the local guide claiming that the emigrants in 1773 were leaving Scotland because “English landlords” had taken over the Highlands after Culloden. What a load of rubbish.  The suppression of Highland culture after Culloden was appalling, but the Clearances, which forced a lot of people off their land, were the work of Scottish landlords trying to make their estates more profitable.  Scottish author Reay Tannahill covers this very well in one of my all-time favourite historical novels, A Dark and Distant Shore, although that covers the second wave of clearances, in the 1820s.  All right, I appreciate that it wasn’t meant as a political comment, but there’s a lot of tension in the world at the moment, and it doesn’t really help when people go around blithely claiming that the English were to blame for this or the Germans were to blame for that or the Russians were to blame for the other, when it isn’t even true!

Rant over!   It was more interesting to hear about the appalling conditions on board the ship – something covered in a lot of detail in Vilhelm Moberg’s The Emigrants, which is about Swedish emigrants to the American mid-West in the early 19th century, but says much the same as the guide in Pictou was saying about the Hector.  We also heard about how people wanting to leave the Highlands were tricked by the organisers of “emigration schemes”, who promised them land and supplies – which, of course, never materialised.  I’d hesitate to use the term “people traffickers”, because it’s not as if people were being forced into slavery/sex work, but there were certainly a lot of unscrupulous people around.   And, as Michael said, you have to admire the tough folk who made that journey and then made new lives for themselves in a strange place and under difficult conditions.

We then heard a lot about lobsters. OK, whatever!  And then on to Prince Edward Island.  Not too much about actual railway journeys in this episode: we saw Michael riding a bike along a disused railway line!   He was heading for Cavendish, where “the” Green Gables house is.  It was owned by L M Montgomery’s grandparents’ cousins, apparently.  She (LMM) was brought up by her grandparents after her mother’s death: her father was a real-life example of one of those widowers you find so often in books, who leave their motherless children with relatives.   I’m so jealous that Michael got to see the house!   I did consider a Maritime Provinces trip for this year, and seeing the Green Gables house was the main attraction.  I went for something else in the end, but I’ll do it one of these days, hopefully!

I love the fact that Michael did talk about Anne of Green Gables, just as he talked about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books in an earlier series, and I think I remember him talking about Louisa M Alcott as well.  People can be quite snotty about books that were aimed mainly at young girls, but he’s shown them the respect they deserved.  I do love Anne, and the way she makes everything so romantic and such a drama!  I love her romance with Gilbert.  I love her attempts at writing a book.  I love the fact that she goes off to college and that she becomes a teacher.  I have never dared try to dye my hair at home, because of that scene where Anne accidentally dyes her hair green!   And so I loved the fact that the people Michael spoke to did genuinely seem to feel that the books were an essential part of the island’s culture – not just as a way of attracting visitors and peddling tourist tat, but … well, the word “soul” was actually used.  OK, he was talking to people who worked at the Green Gables house, or who were taking part in the Anne of Green Gables musical which has been running for three months a year for fifty-four years, but even so.

We also got to hear about harness racing, particularly associated with Irish settlers, and about red loam soil And then he finished up by saying that Prince Edward Island’s main interest for historians is that it was the scene of the Charlottetown Conference of 1864, which was what really set the ball rolling with Canadian confederation … although, when the Dominion of Canada was formed, in 1867, Prince Edward Island didn’t actually join in, remaining a separate entity until 1873.  Saying that Confederation was about railways was pushing it a bit 🙂 .  OK, railways were an issue, but the ramifications of the American Civil War, general economic issues and the fact that the existing system wasn’t really working did have a bit to do with it as well!

Charlottetown is, therefore, very important in Canadian history. And Confederation is very interesting.  I once delivered a bit of a lecture in it whilst I was sat in canoe on a river (or was it a lake?) in British Columbia.  Seriously, I did!  The canoe supervisor guy for some reason started firing questions about Canadian history at us, and the rest of the group, being more into outdoor sports than history, just didn’t answer … er, so I gave a mini-lecture about Confederation.  I am so weird, I know.  But saying that the Charlottetown Conference is more interesting to historians than Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe and co?   Hmm … I’ll have to have a good long think about that one!