Who Do You Think You Are (Ralf Little) – BBC 1

Standard

  A bit of self-indulgence here!   I was delighted to find that much of this episode revolved around Manchester city centre, the Manchester suburb of Prestwich (where I live) and Chirk, a place I love to visit.   I just couldn’t believe that they never mentioned that Ralf’s  footballer great-grandfather had played in the same Chirk and Wales teams as the great Billy Meredith, whose name was clearly visible on the documents shown.   Ralf’s mentioned it in media interviews, but maybe the BBC producers didn’t realise just what a big name Billy Meredith is to Manchester football fans!

Anyway, how exciting that Ralf’s grandparents lived in Prestwich, and got married at the church next door to my old primary school.   Apart from the odd name check in Coronation Street,  individual suburbs don’t generally get mentioned on TV!   They met whilst working at Prestwich Hospital.  Back in the day, Prestwich was best-known for being home to a large psychiatric hospital, and to some extent still is.  When I was a kid, before there was the respect for mental illness that there hopefully is now, you could usually guarantee that someone would yell “Oi [name of kid they wished to annoy], you’ve missed your stop,” as the school bus passed the hospital building.   Ralf’s grandad was local, but it was interesting to hear that his grandma had moved here from Chirk because the hospital had such a big workforce then that it attracted people from outside the area.

We then heard about his grandad’s war service, first as a medic in Orkney, and then as an engineer on board an aircraft carrier in the Far East, and how he took part in the Battle of Okinawa, on board the first British ship to be attacked by kamikaze pilots.   The celebs this series do seem generally more knowledgeable and less hysterical than those in previous series: Ralf was impressed but not overly emotional, and clearly knew about kamikaze pilots rather than having to be given an explanation.

Hearing about his Welsh great-grandfather’s local and international football career was fascinating for football fans, but what a disappointment – well, Ralf said that it was, and I’d have felt exactly the same in his shoes – that he gave it up during the short-lived religious revival!   We heard about how people had burnt footballs, tickets and football shirts, as the revival held that sport was some sort of danger to the soul.  Good job that Billy Meredith never got involved in all that!  We all know that Oliver Cromwell wasn’t keen on football, but the 1904-05 religious revival doesn’t get a lot of coverage.  Hmm, Wikipedia informs me that it was once featured in the BBC series “Bread of heaven”.  Yep, that’ll have been named after the hymn to which we used to sing “We’ll support you ever more” in school assembly, whilst the headmistress sang “Feed us till we want no more”.   No danger of anyone I know giving up football for the sake of religion!

He then looked into his dad’s family, who, apart from being related by marriage to Nottinghamshire gentry, had been amongst the great 19th century Manchester families who were involved in planning and sanitation … might not sound very glamorous, but it was a big thing as the city grew so rapidly.   And it was good to see how pleased Ralf was to find out that his family had played a part in the development of our beloved city.

I really enjoyed this episode.   I’ve enjoyed all of them, but anything local particularly resonates with me, as it clearly did with Ralf too.

Lost Treasures of Rome – Channel 4

Standard

 

Back in the day, when we “did” Pompeii at school via the Cambridge Latin Course, we had to draw pencil-and-ruler diagrams showing the layout of the Stabian baths.  Kids today, however, have got programmes like this, which use computer generated images of Romans wandering round the bathing complex (er, suitably covered to preserve their modesty 😄) and using strigils.  How much cooler is that than a boring old diagram?!  Also, the Cambridge Latin Course made it sound as if the baths were mainly for men, whereas this programme told us that there were hot tubs (well, hot baths) where groups of women would sit and gossip.

Don’t get me wrong: I have fond memories of the Cambridge Latin Course.  But my 11-year-old self would have loved all the CGI Romans wandering across the screen during this programme 😄.  And I’m sure that the Roman Life sections of the textbooks never mentioned the ladies’ spa.

There was an awful lot of digital reconstruction in this programme, of everything from funerals to slave markets to animal sacrifices.  There was even CGI food.  But there was a lot of proper archaeology as well, with cavers being brought in to assist … and we learned that, when they weren’t in the hot tubs or using the strigils, Pompeiians spent a lot of time eating street food, going to sporting or musical events and drinking locally-produced wine.  It sounds like some sort of paradise 😄!

Amazingly, around a third of Pompeii still hasn’t been uncovered, even after all these years of work – and there’s so much there that archaeologists are able to try to piece together individual life stories, such as that of a slave who obtained his freedom and became a wealthy man.   The technology used by the Pompeiians themselves was impressive, too, especially when it came to heating the baths.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen an archaeological programme use so much CGI before!   It seemed a bit odd seeing all these cartoon-ish type characters trotting around in the middle of a serious documentary, but it was certainly entertaining, and I hope that this series makes its way into schools because I think it’ll really bring things to life for pupils studying either Latin, ancient history or classical civilisation, especially younger kids.   CGI Romans – whatever next?!

Back in Time for Birmingham – BBC 2

Standard

I love the role of food in social integration.  As immigrant groups do integrate in society, the language tends to fade away, the clothes tend to fade away to some extent, and even religion tends to fade away, but the food comes down through the generations, and goes out there into wider society.   Ignoring the millennial rubbish about “cultural appropriation”, I love the fact that I can go into a local cafe and find dishes on the menu which have been brought here from all over the world.  Or, in the case of the Birmingham Balti, been invented in the UK but based on food brought here from elsewhere!

OK, enough about food.  It’s great to have another “Back in time” series.  Although how come Birmingham gets its own “back in time” series, and other cities don’t?!   Having said which, this wasn’t so much about the history of Birmingham as about the history of British South Asians.   That’s quite problematic because, obviously, there’ve been vast differences in the history of British South Asians – for example, the high proportion of British doctors who have South Asian heritage may not have very much in common with British Asians living in multi-generational, working-class households in Birmingham, Bradford, Blackburn, Bolton etc.

I thought that what BBC 2 did here was very positive  – a portrayal of an upwardly mobile family, the first generation living in poverty, working long shifts in factories and not really mixing with anyone outside their own community, the second generation setting up their own businesses and having more contact with other communities, the third generation going to university and entering professions, and the fourth generation feeling much more free to do whatever they wanted, and finding a successful balance between their British identity and their Asian identity.   That obviously hasn’t been every British Asian family’s experience, but it’s been that of many, including the real history of the very likeable Sharma family who took part in this series.   It’s also been the story of other immigrant groups in British history – again, not that of every family, but of many.

I’m pleased to say that, unlike the infamous “Back in Time for School” series, this wasn’t overly political.  Oh, there were some anti-British comments, but would one expect anything else from the BBC?   It was, for the most part, positive.  Quite a bit of general nostalgia in there, and general generation gap stuff, but it was generally the story of post-war South Asian immigration to the UK.  And, yes, it was very Birmingham, but you can find similar stories in many other places.

In the first episode, we heard about how most of the early immigrants were men intending to make some money and then return to their original homes, like, say, Italian immigrants to the USA in the late 19th centuries.   But many, even most, of them chose to settle in Birmingham, and brought their families over to join them.  We saw the men living in lodging houses, with shared kitchens, and even beds being shared between people on day shifts and night shifts.  And, in those days, there was pretty much full employment, and manufacturing jobs were readily available, with women often doing sewing at home.  It’s an experience common to earlier immigrant groups too.  And, as time went on, many young men started up their own businesses, often with market stalls – the Asian-run market stall is still a very common sight here in the North West, as well as in Birmingham.  But the culture of the Indian sub-continent wasn’t forgotten, and we saw the growth of the British Asian cinemas, and TV programmes, and marriages still tending to be arranged.  And having a Hindu blessing on a new home.  My next door neighbours are Sikhs, and they had a Sikh blessing on the house shortly after they moved in.   Nice idea.

In the second episode, we moved on to the 1970s, with immigration from Bangladesh, during and after the 1971 war, and from East Asia.  We learnt that one of the grandfathers had come from Uganda –  and BBC 2 did manage to acknowledge that South Asians had prospered under British rile in Asia, before reverting to BBC 2 type and trying to blame Britain for everything Idi Amin did.   We also heard the familiar story of how most “Indian” restaurants in the UK were actually opened by people originally from Bangladesh.

And we saw the family opening their own business – a corner shop.   People used to refer to corner shops as “Asian shops”, because they usually were owned and run by British Asians.  They still are, certainly round here.  When the Desai/Alahan family took over the corner shop in Coronation Street, which had previously run by Alf Roberts, some people complained that it was perpetuating a stereotype – but it was an accurate stereotype, and people have presumably accepted that, because no-one moaned when the Panesars took over the Minute Mart in EastEnders.   Before the days of 24 hour supermarkets, in particular, the “Asian shops” were just invaluable, because they were usually open long after other shops had shut.   We also head about how Bhangra music had originated in Birmingham, which I have to confess that I didn’t know.

The daughter, however, went out to work in a factory, and we heard about the Imperial Typewriter Strike, in which Asian women walked out after learning that they were being paid less than their white counterparts.  Their white female colleagues supported them: the unions did not.  Interestingly, she said that she hoped that this would dispel the stereotype of Asians being meek.  Now, I would have said that there was a stereotype of Asian women being quite bossy, so I was surprised by that.   Obviously, neither of these stereotypes are true of groups, only of individuals, but I was quite surprised by the “meek” comment.  We also heard about the rise of the National Front, following the oil price crisis of the mid-1970s, and again during the difficult economic times of the 1980s.   There’s always a risk that rising fuel prices and inflation will lead to social unrest, and I sincerely hope that we’re not going to see that again, either here or anywhere else affected by Putin pushing up the cost of living.

On a more positive note, cricket was mentioned!  My elder nephew’s in a cricket team, and a high proportion of the other lads are British Asian: cricket does seem to be so important in British Asian culture, and let’s hope that the recent unpleasantness at Yorkshire CCC won’t affect that.  And we heard the children talking about  finding a balance between British culture and their Asian heritage: finding a balance is always going to be an issue in an ethnic minority community, and hopefully that’s working well for them.

The 1980s and 1990s saw more integration, with cultural movements both ways – British food into South Asian households, and South Asian culture into British TV programmes and music, with specific reference to Goodness Gracious Me, EastEnders and Madhur Jaffrey.  We also heard about British-born children being sent to Asian language classes, the daytime club movement in Birmingham, and the importance of corner shops in making Bollywood videos, internet calls to the Indian sub-continent and online dating available to British Asian communities.   And it was the history of Birmingham too, with deindustrialisation and the rise of the service sector.

And we heard about second and third generation children going to university, and the pressure that they felt to choose courses associated with professions and bragging rights.  Oh yes.  People from many minority communities will have been nodding their heads there!   But the Sharma children, whom I think are in their early 20s, said that they now felt freer to do as they chose, and it was lovely to hear them both say at the end that, whilst they’ve struggled to balance being both British and Asian, making this series has helped them to do that.  There was a lot of talk about fusion.  And a lot of that was about food, which was where I started!   Excellent series: I really enjoyed it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Billie Jean King: Amol Rajan Interviews – BBC 2

Standard

 

This was an absolutely fascinating interview about a wide range of hot topics – equal pay in tennis, equal rights for women generally and LGBTQ rights, probably the subjects most closely associated with Billie Jean King, but also a number of other subjects including abortion rights – this was filmed before yesterday’s unfortunate decision to overturn Roe vs Wade – and mental health.  It was very interesting to hear her say that tennis, far from being a goldfish bowl, felt like a sanctuary in which she could escape her personal problems.  And it was particularly interesting to hear her talk about her struggles with binge-eating disorder, something with which I’ve long struggled myself.

She could well have used this interview to try to plug her recently-published book, but she didn’t: she let Amol lead the interview and she answered what he asked.  She did say that she thinks she’d have won a lot more titles had she not been so active off court.  I’m not sure that a British person would have said that, even if they thought it 🙂 , but she’s probably right.  (And Marcus Rashford has been bang off-form since he got involved with the school dinners’ campaign – I hope he gets back on track on the pitch.)

The issue of equal pay in tennis and of the treatment of women’s matches vis-a-vis men’s matches came up very early on.  This was a big subject at the French Open, because of the dreadful scheduling of the night matches – several five set matches didn’t start until gone 8:45pm local time, but there was a reluctance to schedule women’s matches for the night session in case a match was something like 6-1 6-2 and people complained that they’d had no value for their night session ticket.  Billie Jean’s answer was to make men’s matches best of three at Grand Slams.  I have to disagree there: the best-of-five matches are thrilling.  Just not in the wee small hours of the morning.

The establishment of the WTA and the Battle of the Sexes are interesting topics, but have been discussed at length before.   However, I hadn’t known that Billie Jean testified to Congress regarding the need for federal legislation about equal rights for women in education, the Title IX Act passed 50 years ago, and that Harvard Medical School only allotted 5% of places to women prior to that.

Regarding whether or not trans women should be allowed to play in women’s sporting events, which is a very controversial subject at the moment, she said that she didn’t want to see anyone excluded from tennis or other sports, but that she also didn’t want to see anyone put at an unfair advantage or disadvantage.  Her opinion was that more answers are needed from the scientific community about whether or not trans women who’ve gone through male puberty have an unfair advantage over cisgender women, and that, if so, maybe there should be a separate category of competition for transgender athletes.

Another controversial subject is the banning of Russian and Belarusian athletes from Wimbledon.  She opposed it.  I can see both sides.  I don’t think it’ll achieve anything, TBH.  Did banning South African athletes all those years achieve anything?  But I can also see what a huge propaganda opportunity it’d be for Putin to have a photo of, say, the Duchess of Cambridge presenting the men’s singles’ trophy to Daniil Medvedev or Andrey Rublev.  I don’t know what the answer is.  I just wish that the LTA, ATP and WTA had been able to reach agreement on the subject.

For such a public person, it’s quite strange that she didn’t reveal that she and her long-term partner Ilana Kloss had married in 2018 until the book came out (no pun intended) in 2021.  Maybe that stems back to when she was publicly outed by her former lover Marilyn Barnett, which must have been extremely hurtful.  She also talked about losing all her endorsements as a result.  Thankfully, times have changed since then, and she’s been one of the people who’s helped to change them.

All in all, this was a fascinating hour’s TV – a great interviewer and a great interviewee.

 

Who Do You Think You Are (Matt Lucas) – BBC 1

Standard

 

  This was a fascinating episode.  How incredible for Matt Lucas to find out that his grandmother’s first cousin had been Anne Frank’s family’s lodger, and was actually mentioned in her diary.   Anne had remarked that this man was rather irritating and hung around even when the family had dropped heavy hints that they wanted some privacy.   That’s very Anne!   I once read an article which said that lessons about the Holocaust should focus on accounts of the horrors of the concentration camps, rather than a teenage girl’s witterings about how annoying adults were and whether or not she fancied Peter van Daan; but, as I said in an online discussion at the time, the point of reading Anne’s diary is to be reminded that she was just an ordinary girl, not some kind of “other”.  An ordinary girl who had the misfortune to be born into a group of people whom another, evil, group of people classified as “other”, but who was just like any other ordinary girl from any other sort of background.

Tragically, Matt learnt that his grandmother’s two aunts and most of her cousins had been murdered in the concentration camps.   She’d been able to escape to Britain from Berlin, where her family lived before most of them moved to Amsterdam in the sadly mistaken belief that the Netherlands would be a safe place, and it was poignant to see Ukrainian flags flying over many of the public buildings in Berlin during his visit there.   We know that Vladimir Putin’s family suffered terribly during the Siege of Leningrad, and yet he’s putting millions of Ukrainians through the same sort of hell.

This really was very moving.  There’ve been other episodes in which celebs have found out that members of their family died during the Holocaust, and they’ve all been moving; but for Matt to find out that he had a family connection to Anne Frank, whose story, as he said, is the one Holocaust story that everyone knows, was really something.

 

Lucy Worsley Investigates: Princes in the Tower – BBC 2

Standard

This subject’s been done to death (pun intended), but I’m so glad that Lucy concluded that it was Richard III whodunnit.  Unless some major new piece of evidence comes to light, no-one will be convincing me otherwise.  If they didn’t die during Richard’s reign, then how come they disappeared in the summer of 1483?   Richard knew that there were rumours he’d had them killed.  If they’d still been alive, he’d have let people see them.  And how could anyone else possibly have killed them, and got away with it, whilst they were being held in the Tower of London?   Sorry, Ricardians – obviously everyone’s entitled to their opinions, but I just do not get the arguments that Richard *didn’t* have the boys killed.

A more puzzling matter was what was in Lucy Worsley’s very large handbag.   Presumably it contained a tablet/small laptop, but I couldn’t help wondering if it was a marmalade sandwich.

Lucy did interview someone from the Richard III Society.  Thankfully, he didn’t try to blame Lady Margaret Beaufort – it really, really annoys me when people do that – but he did  suggest the Duke of Buckingham and Henry VII as possible culprits, before saying that he thought the princes hadn’t been killed at all, but had been smuggled up north, and that either Lambert Simnel or Perkin Warbeck genuinely were who they claimed to be.  But Lambert Simnel didn’t even claim to be one of the princes!   He claimed to be their cousin, the Earl of Warwick.   And even Philippa Gregory seems to have accepted that the idea of Perkin Warbeck really being Prince Richard is too far-fetched even for a novel, never mind for real history.  Again, each to their own, but I just don’t see it.

It’s such a bonkers period of history, though.   Richard claiming that Edward had been pre-contracted to Eleanor Butler – although the idea of Edward talking a woman into bed by promising to marry her actually seems quite likely.  And then the rumour that Edward himself was the illegitimate son of Cecily Neville by Blaybourne the Flemish archer!   There are cogent reasons for a grown man taking the throne rather than a young boy, but all those tales about who was and wasn’t illegitimate are very odd.  And then the appearance of the pretenders.  Perkin Warbeck was my history A-level group’s hero.  The teacher made him sound very handsome and dashing and romantic, which went down very well in an all-girls school.   But Richard of York he was not.

Lucy spoke a lot about the writings of Dominic Mancini, an Italian who was visiting England during 1483, and who said that Richard had killed the princes, but gave more weight to the work of Thomas More, based on the confession of James Tyrrell that he’d had the princes murdered on Richard’s orders.   She, and an expert to whom she spoke, both dismissed the idea that this was Tudor propaganda, on the grounds of More being an honest and honourable man.  And, interestingly, the expert had found evidence that More was in Brugge at the same time as the son of one of the alleged murderers, so could well have spoken to him about what went on.

But, as she said, we don’t know.   There’s an argument for exhuming the bones found in 1674 and thought to be those of the princes, but digging up a grave just to satisfy people’s curiosity seems a bit much – and it still wouldn’t prove who’d killed them.  But wouldn’t it be amazing if someone actually could, after all this time, find something which really did prove what happened?   There’s something about this story which really gets people going: there’s probably nothing else in English history which excites quite so much argument.

And I’m with Lucy.  As far as I’m concerned, it was Richard III whodunnit!

 

 

Who Do You Think You Are (Sue Perkins) – BBC 1

Standard

I’ve vaguely known about the Baltic Germans ever since I was a little girl, because, for some reason, they get a brief mention at the end of The Chalet School in Exile, when we’re told that Austrian characters living in Italy feared that they would be ordered to relocate “as he [Hitler] has ordered the Baltic Germans”.  However, although I’ve read quite a bit about the experiences of the Volga Germans during the Second World War, I’ve never come across much in detail about those of the Baltic Germans.  So it was very interesting to hear about Sue’s Lithuanian-German ancestors, and their sad story.

The resettlement of the “Volkdeutsche” is something which affected ethnic Germans living in many areas, including the parts of Tyrol ceded to Italy after the First World War, and parts of Ukraine and Moldova which had also been part of Austria-Hungary before the First World War.  We all know about the Sudetenland, but the presence of large ethnic German populations in other areas, and what happened to them, is rarely mentioned.

The Second World War, and, more particularly, the Nazi atrocities, remain a very difficult and sensitive topic, but one of which most people are well aware.  However, the story of the Baltic Germans isn’t well-known.  Germans began settling in the eastern Baltic as early as the 12th century, and formed the ruling class in what’s now Latvia and Estonia, losing their privileged position only after the First World War.  In Lithuania, which of course was united with Poland from 1385 (or 1569, depending on how you look at it!) until the Polish partitions, the situation was different, but there were significant numbers of Germans living in the areas closest to East Prussia.  We learnt that Sue’s ancestors were prosperous farmers.  Why her great-grandmother chose to leave a well-to-do home and move to England was unfortunately never explained.

Then, come the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, the Baltic Germans were deported to Germany.  They weren’t just resettled.  Instead, people like Sue’s relatives were subjected to pseudo-scientific tests measuring their heads, their noses, the shapes of their heads and so on, and placed into one of four categories, ranging from Aryan/above average to “unacceptable”.   The misuse of science in terms of “classifying” human beings really was one of the most horrifying aspects of 20th century history.  Sue learnt that some members of the family had been executed, classed as “unacceptable” due to physical and mental disabilities.  We know that the Nazis murdered disabled people, but, as Sue said, hearing it through the prism of her family history made it particularly horrific.

It’s not something which is often spoken of, that those ethnic Germans living in other countries, who were “repatriated”, were treated like this, and that many of them met the same fate as non-Germans deemed subhuman in the countries occupied by the Nazis.

As Sue said, with wars and politics, there are always so many ordinary people whirled into a nightmare which is none of their making.  And on it goes, on and on.   It was a rather horrific start to the new series, but it was grimly fascinating, and a chilling reminder of just how badly some people can treat others, just for being deemed to be different.

 

The Black Death: Lucy Worsley Investigates – BBC 2

Standard

When I was 13, I got 91% in a biology exam.  Apologies if that sounds like showing off.  It was a very long time ago!  The point is the interaction between biology and history.  Our big topic that year was genetics, and our biology text book had a wonderful family tree showing how Queen Victoria’s haemophilia gene spread through the royal houses of Europe.  So, instead of trying to put iodine on a piece of onion without getting bubbles in it (something which took me eleventy billion attempts, and of which I still fail to see the point), I got to focus on royal history, with particular reference to the Romanovs.  Sorted!!

The application of science to the events of the past was one element of this very interesting programme.  Lucy Worsley really is so good when she’s acting like an adult and not dressing up, even if “Lucy Worsley Investigates” does make her sound like Nancy Drew.  But what really struck me most was how she, and all of us, now view the Black Death through the prism of Covid.  Three years ago, would a programme about medieval plague have used the terms “herd immunity”, “super spreader event”, “frontline worker” or even just “pandemic”?  I think we’ve all got past panic buying toilet rolls, and few people wear masks now, but our outlook on history’s changed.   That’s quite a big thing.

We started off with the scientific facts – how there were variants (another Covid-era word) of the plague, and how it was spread by body lice getting into fabrics, as well as by fleas on rats.  The body lice factor explains what happened in Eyam, so I suppose we knew that anyway, but the emphasis has always been on fleas on rats.   And there was a lot of talk about how this was a new disease, and, because it was new,  it spread very rapidly at first, only ceasing to be so dangerous once herd immunity had built up.  

Lucy kept talking about “Britain”, which was a bit annoying as “Britain” wasn’t a political entity then, and references to the political, economic and clerical authorities wouldn’t have included Scotland,   Just saying!   She talked a lot about the role of economics, and what can be deduced from economic records.  We think of inheritance tax as having been brought in with the People’s Budget of 1909, but there was a form of inheritance tax even in the 14th century.   And she really is obsessed with “fornication”!   Last week, she kept trying to make the witch trials all about fornication, and this week we were told that the Church tried to blame the plague on sin, and especially on loose women.   Thankfully we didn’t get that with Covid … although it has to be said that some deeply unpleasant people in the 1980s tried to make out that the AIDS pandemic was some sort of message from on high.

The Church did have a useful role to play, though.   Priests read out Edward III’s instructions on how to try to deal with the plague, after hearing horror stories about how it’d affected countries on the Continent.  Hopefully they were more like cheery Jonathan Van Tam than grumpy Professor Chris Whitty!   And clerics were also “frontline workers”, as we’d now say.   

We were told that the plague actually increased the role of religion, because, with little hope other than prayer, people turned to religion, deeply distressed at the need for plague pits rather than proper funerals.   No real Covid link there, but how about social change?   As we know, the devastating effect of the plague on the population led to a shortage of labour, and an increase in social mobility and wage levels.   The Statute of Labourers, passed in 1351, tried to keep wages down and tie people to their place of origin, but it just wasn’t practical to do that.  We also heard about improvements to the lot of women, stepping into places once held by men, as was later to be the case during both world wars.   

Are we going to see positive social change brought about by Covid?  Well, here in North West England, where we were so badly affected, we were hoping so, but, at the moment, we’re still waiting.  We’ll see.

All in all, as I said, this was an interesting programme about the Black Death, but I think that the most interesting part about it was the historiography.   We now see the Black Death through the prism of Covid.  I wonder if it’s going to have a long term effect on how we see other aspects of history too.

 

Victoria: Daughter, Wife, Mother, Widow by Lucy Worsley

Standard

 

I’m not sure whether or not the 99p Kindle offer on this book was to mark the Platinum Jubilee of Queen Victoria’s great-great-granddaughter, but I was very glad of it.  For one thing, I wanted a “royal” book to review, to mark the Jubilee long weekend 🙂 .  For another thing, it makes some very interesting points.  OK, it probably won’t tell you anything major that you haven’t heard before, but the same can be said of most books on history’s best-known figures.  It’s about the angle and the interpretation; and this book, apprising Victoria through 24 significant events or factors in her life, really does do a good job of showing us who Victoria was and what she did.  Lucy Worsley is rather irritating on TV, but she comes across extremely well in writing.

Having said all that, I’m going to take issue with her argument that people had a problem with the idea of a female monarch, and that the nineteenth century was a time in which women’s lives became extremely restricted.  She even finishes the book on a rather miserable note within that theme, saying that her main feeling about Victoria is pity, because ideas about the role of women trapped all Victorian females, and Victoria herself most of all.  I know that there’s the “separate spheres” argument, that women became confined to a domestic role in the 19th century, but I don’t buy it.  Look at pictures of textile mills in the 19th century.  Who are most of the workers?  Women!   Look how many people were employed in domestic service in the 19th century.  Who were most of them?  Women!   As for there being a lack of female influence, tell that to Emmeline Pankhurst, Florence Nightingale (one of whose visits to Victoria makes up one of the 24 chapters), Josephine Butler and Elizabeth Fry, and all the other middle class women, and upper class women, involved in charity work or campaigning.

And were people really that bothered about the idea of a female monarch?  Princess Charlotte had been extremely popular, and, whether in 1837 or 2022, most people, when asked to name England’s greatest ever monarch, will say Elizabeth (I).

So I must beg to differ with Lucy in that regard.   But I still really enjoyed her book.  She starts the book by pointing out that, throughout the twentieth century, most people’s image of Victoria was of a large, unsmiling elderly lady dressed in mourning.  And that’s exactly how Victoria’s depicted in the statue of her which stands in Manchester’s Piccadilly Gardens.  Then pointing out that that’s changed in recent years, because of the film with Emily Blunt and the TV series with Jenna Coleman, which [the book was published in 2018, before the third season was broadcast] both show her as a younger woman who liked dancing and parties.  Interesting how it’s been popular culture that’s brought about that change, not academia.  The aim of this book is to look into how she changed from the young dancing princess to the sombre old lady.

There’s an amazing amount of detail.  Some of it really feels quite prurient – things like what Victoria wore on her wedding night, how much she weighed at certain times and how old she was when she went through puberty.  That’s very private stuff.

And it’s all personal.  Would anyone write a book entitled “Edward III: Son, Husband, Father, Widower”?  I don’t think so.  Then again, there are plenty of books about Henry VIII which focus far more on his marriages than on such trivial matters as the Reformation or the Battle of Flodden Field!   And, by Victoria’s time, the life of the monarch and political/economic/social events were no longer as intertwined as they were in the days when the monarch ruled as well as reigned.

It’s very frustrating how Queen Victoria is depicted as being emotionally and politically dependent on Prince Albert, and, equally, how Queen Anne is depicted as being emotionally and politically dependent on her friends.  I once read a book – may have been by J H Plumb, but I’m not sure – which compared Queen Anne’s court to an Angela Brazil novel, with Anne as the new girl and the Duchess of Marlborough as the Head Girl.  Would anyone make similar comments about, say Edward III and Alice Perrers, or Edward II and Hugh Despenser the younger, or James I and the Duke of Buckingham?   No, would they heck as like!

But then a male sovereign is not going to have undergone nine pregnancies, most of them followed by post natal depression.  If we look at our female sovereigns, excluding Lady Jane Grey who only lasted nine days, we’ve had Mary I and her phantom pregnancies, Mary II who had one miscarriage and was unable to conceive again, Anne who (before becoming queen) had seventeen pregnancies but no surviving children (that poor, poor woman), Victoria who had nine pregnancies during the first two decades of her reign, and Elizabeth I who chose not to marry but then had the problem of determining the succession.  Our present queen is the first one whose reign hasn’t been significantly affected by issues relating to childbearing.

Lucy really doesn’t like Prince Albert.  At one point, she describes him as being “pompous and cruel”.  I think that’s a bit much.  OK, he was clearly very insensitive towards his wife and children, but Victoria adored him, he did a lot for the country, and, if he were around now, he’d be in therapy for a long list of issues, most of them probably resulting from what happened with his mother.   She plays down the romantic element of the match between Victoria and Albert, stressing the arranged marriage element instead, and even says that it was Albert who insisted on having so many children.   We’ve all heard the “fun in bed” question, we all know that Victoria didn’t want to breastfeed, and, according to Lucy, Victoria knew about birth control but (presumably for religious reasons?) didn’t approve of it.

So I don’t really see how anyone can claim that Albert was solely responsible for how many children they had.  She also says that, after her marriage, Victoria stops commenting in her diary that she’s worried about her weight, because Albert gave her more self confidence about her appearance.  Give the man a break!

There are a lot of references, tied into the image of family life, to the idea of a middle class monarchy, intended to win the support of the class which held political power from 1832.   Fair point to some extent.  And I think  (apologies for making a sweeping generalisation) that “Good Old Teddy” was far more popular amongst the upper and working classes than Victoria was.  But from 1867, and even more so from 1884, the upper working classes had the vote, even if they weren’t actually becoming Members of Parliament.  And are the middle classes really the only ones with the family values?   I think this gets overstated, especially given the upper middle classes were so keen on sending their kids away to boarding school.   Having nine children was more typing of the working classes than the upper classes, by Victorian times.

She also points out that some people in Ireland referred to Victoria as “the Famine Queen”, and that Duleep Singh allegedly referred to her as “Mrs Fagin” because Britain took the Koh-i-Noor diamond.  It’s something that still happens today, the blaming of senior members of the Royal Family for something that was the fault of politicians or the Armed Forces or business interests.   Prince William has recently been attacked by Caribbean politicians as if he were personally to blame for the slave trade, and booed by Liverpool “fans” as if he were personally to blame for the cover-up over Hillsborough.  It’s not very nice, and it’s certainly not very fair.  But it’s what happens.  As well as the interest in the personality of the monarch, they (and their heirs) become the personification of the nation.  And Victoria in some ways was the personification of an age.  Even books written about the USA ,and other countries which weren’t part of the British Empire, refer to “Victorians”.

Lucy herself is full of praise for Victoria: she acknowledges that she had faults and made mistakes – don’t we all? – but the overall picture she presents is a very positive one.   She gives her a lot of credit for working out a way to reign successfully at a time when a) the political power of the monarch was all but gone and b) many people (so Lucy says) had issues with the idea of a female monarch.   The Crimean War is pinpointed as being a crucial time in the history of the monarchy, with the introduction of the VC, Victoria’s own idea, and Victoria’s letters to wounded soldiers, really making people feel that she cared.  And we do need to know that the monarch cares.   Look at all the calls for the Queen to speak to us after Diana died.  Look at the effect which the Queen’s speech in the early weeks of lockdown had.   And it meant so much to everyone in Manchester when the Queen came in person to visit those injured in the Arena bombing.  The monarch is the head of the nation, and the person to whom people look to lead us in times of trouble, and also in times of celebration.  No politician could ever do that in the same way

The overall message of the book is that Victoria might have seemed like an ordinary woman, but that she was actually an extraordinary woman who led an extraordinary life.  Well, there’s no arguing with that.  Nor is there any arguing with the fact that Elizabeth II is also an extraordinary, ordinary woman leading an extraordinary life.   Great book by Lucy Worsley, and God Save The Queen!

 

Lucy Worsley Investigates: The Witch Hunts – BBC 2

Standard

Do not get me started on the subject of the “Witch Way” bus route, which runs very close to my house and is so named because it originally linked Manchester with the Pendle area, and some bloke evidently thought that using Pendle Witch Trials as a silly gimmick was appropriate.  It isn’t.  At least they’ve removed those pictures of a very sexy-looking witch, sat astride a broomstick, from the sides of the buses.  And, when I visited Salem in Massachusetts in 2019, I was rather bemused to see the “Witch City Mall”, home to a variety of shops, restaurants and beauty parlours.  I appreciate that tourism is big business, but the witch hunts which took place in Britain, across Europe and in America, mainly from 1450 to 1750, weren’t some sort of Disney film.  Thousands of people, most of them women, were judicially murdered; and we saw Lucy Worsley getting distressed, to the point of tears, as she talked about the horrors to which these women were subjected, the terrible fear that other women must have felt that they could be the next to be accused, and how little we hear of their voices, their real stories.

In Britain, witch hunting on a large scale, with the involvement of the central authorities, really began during the reign of James I of England/James VI of Scotland, who was apparently convinced that witchcraft caused a storm which nearly sank his ship as he returned from Denmark, where witch hunts were already common, in 1590 (at which point he was king of Scotland, but Elizabeth I still ruled in England).  This programme focused on the North Berwick trials, which took place shortly afterwards, and particular on the case of Agnes Sampson, the first to be accused.

As a slight aside, do people still take lucky mascots/charms into exams with them?  I used to take a miniature Good Luck Care Bear (remember care bears?!) and a lump of coal, but my elder nephew (aged 13) recently had school exams, and apparently lucky mascots aren’t a thing any more.  Or maybe they are, but only for girls.  I know that some men have lucky pants or lucky socks which they wear for football matches, but I don’t really want to think about other people’s pants, so let’s not go there.   However, lucky charms/amulets, often used by women in childbirth, were apparently considered a sign of witchcraft by the supposedly “godly” witch hunters – although not as much so as marks on the body.  As Lucy explained, there was a strong sexual element to the witch hunts.   There always is, isn’t there?  Men using religion to try to control women.  People getting caught up in some sort of hysterical frenzy.  And all these people, mostly women, being tortured into making confessions, and horribly executed – with Scotland having one of the highest rates of witch execution of any country.

Thankfully, even Lucy realised that this wasn’t an occasion for dressing up.  We got a lot of shots of her sitting in the back of a car, walking around and reading original texts, but she was dressed in Puritanical black and white, as she explained how the Reformation turned up the religious temperature, and both Protestants and Catholics alike got caught up in an obsessive fear of the devil and his works, with local folk healers/wise women, living peacefully in their communities, generally the main targets.  Agnes Sampson, an ordinary women from a small village, found herself hauled up before the king, and then physically and mentally tortured until, broken, she confessed to whatever they asked, and gave the names of other people as well.

As Lucy described the horrible death which Agnes met, garroted and then burnt at the stake, she did become quite emotional, and was really rather moving.  This is a horrible part of history.  Lucy said that the stories of the witches weren’t well-known.  Well, maybe the stories of the Scottish witches aren’t, but the stories of the Lancashire witches are, because they’ve been turned into novels, and even used as gimmicks by tourist authorities and bus companies.   And the term “witch-hunt” is still widely used, to describe a frenzied campaign against people, often innocent, who are perceived to be some sort of threat.   But, as Lucy said the voices of the real women involved aren’t often heard.  She tried very hard to put those voices across, in what made for a fascinating hour’s TV.   Very, very good programme.