Who Do You Think You Are? (Kate Winslet) – BBC 1

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I thought that this was the best episode of the series so far, despite Kate’s melodramatics. I don’t think we’ve ever had anyone with Swedish heritage before: it was like stepping into the world of Vilhelm Moberg’s Karl Oskar and Kristina, and it’s a subject that’s not often covered on English language TV. It was really good to see something different. The military heritage on the other side of her family was interesting too. It had never really occurred to be that the Armed Forces would have been the main employers of musicians before the days of civil orchestras, although it’s really obvious when you think about it! And it’s nice to have an A-lister on the programme: they do sometimes have people whom I’ve barely heard of.  This was a very interesting hour’s TV.

She did overdo it a bit, with the tears and the “I can’t bear it”-ing. OK, it can’t be very pleasant finding out that your long-lost ancestors lived in poverty, had brushes with the law due to stealing food and lost children in infancy, but it’d probably be a similar story for most people’s families. Even those at the top of the social ladder would have been hit by infant deaths, and adults dying young. There were the constant references to her ever-so-‘umble roots, as well. One would have done! But, hey, at least she was interested enough in the social history to get emotional about it.

The story with Kate was that her great-great-grandfather had moved to London from the Halland region of Sweden, becoming a successful tailor on Savile Row. This was fascinating: you think of emigration from Sweden as being to Minnesota and other parts of the American mid-West, not to London. Even Swedish emigration to America isn’t something that’s talked about that much in English language books or TV programmes. So much attention’s paid to emigration from Ireland and, later on, from Italy and the Russian Empire, and yet relatively little’s paid to emigration from Sweden and (then under Swedish rule) Norway, or even to the huge waves of emigration from Germany. I suppose it’s because there wouldn’t have been that much of a cultural or, with Scandinavia and mainly Protestant parts of Germany, religious clash, but it’s certainly a neglected area.

I don’t know what Kate was expecting to find out, but I got the impression that she wasn’t expecting to find that her ancestors’ lives had been so hard.  We think of Sweden, as with Norway and Switzerland, as being a very wealthy country, and forget that that’s a fairly recent development, and how difficult it was historically for countries with very cold weather, very hot weather and or a lot of mountainous terrain, especially at a time of rapid population growth.  The same with the idea of some countries as being particularly liberal, and or as not having a rigid class structure. It hasn’t always been like that.  Take the Netherlands, generally seen as the most liberal-minded country in Europe now, and its centuries of strict Calvinism.

Vilhelm Moberg described life for lower-class people in Sweden in the first half of the nineteenth century so well in The Emigrants, and I kept thinking about that when Kate was learning about her ancestors, although at least there were no religious issues here.  When she was taken to a grand castle type place, she must have wondered if they were aristocrats. But no – her great-great-great-great-grandfather was a worker on the estate, paid in tokens that could only be spent in the estate shop, and ended up dying in prison after being convicted of stealing potatoes, shortly after the death of his infant son.  The family were starving, with Sweden being hit by successive years of food shortages even before the Hungry Forties and the Great Famine of the late 1860s.  Neither of those two major famines came into it, strangely enough – we heard about the early 1830s and the early 1850s, but not the two “big” famines, although that was just because of which dates fitted with major events in the family’s history.

Her great-great-great-grandfather fared better, going into the Navy; and it was brilliant that she was able to see the sort of croft house that he’d have. But her great-great-grandfather was the only one of the three children he and his wife had who survived to adulthood.  He became a tailor, like his father – who’d been booted out of the Navy for embezzlement!  I can’t think of any other episode that’s featured Swedish history, and I really enjoyed it. How brilliant were the records, as well? Very impressed with mid 19th century Swedish record-keeping!

Turning to the other side of her family, she found out that her great-great-great-grandfather had served in the Grenadier Guards, joining up at the age of just 11, during the Napoleonic Wars. After having to leave the Army due to rheumatism, he became the head prison warder at Dartmoor … but, at that time, Dartmoor was seen as a sort of new model prison, with inmates working in gardens and attending classes in all sorts of subjects.

That was interesting as well, but I thought that the really good bit was his time in the Army, starting off as a real life Little Drummer Boy, at a time when the sons of soldiers often joined up as children so as to benefit from the educational and career opportunities offered, and rising to the rank of Drum Major. We’re all familiar with military bands, and the importance of drummers and buglers and fifers in the Army in the 18th and 19th centuries – I’m going to have “Oh, soldier, soldier, won’t you marry me, with your musket, fife and drum?” going through my head for the rest of the day now – but, as with Swedish and German emigration to Britain and America, it’s something that doesn’t get all that much attention, and it’s always nice to see new topics covered on a long-running programme.

I’d love to know how they choose people to go on this programme. Presumably they must do a certain amount of research first, to make sure that they can actually find something out, and that it’s something reasonably interesting. But do they approach the celebs, or do the celebs approach them? Where would you start, when it came to choosing people?   They usually manage to turn up something of interest, but often the socio-economic history behind it is something we’ve heard before, with other people.  But, as I’ve said, I don’t think they’ve shown anyone with Swedish heritage before.  A really good hour’s TV.

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Jews Queers Germans by Martin Duberman

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This book, which can’t decide whether it’s a novel or an academic work, traces prejudices in Germany from the Harden-Eulenburg affair, which brought down the Kaiser’s inner circle and sparked a major homophobic and anti-Semitic backlash which those involved in the associated trial naively hadn’t seen coming, through the First World War and the “Cabaret era” of the Weimar Republic, and on to the rise of the Nazis.  There’s not as much about the royal family as I was expecting, but all sorts of well-known figures from the arts world of the time – Degas, Nijinsky, Colette, Josephine Baker, Isadora Duncan, George Bernard Shaw and numerous others – make appearances.  It’s not particularly well-written: I can just about live with the lack of commas in the title, because I think it’s the author’s way of showing that many key figures at the time were Jewish and gay and German; but having a 334-page book which isn’t divided into chapters is not ideal, books being written in the present tense can be irritating, the dialogue’s very clunky and it jumps around too much!   However, it’s an interesting take on a pivotal period in world history, and how people manipulate old prejudices in order to further their own political ends.  Also, one of the key figures in it has some sort of Manchester connection, but I can’t get to the bottom of it and it’s really annoying me!

It’s supposed to be a novel, written around three main characters – Graf Harry von Kessler, son of a German banker father and an Anglo-Irish mother, a diplomat and patron of the arts, on whose diaries much of it’s based, Walther Rathenau, businessman and liberal politician, and Magnus Hirschfeld, doctor and gay rights campaigner whose work was mentioned a lot in A Terrible Splendor. However, it would really have worked better as an academic book.  There are pages and pages of information about history, law, politics, scientific theories and philosophy, and much of the dialogue is just the characters repeating factual information to each other.  I never felt that I got to know any of them: there was no plot and no characterisation.

It’s quite bitty, as well – all the more reason why it would have benefited from being broken down into chapters.  It’s split into six parts, to be fair, but couldn’t half do with being split into chapters within those.  Also, whilst I’m moaning, it annoyingly refers to “England” and “Austria” rather than “Britain” and “Austria-Hungary”, doesn’t seem to realise that Disraeli converted to Anglicanism, and spells “principle” as “principal”!

Having said all that, the actual information is quite interesting.  It was the Harden-Eulenberg affair that I was really after, and about a quarter of the book covers that – with the Kaiser, who was portrayed sympathetically in The Summer Queen, coming across here as the very nasty piece of work that he really was.  The book opens with a conversation between the Kaiser and the Grafin von Moltke. To cut a long story short-ish, she claimed that her estranged husband, a general in the German army, was having an affair with the Kaiser’s best friend, Philipp von Eulenburg-Hertefeld, the Kaiser’s best mate and the leader of their so-called “Liebenberg Round Table” group of close male friends. Eulenburg & co came into conflict with another political clique, led by Friedrich von Holstein. There was a lot of tension over foreign policy, and over the Kaiser’s rather absolutist style of rule. At the same time, a number of military officers were tried by courts-martial for being gay, and six of them sadly committed suicide.

Journalist Maximilian Harden, a supporter of the Holstein clique, decided to bring von Eulenburg down by publishing reports about him and von Moltke. Moltke sued him for libel, and various other names were brought into it.  Strangely, the book suggests that Harden actually admired von Eulenburg and thought he was a good influence on the Kaiser, which makes no sense and completely contradicts what everyone else says about the whole affair!  Magnus Hirschfeld, a prominent doctor who’d long been campaigning for the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the German Empire, especially after observing how many of his gay patients had tried to commit suicide, was one of the key witnesses in the trial, naively thinking that proving that senior army officers were gay would do away with negative stereotypes.

Unfortunately, it backfired badly, with the far-right claiming that Hirschfeld, who was gay and Jewish, and Harden, who was a Lutheran convert but had previously been Jewish, were conspiring against straight, “Aryan” German men. There was a major homophobic and anti-Semitic backlash. Von Eulenburg’s influence was ended, but, however unpleasant he and his cronies may have been – they’re known to have held strong racist and anti-Semitic views – they’re also now seen as having had a moderating influence on the Kaiser.

Did the trial and its aftermath lead to a culture of what would now be called “toxic masculinity” in the upper echelons of Berlin society?  What was its personal and political effect on the Kaiser?   That was what I was hoping the book would discuss, but, instead, it jumped on to Harry Kessler’s travels in Britain, France and Greece!   All sorts of well-known arty figures, and a few obscure ones, get mentioned in this section, and then we jump back to politics with the introduction of Kessler’s friend Walther Rathenau, who would later play an important role at the German War Ministry during the Great War, and then become Foreign Minister. Wikipedia says he had business interests in Manchester, but I can’t find any more information about that and it’s really, really annoying me!!

So we go from arts to politics, and then, just as we’re getting into the build-up to the Great War, Kessler and Rathenau fade into the background and there’s a section about Magnus Hirschfeld, his theories about sexuality and gender identity, and his campaign, backed by many others, for gay rights.   Whilst it’s probably quite well-known that the Code Napoleon gave civil rights to religious minorities, it’s not very well-known that it also decriminalised homosexuality … but that didn’t apply in the German Empire, or, obviously, the British Empire.  Some of Hirschfeld’s theories read rather strangely now, but he really was a pioneer in his field.  Sadly, being gay, Jewish and what would now be called a gay rights activist made him a target for the far right – but he himself was a strong German nationalist, as was Rathenau (who was Jewish but not gay) and Kessler (who was gay but not Jewish), which I think is what the lack of commas in the title’s getting at, and the far right don’t get at all.  There’s also some interesting commentary on the differences between attitudes in Germany, France and Britain.  But this is not historical novel stuff: it’s stuff that belongs in an academic book.  I do not know why the author tried to present it as a novel!

Then Hirschfeld fades back into the background, and Kessler and Rathenau take centre stage again, having long discussions about Martin Buber and anti-Semitism.  Kessler’s presented as quite a liberal figure until this point, but, once the Great War starts, the book shows him developing more right-wing views.  Hirschfeld, by contrast, adopts more radical views.  We also see him defending the rights of gay men to serve in the Armed Forces.  It does feel a bit more like a novel at this point, but we’re still very detached from the characters … which is a shame, because they all seem rather interesting.

We then move on to the political and social chaos after Germany’s defeat.  It’s particularly unfortunate that we don’t really get to know Kessler, because he seems to have known everyone!   He was pals with the leader of the German delegation at the Versailles peace talks, as well as knowing anyone who’s anyone in the arts world.   This bit’s well-known – the war guilt clause, and the attempts to blame Germany’s defeat on Jews.  I honestly hadn’t realised just how much violence there was in Germany at this stage, though.  Over 350 political figures were murdered by right-wing extremist group Organisation Consul.  I’d have expected the book to focus on Rathenau’s role in the Treaty of Rapallo, in which Germany and the Soviet Union agreed to renounce all territorial claims and claims to war reparations against each other, but, instead, we get Rathenau talking to Kessler about Zionism.

Maybe this is the author’s way of saying that Rathenau’s assassination, in 1922, was because he was Jewish?  Was it?  Or was it because he was seen as a liberal?  Or accused of having links with communism?  Probably all three.  We do see that trade union leaders call on their members to down tools for a day and stage demos in honour of Rathenau.  He’s seen now as some sort of martyr to democracy … but he’s not very well-known in Anglophone countries, so it’s nice to see him playing a big part here.  Still can’t sort out the Manchester connection.  Apparently it was something to do with an electrical power station.  Could it have been the one at Radcliffe?

Hirschfeld isn’t killed, but he is badly beaten up.  This is the “Cabaret” era, and Hirschfeld does actually get involved in that: he promotes various films, and he’s friendly with figures from the arts world.  Max Harden also reappears at this point, having not been mentioned all through the war.  It’s all just so bitty!

Then, with the rise of the Nazis, another character enters the fray – Ernst Rohm, one of Hitler’s closest friends and allies and leader of the Stormtroopers.  There’s a strange parallel between the Harden-Eulenburg affair and the Night of the Long Knives, and it’s never usually picked up on.  I was going to say that I suppose it’s because what the Nazis did later was so horrific that it seems inappropriate to compare the rise of the Nazis to anything else, but some people seem to throw the word “Nazi” around strangely casually these days.  Anyway.  The views of Rohm and his circle on political and military affairs brought them into conflict with other members of the Nazi party, and, just as had happened with Eulenburg, his homosexuality was used against him by the faction who wanted to bring him down … although the author rather overlooks the fact that this was more of a common or garden power struggle than anything else.

Strangely, the author doesn’t actually draw the parallel.  There’s a lot of talk about about homophobic attitudes within the Nazi party and within German society in general.  We see how the Social Democrats attack the Nazis by associating them with homosexuality.  We see how the Nazi party tries to make a link between being Jewish and being gay.  This happens throughout history – people exploit hatreds and prejudices against different groups by making links.  It can be anything.  Sometimes there’s some sort of logic to it, e.g. linking Catholics and Jacobitism.  Sometimes there’s none at all. e.g. linking Jews and Communism.

But, as I’ve said, the author doesn’t link this back to events at the start of the book – and that says a lot about how bitty it is, and how there’s no real plot.  We see Hirschfeld travelling the world, before eventually settling in France.  We see Kessler also settling in France.  But there’s no real conclusion, and no bringing together of the different aspects of the book.  It was an interesting idea, and the author, himself both gay and Jewish, obviously feels incredibly strongly about both anti-Semitism and homophobia and is trying to raise awareness of where they can lead.  There’s a huge amount of information in this: he’s obviously done a lot of research.  But it does read as if someone’s bursting to tell you something and they just want to get it all out there, without making it particularly clear or easy to take in.  Good idea, not particularly good execution!

Imagine – Hitler, the Tiger and Me (Judith Kerr) – BBC 1

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This was originally shown in 2013, but was repeated recently as a tribute to the late Judith Kerr, who died in May. Part of it was about the Mog books and The Tiger Who Came To Tea, and there were some references to her personal life; but most of it showed her revisiting Berlin, in the company of the BBC’s Alan Yentob, and talking about her experiences there – as told in When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. As the programme explained, the book isn’t only widely read by children in English-speaking countries but is also a set text in German schools. Various other authors were interviewed about their views on Judith’s books: Michael Rosen said that children’s books were a place of safety. Maybe that’s partly why some of us keep on going back to them, even when we’re supposedly grown up.

During her visit to Berlin, she went back to her old home, and met the people living there now. It must have been very strange both for her and for them, but she was very calm all the way through. It was so emotive – and even more so when she went to the local railway station and saw all the memorials there, with the dates of the wartime deportations, the numbers of people deported and the names of the concentration camps to which they’d been sent.

As she said, it was all very well having memorials, but no-one did anything at the time. The Nazis came to her family’s home, intending to confiscate their passports, just two days after they’d reached safety in Switzerland. Two days … had they stayed in Berlin just another two days, they’d almost certainly have ended up on one of those death trains. But, as in her books, she didn’t seem bitter. She just said how thankful she was too have been so lucky, and how she felt obliged to try to make something of her life, when so many people had been denied the chance to make anything of theirs.

It was also interesting to hear more about her father. I don’t think I’d realised just how important a figure he was. Apparently, he was considered to be second on the Nazis’ hit list. He was even friendly with Einstein, and hoped to join him in America – but America wouldn’t let the Kerrs in. It was very poignant to hear about how he felt that he’d lost not only his country but also his language: how could he keep on writing in German? It’s not the most obvious of issues to think of in terms of refugees and persecution, but it’s a very good point. If you’re someone to whom it’s important to write, and especially if you’re a professional writer, how do you cope when you lose your language? He went back to Germany after the war, but took ill soon afterwards, and, with the help of his wife, committed suicide. As we’re told in the books, they had suicide pills with them all through the war.

Judith and her brother didn’t; but she spoke about her terror in 1940, when the threat of invasion seemed so real and there was nowhere else to run to. Towards the end of the programme, we heard from some of the German children, two of them Jewish, studying When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit at school. They all spoke excellent English: most British schoolkids of that age can’t speak a word of German or even French! They’d have been about the same age that Judith was then, and they’d clearly taken in what the book was saying, but they didn’t seem scared.

It’s not a scary book. And I was the over-imaginative kid who had nightmares about the Vermicious Knids in Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator! Not all children’s books, even those aimed at very young children, are a place of safety.  Mind you, I never re-read Roald Dahl’s books.  I suppose the children’s books that I do read over and over again – and there are many of them – are a place of safety, even though some of them take the reader to some pretty disturbing places along the war..  Michael Rosen was actually talking about the Mog books, and how Mog ends up curled up safely in a basket, with a fish, but the When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit books aren’t scary either. Maybe Roald Dahl wanted to scare kids. Judith Kerr didn’t. It takes one hell of an author to be able to write a book about fleeing Nazi Germany, with the word “Hitler” actually in the title, informing kids about what happened, without scaring them. Judith Kerr was that author.

Thanks to the BBC for repeating this: I didn’t see it first time round.  I’m glad I’ve seen it now.

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit review.

Fruitlands: the Alcott family and their search for Utopia by Richard Francis

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I have *not* taken to Transcendentalism: this is for research purposes only.  Fruitlands was the short-lived commune set up by Bronson Alcott, Louisa M Alcott’s father, and his London-born associate Charles Lane. They had an interesting range of ideas, from the admirable, notably supporting Abolitionism and, to some extent, women’s rights, to the offensive – some of their ideas about producing a perfect new generation came unpleasantly close to eugenics – and all sorts of other things.  Opposing organised religion and political parties – wouldn’t life be so much more peaceful …?   Following a vegan diet. Trying to avoid cooking anything.  Opposing individual property ownership. Drinking nothing but water, not using artificial lighting, showering and bathing using only cold water, not using any form of animal labour, not using even natural fertilisers (they said that manure upset the weather), practising celibacy except as “necessary” to procreate; and one of them was into nudism because he thought that clothes stifled the spirit.

Some of it seems rather extreme; and their experiment didn’t last very long.  After only a few months, Lane and Alcott fell out, Lane joined the Shakers – everyone knows that Shakerism originated in Manchester and Bolton, yes 🙂 ?!  – , Mrs Alcott put her foot down, and Fruitlands was abandoned. But certain aspects of their theories and practices held some appeal at the time and afterwards, and do resonate in our own age of concern about environmental issues and religious and political extremism.  But, as so often happens, it wasn’t thought out properly – trying to live entirely off natural products on land that wasn’t really arable wasn’t the greatest of ideas – and those in charge were so repressive and dictatorial and determined to force their views on everyone else that they created more discord than harmony.  Louisa wasn’t impressed … and yet there are certainly some aspects of Fruitlands in Plumfield.

This is for research purposes, as I’ve said – it’s not really bedtime or holiday reading.  But there’s some interesting stuff in it – plenty of food for thought.

Transcendentalism’s usually said to be an offshoot of Romanticism, combined with religion, and then taken off in the direction of separating yourself from wordly things and sticking closely to nature. I get myself all tangled up with Romanticism. It’s a Lancastrian thing – we’re very proud of the Industrial Revolution, but we also want to keep the Lake District unspoilt so that we can wander about dreaming of hosts of golden daffodils!

I do not get tangled up with religion, but some of the Transcendentalists did – Eve eating the apple was apparently a bad thing because, although apples work with veganism, she was looking for knowledge instead of just looking for an apple. This is not my department. If someone says “The Fall”, I assume they mean the late, great, Mark E Smith & co. It had links to aspects of Unitarianism, and also to the Shakers – who’ve always interested me because of the local connection.  I’m so parochial!  It’s linked to Hinduism and Jainism as well, and I find those links easier to follow, because they don’t get everything mixed up with the creation story.  Anyway, this is not my department, as I’ve said: I’m just doing some research into the history of New England, and this particular area of it appealed because of the Alcott connection.

Louisa M Alcott’s own take on it was that the men did a lot of waffling whilst the women tried to keep body and soul together.  I feel so sorry for Abigail Alcott, Louisa’s mother. Some observers commented that the Transcendalists – like 17th century Puritans – thought that no-one should be allowed to be happy; and remarks made in Abigail’s letters and diaries suggest that that was how she felt. Bronson, like a lot of idealists, conveniently ignored the practicalities of real life, so they were always in debt. He also nearly ended up in prison for refusing to pay his tax so that he could distance himself from the state – a bit like that Australian couple who were in the news recently, for refusing to pay their property taxes because they said that their property actually belonged to the Good Lord. (Presumably they were quite happy to use all the public services paid for by everyone else’s taxes.)  And he didn’t want to get a job because he thought that being a wage slave was bondage, but he thought it was fine to tap friends and relatives for money because that was encouraging them to be charitable!  A very far cry from Jo March writing penny-dreadfuls in order to pay her way in life.

Abigail suffered from both physical and mental health problems, as well.  A vegan diet is obviously fine if you’re getting the proper nutrition, but they didn’t have the requisite knowledge about that and so she was existing on fruit, bread and water, and consequently felt ill for a lot of the time. And the ideas about producing perfect offspring meant that Bronson blamed her when they had a stillborn baby. Even the domestic postbox idea, which she introduced and which sounds like such good fun when Laurie introduces it in Little Women, came about not as a bit of fun but as a way of trying to relieve domestic tension – write your issues down instead of bottling them up or yelling at each other about them. I don’t wonder she had enough. It can’t have been very nice for either her or the children … although it’s interesting that the Bhaers’ Plumfield, which was supposed to be so wonderful, was probably named after Plum Tree Meadows, the previous name for the area where Fruitlands was situated.

On a more positive note, the Anglo-American links are fascinating. I always think that with 19th century movements. Considering that letters must have taken quite a while to cross the Atlantic, the amount of communication and sharing of ideas is fascinating. The nudist guy was British, incidentally.  There was even an Alcott House, predating Fruitlands, in Surrey, named after Bronson Alcott. He seems to have been obsessed with the idea that American women were better than British women, though! That probably explains the rather offensive way that Louisa portrays Kate Vaughn, which always annoys me. And their contacts, or at least Bronson Alcott and Charles Lane’s contacts, with some very well-known names on both sides of the Atlantic, are worth nothing – Carlyle, Hawthorne, Thoreau. Louisa M Alcott’s probably better known than any of them these days: I wonder what Bronson would have made of that!

If Bronson Alcott were around today, he’d probably be one of those people who, whilst some of his ideas would be too extreme for most people, would have many ideas which made a lot of sense, especially with all the current concerns about the environment … but who alienate others with their lecturing tone, their refusal to respect or even listen properly to other people’s views, their lack of humour, their failure to consider practicalities and their constant attempts to guilt-trip everyone.  I don’t know why it always seems to get like that.  It’s a great shame.

Also, as the author points out, they didn’t really get involved with the Abolitionist movement, and they didn’t seem very concerned about all the other social and political issues of the day.  Marmee and the girls taking their Christmas breakfast round to the Hummels (this is my comment, not the author’s!) might not have changed the world, but at least they tried to help people in need!

It seems very likely that Plumfield was Louisa’s attempt at showing a gentler side of it – one which might have worked.

There’s a lot of philosophy in this book, so it’s quite heavy-going, but the author’s done a very good job with the subject matter.  Some of the ideas are quite outlandish, and he’s very critical of how self-obsessed they were, but he doesn’t mock them – yet, at the same time, he shows the impracticability of Alcott and Lane’s particular experiment, and its negative impact on Abigail Alcott and others.  And he gets a few Little Women/Little Men references in there, whilst resisting what must have been a strong temptation (well, it would have been to me!) to include dozens of them in a book which isn’t actually about them.  I wouldn’t say that this was an entertaining book, but it was quite interesting.

And, whilst I’m certainly not suggesting that we all start running around starkers, or avoiding eating potatoes because they grown downwards rather than upwards, some of the ideas are certainly relevant to today.  Avoiding buying clothes or other items known to have been produced unethically.  Being careful when it comes to artificial substances getting into the food supply. Not being cruel to animals.  The Fruitland experiment just wasn’t viable, and I don’t think I’d have liked Bronson Alcott or Charles Lane very much, but, as I said, there’s some food for thought here!

Charles I: Downfall of a King – BBC 4

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Apparently, the Civil War was caused by court masques, currants, Henrietta Maria’s make-up, people believing that the Lieutenant of the Tower of London was a cannibal, and the inability of Londoners to hold their drink (especially over the Christmas period). Some interesting theories there. Or else it was all due to a personal feud between Charles I and Pym the Puritan. Honestly, I thought we’d got past all this “revisionist” stuff about it being due to religion and short-term squabbles!  I was impressed that it made it clear that Pym & co were religious extremists, rather than just eulogising them as defenders of rights and liberties, though.  Also, it was history for grown-ups – no dressing up and no racing around – and it improved as it went on.  And Lisa Hilton (who writes “steamy” novels) uses some wonderful flowery language, although I find it rather annoying when Northerners speak in fake posh accents for TV.

However, I wish people wouldn’t keep trying to put a modern spin on historic events, though – talking about “populism”, “radicalisation”, “red lines”, “inclusivity”, “toxic masculinity”, “tabloid stings”, “fake news”, “tabloid sting” and “social media” in relation to the 1640s just sounds silly.   No-one actually used “alt-right” to describe the most extreme Puritans, but they certainly hinted at it … and that was good, because  I can’t stand the way the likes of Pym and Cromwell get idolised.  I also wish someone would write a book discussing how Henrietta Maria, Marie Antoinette and Alexandra Feodorovna all got the blame for their husbands’ stupidity, and was glad to see Henrietta Maria getting some sympathy here.

In summary – and there’s no arguing with this, even if I’d dispute the importance of the masques and the currants – we ended up with a complete mess made by a bunch of idiots and extremists … which is now widely recognised as being a crucial turning point in the spread of democracy across the western world.   History is great.  You couldn’t make it up!

I’m not a great fan of the revisionist theory that the causes of the Civil War were short-term, but, OK, I think we can all agree that it probably wouldn’t have happened if Charles I hadn’t been such an idiot. The focus of this three-part series was all on fifty days in late 1641 and early 1642, though, and there really needed to be more background information. The Personal Rule was barely mentioned, ship money wasn’t mentioned at all, and Scotland wasn’t mentioned until a long way into the first episode. And, without wishing to get too Victorian Whiggish about things, the “seeds of democracy” (Lisa’s expression) were sown well, well before the 1640s, thank you!!

Anyway.  Nice to have a historical docu-drama series with no dressing up or racing about, as I said – although Lisa did quite a bit of posing on staircases and gazing into the camera, not to mention gazing up at nude paintings. Oh, and Earl Spencer needs a haircut. I do wish the BBC would get over this obsession with trying to relate everything historical to the present day, though. But, if you want present day comparisons, then the contents of this programme made a few things very clear. Leaders need to stay in touch with the people and not live in a Westminster bubble. Extremists of any variety are bad news. Religion should be kept out of politics. London is out of step with the rest of the country. And anyone who’s running a country needs to understand that country’s history (let’s not even go there with Donald Trump saying that the Continental Army seized control of the airports).

Whilst I’m really not a fan of the revisionist short term causes theory, this did make everything sound rather dramatic.  You don’t often get such detailed coverage of this period, or indeed any period.  This was three hours of TV covering only fifty days.  And it did quite a convincing job of showing that war wasn’t inevitable – at least at that point. It all came across rather like a five set match at Wimbledon, with the momentum swinging first to one player and then to another! That’s actually quite a good analogy, seeing as they rather bizarrely made it sound as if only two people were involved and all the action took place in London. I don’t do revisionist views of the Civil War. Have I said that enough times now?!

It started off very strangely indeed, making it sound as if the whole country had turned Puritan (er, no) and everyone was narked with Charles I because he put on extravagant masques at court (had they got mixed up with the French Revolution?!). Yes, Charles I was unpopular. Yes, Henrietta Maria was unpopular because she was Catholic. But I think people were rather more concerned about the economic, political and religious issues than about masques at court!

Along came Pym’s Grand Remonstrance … and it was all made to sound like a populist battle, with Charles trying to win hearts and minds by staging grand parades and Pym trying to radicalise disaffected young men. Interesting point about the effect on voting in the Commons of MPs refusing to come to London because of plague. Later on, it was because of bad weather making travel difficult. Maybe that’s the way to deal with the House of Commons – hold votes when MPs can’t or won’t get to London! We didn’t hear that much about everything that was in the Grand Remonstrance, but currants were mentioned. Never mind ship money – apparently the issue with Charles I and his questionable tax-raising was that he was levying taxes on currants.

Then on to the Irish Rebellion – and this was interesting, because, for one reason and another, Cromwell’s massacres of Catholics in Ireland are widely known but the 1641 Portadown Massacre of Protestants in Ireland isn’t known nearly as well. It was horrific. And people were genuinely afraid. Was Pym exploiting people’s fears to his own ends by trying to end the king’s control over the militia? Whatever his reasons, Charles stupidly played right into his hands by turning to the bishops for support.

And, at this point, we got a lot of talk about John Lilburne – which was also interesting, because he’s normally mentioned more in connection with the rise of the Levellers in the mid-1640s, and his role earlier on tends to be overlooked. All so London-centric, though. The programme, I mean, not Lilburne!

Meanwhile, Pym had been banned from publishing the Grand Remonstrance, but he got round this by boring everyone. Seriously. One of his gang made a speech in the Commons that was so long and boring that a load of MPs got fed up and went home … whereupon a vote was held, which, with most of his opponents having left, Pym won. That’s actually a much better way of dealing with things than just keeping MPs away from London.

Henrietta Maria then got blamed for the Portadown Massacre: it was claimed that the rebels had had her authority to stage an uprising. At this point, I’d have really liked some discussion of how often queens get the blame for the stupidity of their husbands. Instead, we were told that her lady-in-waiting had taught her how to apply make-up. What?? Henrietta Maria’s unpopularity was due to the fact that she wore make-up? I don’t think so. Incidentally, who’s the great heroine of English Protestantism. Elizabeth I, who used to keep the Cabinet waiting until she’d got all her make-up on. I think we can discount the argument that the Civil War had anything to do with Henrietta Maria’s make-up.

Charles, getting rather stressed out about all this, decided to replace the incumbent Lieutenant of the Tower of London with an ally of his, one Thomas Lunsford. This was not a great idea, because Lunsford was very unpopular: people thought he was a cannibal. We definitely never heard about currants and cannibals when we “did” the Civil War at school! Then a load of radicalised Londoners had too much to drink over Christmas and started rioting. (Don’t ask me how getting drunk over Christmas was supposed to tie in with the idea that the country had gone really Puritanical.) Charles sacked Lunsford, but the drunken Londoners had got really stuck into the rioting by now. And the bishops were prevented from getting into the House of Lords to vote.

The bishops weren’t very pleased, which wasn’t unreasonable from their point of view, and protested, whereupon Pym’s gang decided that they should be impeached. Several bishops were arrested and locI often find myself wondering just how political leaders can be so bloody stupid. It’s something that doesn’t change from century to century. Lisa Hilton used the word “dim”. Charles had signed a bill which took away his power to dissolve Parliament – although it should be noted that it only applied to that particular Parliament, and that the power to dissolve Parliament in general (before the end of the five year fixed term we’re supposed to have now), or to prorogue Parliament, still lies with the sovereign – and then tried to get Pym on side by offering him the position of Chancellor of the Exchequer. Pym turned him down.

I was really glad, at this point, one of the historians pointed out that Pym was not some great hero.  We joke about Cromwell banning mince pies and all the rest of it, but there really wasn’t anything funny about Puritan extremism.  There still isn’t: it’s played a large part in the development of some very unpleasant attitudes amongst factions in both the United States and South Africa.  Pym even wanted to make Catholics wear distinctive clothing.  He never actually tried that, but he did try ordering the removal of Henrietta Maria’s household Catholic clergymen.  A very interesting point was made, which I must say I’ve never really thought of before, that Henrietta Maria had grown up in a France where Protestants were not persecuted.  I can reel off the dates of the passing and revocation of the Edict of Nantes without even thinking about them, but somehow I’d never really thought much about this being in between the two.

And, as if Henrietta Maria didn’t have enough problems, her friend and lady-in-waiting, Lucy Hay, was spying for Pym.  Was she Pym’s mistress?  The programme didn’t suggest that, but it’s been rumoured.  Nor did it mention that she was the Earl of Essex’s cousin.  Another person Charles and Henrietta Maria mistakenly trusted was George Digby, who at least wasn’t spying but who did make a complete mess of his task of denouncing Pym in the Lords, and just kind of wimped out.

I’m not keen on Henrietta Maria, but I do think she got a raw deal, and I think it’s very typical of how women so often get the blame for their powerful husbands’ stupidity.  And how people will attack a woman by impugning her virtue (very Victorian term there!).  I think she probably got involved with Henry Jermyn later on, when she was a widow, but I certainly don’t think she’d done so at this point –  but Pym was whipping up rumours that she had.  Everyone was turning against her.  She must have been terrified.  Nice to see the historians, especially the female historians, expressing sympathy for her.  And I rather like the tradition that she yelled at Charles and told him to stop being such a bloody wuss and go and do something about it.

We were into the third episode by this point, and this was by far the best of the three. Big drama!  The famous episode in which Charles barged into the House of Commons, only to find that the five MPs he was planning to arrest had done a bunk – tipped off by Lucy Hay, who was shown creeping around in a hooded cloak, looking rather like Madame in the Dogtanian cartoons.  I love the fact that the State Opening of Parliament still includes the door being slammed in Black Rod’s face, al because of this!  And it’s fascinating that Parliament, and also the people at the Guildhall, who refused to hand over Pym & co when Charles went there, had the authority nerve to stand up to him.  As one of the historians said, you can’t imagine that happening in Henry VIII’s time.  Charles believed in the divine right of monarchs … but there he was, calling out names with everyone refusing to tell him where the people he wanted were, like a hapless schoolteacher who couldn’t control the class.

What a prat, and what a mess.  As Earl Spencer said, anyone would have struggled to deal with all the political, social and religious troubles of the day (hooray – someone who wasn’t trying to make out that the causes of the Civil War were all short-term!), but Charles I didn’t have a clue.  Meanwhile, and rather scarily, radicals were joining the militia to get arms and training in how to use them.  And the Royal Family fled to Hampton Court Palace.

This was in early January, though, and the war didn’t actually kick off until August.  I’m not quite getting the idea of making a three-part series about fifty days in late 1641 and early 1642, with so little attention paid to what happened before and none to what happened after.  But it still made for interesting viewing.  Lisa proclaimed that, without the events of 1641/42, there would have been no American Revolution, no French Revolution and no democracy as we know it.  Yes.  I’ll go with that.  No Civil War, no Restoration Settlement, no Glorious Revolution, no Enlightenment  … no American Revolution, no French Revolution and no democracy as we know it.

Lisa finished off by asking the various historians she’d interviewed which side they’d have taken – and this bit was great, because she put it as it must have looked at the time.  We tie ourselves in knots over both the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution.  Social contracts, de facto and de jure, had Charles I betrayed his side of the bargain by refusing to play by the rules, had James II effectively abdicated by running off.  Leviathan was published in 1651 and Two Treatises of Government in 1689: none of this social contract stuff was going in 1642.  We need the Civil War to have happened, and we need Charles to have lost, because there was a danger that, otherwise, we’d have ended up with an absolute monarchy.  But we don’t really do rebellion and revolution.  So we try to justify it by thinking about ancient rights and liberties.  And it works to bad-mouth Henrietta Maria, because she was a foreigner.  But we don’t really do overthrowing the rightful government, any more than we do absolute monarchy.  So we tie ourselves in knots.

But, if you look at things as they’d have looked at the time, no-one could have seen what lay ahead.  There’d been loads of spats between kings and subjects.  Most people must have assumed that there’d be one battle, or maybe even just a confrontation, and it’d all have got sorted.  The rightful king or the defenders of ancient liberties?  Nah.  As Lisa said, it would have been a choice between a useless, unpopular king who wouldn’t play by the rules, or a bunch of radical extremists.  No-one seemed very enthusiastic either way.  And yet it really was one of the great turning points of history.   Sometimes, you just don’t know how things are going to turn out, do you?

 

Arabia with Levison Wood (second episode) – Discovery

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This episode whipped up a bit of storm on social media, but, as far as I’m concerned, anything which draws attention to the war in Yemen, which has resulted in the worst cholera epidemic ever recorded and over 20 million people going short of food, is welcome.  However, as with the episode about Iraq, it was hard not to feel that a war zone was being used to create drama – it felt rather like an Indiana Jones film, with protection being sought from a Sultan and borders being suddenly closed by Saudis.  We heard next to nothing about the horrific effects of the war on the people of Yemen.  Instead, we got a close-up view of a toilet on a boat, which wasn’t really what I wanted to see. The first part of the programme, in Oman, was better, though, even if there was a lot about rocks and sand and not a lot about Bedouins or souks.  Still no falafels, either; but we got to see the “Empty Quarter” desert and dolphins in the Gulf of Oman, and to hear about the frankincense trade.  And there were lots of camels.

Oman looked beautiful, and I’d really like to have seen some of the stunning mosques and palaces in Muscat, and a bit more of the souks (I don’t usually like shopping, but I love souks!), but we saw very little of that before Levison was off climbing rocks, crossing the Empty Quarter desert (which, as the name suggests, was, well, empty!) and complaining about the way his local guide treated the camels.  I get that this is the Discovery channel and not the History channel, but there’s still only so much sand you can look at!

However, we did get to meet some of the local people, and to see the trees from which frankincense was extracted, so that was interesting … but it still felt far more like an action film than a documentary.  I suppose you can see Levison Wood as a Boys’ Own adventurer and think that it’s all very exciting, but I thought the idea of this series was to show viewers that there’s so much more to the Middle East than war and terrorism.  I didn’t really mean sand!

From Oman, he crossed into Yemen, and that was what caused the fuss on social media.  I have no idea how easy or difficult it is to get a visa to enter Yemen, but it didn’t look as if he’d even tried: he just said that it was impossible to get a visa because of the war, and there was then all this drama about how he was going to get across the border with help from a mysterious Somali contact.  Which he duly did. Critics have commented that it’s not appropriate for someone to enter a country illegally in order to make a TV programme, and have pointed out that there’d be an outcry if a Yemeni citizen were found to have entered the UK or another western country illegally.

I can see that point, but I think entering Yemen illegally would have been justified if he’d shown, or at least talked about, the horrors of the war.  The situation in Yemen is not being widely reported in the media here, and I think people need to know what’s going on.

Another criticism has been that he was trying to be a “white saviour”.  There seems to be an increasing trend for someone to scream “neo-colonialist” or “white saviour” every time a white person from a western country reports on or makes any comment about a country in another part of the world.  Donations to Comic Relief dropped right off after David Lammy’s criticism of Stacey Dooley, who has worked hard to draw attention to issues faced by women and children in developing countries.  How does that help anyone?  You even hear criticism of Bob Geldof for raising money for famine relief in Ethiopia in the 1980s – do people think it would have been better if he hadn’t?!  In an ideal world, there wouldn’t be such disparities in wealth between countries, so the issue of charity work in developing countries wouldn’t arise, but this is not an ideal world. And  David Cameron tried to raise the issue of LGBT rights in Commonwealth countries and got a load of grief in response.  Of course no-one’s saying that western countries should be telling other countries what to do, but human rights are human rights.  As far as this series is concerned, the situation in Yemen is very serious, and not getting anything like as much coverage as it should; and I don’t find it at all appropriate for Twitter trolls to be calling Levison Wood an “orientalist” or a “white saviour” for trying to highlight what’s going on there.  End of rant!!

Having had a good rant about all that … I was disappointed to find he didn’t actually say anything very much.  There was one short interview with some people who were being forced to live on the streets because they’d had to leave their home, but that was it.  To be fair, though, he didn’t get chance to see much more of the country, because the Saudis closed the border, the intelligence services were on to him, and he had to get out. There followed a load of Boys’ Own Adventure/Hard Man/Indiana Jones/Romancing the Stone/whatever stuff about going to Saudi Arabia in a flimsy boat through pirate-infested waters.  But this was after he’d got back to Oman, so why not just go from Oman to Saudi Arabia across the land border?!  And, having got back to Oman, he could have explained more about what was going on in Yemen.  It doesn’t all have to be action.  This is not a G A Henty or R M Ballantyne book: this is real life.

Sorry, I feel like I’m doing nothing but moaning, but I’m just finding this really frustrating.  There are very few TV programmes about the Middle East.  99 times out of 100, if the Middle East’s mentioned on TV it’s on the news, and it’s very rarely good news.  And, even then, it’s very rarely anything about Yemen.  There are bits of this programme which give us a tantalising glimpse of just how good it could be, like when he was talking to the Omani desert tribesmen about frankincense … but then it just reverts back to being like an action film.

Oh, and neither G A Henty nor R M Ballantyne would have described a toilet.   It’s not very heroic, is it?!

Oh well.  At least it did a bit to bring the Yemeni situation to public attention … even though I’m not sure how many people are watching the programme or reading about it.  But a bit more focus on the countries being visited and a bit less action film stuff would be extremely welcome.  I want to know about these places, their people, their cultures!    Please  ….

Arabia with Levison Wood – Discovery

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“Arabia” – a region which used to be associated with dashing explorers and adventurers, Scheherezade’s stories and magic carpets. Iraq – all the history of Mesopotamia, Sumer, Babylon, Assyria, Ur and Nineveh. I was really hoping that this programme would get beyond the image of the Middle East as a place that’s all about conflict and terrorism, and show us its history and cultures. Even a few falafels and a bit of oud music would have been a start. Instead, most of what we got was close-up coverage of the war against Islamic State. We see that on the news all the time: I really didn’t need to see it here too.  It was very interesting, although for some reason it made absolutely no mention of the Yazidis or the Assyrians; but it was nearly all about war, and there’s so much more to the Middle East than that.

This first episode started off in the Kurdish autonomous region of Iraq, close to the border with Syria, with the team being stopped from crossing the border into “federal Iraq” as tensions rose due to a referendum on Kurdish independence. The West let the Kurds down very badly after the First World War, and again after the Gulf War of 1990/91. The vast majority of people in Iraqi Kurdistan want independence, and that’s without even starting to talk about the Kurds in Turkey and elsewhere; but it’s not happening. I’d like to have heard more about Kurdish history and culture, but instead it felt more like an Indiana Jones film, with Levison & co making a dramatic dash to get to another border crossing before it closed for the night.  Very action movie, but not very informative.

Their next stop was Mosul. They stayed in a military safehouse – and took a taxi to the front line of the war against Islamic State. As you do. What we did see was very interesting – and very distressing, as we learnt that a man whom Levison interviewed had been killed by Islamic State only a week later, and heard a woman describing about how she’d been separated from her baby several months earlier and hadn’t seen him since. But there was no reference at all to what had been done to the Yazidis and the Assyrians, and, although we saw the horrific destruction wrought by the bombings, we didn’t hear about the damage done to historic/cultural sites – we were just shown piles of rubble. It didn’t even mention that Mosul was on the site of Nineveh – OK, whether or not people believe stories about blokes being thrown off ships and eaten by whales is up to them, but the point is that this is a city so ancient that it’s mentioned in the Old Testament.  Surely that merited at least a quick name check?

Obviously I’m not saying that a legend from thousands of years ago is more important than the terrible suffering of people today, but some background information and context would have been nice. It sometimes felt that the main aim of the programme was to be daring. Getting to the front line of the war against Islamic State. In a taxi!

Not that far from the devastated centre of Mosul, we saw shops and cafes – but we didn’t get to see any Iraqi cuisine. One good point that was made was that there were no women around, only men. That said a lot.

Then on to Baghdad. Things seemed pretty normal there, but all we got was people sitting around and talking about war – nothing about the traditions and lifestyles and history.  We did get to see Saddam Hussein’s bunker, though. But nothing about the city’s incredible history as a centre of learning and culture.  And not a falafel in sight.

The best bit actually came at the end, when Levison visited the marshlands in southern Iraq. He didn’t even mention that this was literally by the rivers of Babylon, though. Even if you’re not into either history or religion, or indeed Boney M, surely you’d mention the fact that you were by the rivers of Babylon?! Apparently not.

I well remember hearing about the Marsh Arabs back in 1991, but, as public attention moved away from Iraq after the war, I don’t think we really heard much about how Saddam Hussein ordered the marshes to be drained, displacing many of the Marsh Arabs and doing horrific damage to the ecosystem. It was good to see that things are looking up now, and to hear interviews with both men and women involved in traditional work in the marshlands. This was more the sort of thing I’d been hoping for.

Next week’s episode will include Yemen, and I very much hope that it might bring some attention to a tragically under-reported conflict – but I’m also hoping to hear more about the people of the places visited, and not just the politics.  Maybe it’s not as dramatic as mad dashes for border crossings, but I think we hear enough drama where the Middle East’s concerned!  Let’s hear about other things as well.