Wartime Britain – Channel 5

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  The star of this programme, with all due respect to the family reconstructing life in wartime Britain, was a trilby-hatted potato being serenaded by Betty Turpin (sorry, Betty Driver).  “Potato Pete, Potato Pete, look who’s coming down the street.”  I love the wartime information cartoon characters – Potato Pete, Dr Carrot, and, also featured in the first episode of this two-parter, Mrs Sew-and-Sew.  So much better at getting the message across than the likes of the irritating “obesity tsars” we get now.  Nice mention of the work done by Guides and Scouts, as well: we don’t hear much about the important contribution made to the war effort by young people.

I’ve had it up to here with lockdown.  My respect for the generations who got through six years of war has always been high, but it’s gone stratospheric since all this started – and it was fascinating to see how, despite all the talk of keeping calm and carrying on, so much attention was paid to looking after the nation’s mental health, whether it was putting morale-boosting music on the radio and encouraging employers to letting it be played in workplaces, or promoting the idea of “victory roll” hairstyles.  Or having a laugh with the Colonel Bogey “balls” song (you know the one).  And, of course, getting Betty Turpin to serenade a trilby-hatted potato.

It wasn’t the best programme I’ve ever seen, it has to be said.  Referring to the Second World War as “World War II” seems to be endemic now, and I suppose could be forgiven.  Referring to the Queen as “Her Royal Highness” rather than “Her Majesty” really couldn’t be forgiven, though, and saying that GIs were in Britain in 1940 was even worse.  And a lot of it was same old, same old – using gravy browning to draw on stockings, thinking that carrots help you to see in the dark (because RAF men joked about how that was how they were able to see what they were doing), etc.

But there were some fascinating snippets in there, which aren’t mentioned so often.  If the binmen noticed food in your bin, you could get into trouble for wasting food at a time of shortages.  (Potatoes were not affected by shortages, as so many of them could be grown in the UK, hence the Potato Pete song encouraging people to eat potatoes!)   Even growing up in the ’80s, we had the mentality that it was a sin to waste good food.  I never understand younger people chucking stuff out because it’s five minutes past its sell-by date, although I don’t think doing that’s as common now as it was twenty years ago.  And, whilst I think most people are familiar with the idea of “make do and mend”, we don’t usually hear about bemused servicemen coming home on leave to find that their clothes had been transformed into outfits for their female relatives 🙂 .

Another good point made was about the role of older children in the war – all the work done by Guides and Scouts, and the importance of young people aged over 14 in the workforce.  Also mentioned was how families made their own toys for little kids, because toy factories had been turned over to producing goods for the war effort.

And there was a lot about hair and make-up – and how part of the reason for focusing on this was to cock a snook at Hitler, who subscribed to the idea of “pure natural womanhood”.  Sanctimonious people going on about how people shouldn’t moan about hairdressers and beauty salons being closed during lockdown could do with watching this part of the first episode.  OK, if people don’t want to wear make-up or do their hair, that’s obviously up to them, but my eldest great-aunt, who lived through two world wars, was still slapping on a faceful of make-up every day when she was in her 90s and living in a care home, and I really do get that.  Anyway, I haven’t got the confidence to leave the house looking “natural” – it might work if you’re stunningly beautiful, but it certainly doesn’t for me!  Using beetroot lipstick, boot polish mascara and cornflour/calamine lotion foundation when you couldn’t get anything else … brilliant!

But the main thing that really came through was that, as far as possible – obviously not so easy with so many people away in the Armed Forces or doing other war work, and many children having been evacuated – people got through it together. Yes, all right, we all know about the people who broke rules on rationing and all the rest of it, but they were a minority, and things like sewing circle and dances were so important.  Even during air raids, you’d often be with neighbours.  It helps so much when people pull together.  And people understood the importance of keeping up morale.  Also, they had a trilby-hatted potato.  I’m going to be earwormed by that potato song for days …

 

 

 

The Bird Catcher

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Today is Holocaust Memorial Day.  This isn’t a particularly good Holocaust film, or a particularly good film at all, but it deserves credit for telling one of the many lesser-known Holocaust stories.  It seems as if every month there’s another new book called The X of Auschwitz or The Y of Auschwitz.  I’m not for a moment criticising those books, but there’s a lot of focus on the death camps, and on what happened in certain countries; and there are other stories to be told as well.

The beautiful, historical Norwegian city of Trondheim is probably one of the last places in mainland Europe which you’d associate with the Holocaust, but it was occupied by the Nazis for five years.  In the October of 1942, it was placed under martial law.  Dozens of people were arrested and executed, and the entire Jewish population of the town rounded up.  In this film, our heroine Esther rather improbably escapes, and ends up disguised as a boy and working on a farm run by Nazi sympathisers … before blurting out her true identity in a sauna full of naked Norwegian Nazis (honestly), and escaping by sledge across a frozen lake to Sweden.  As I said, it’s not the greatest film ever, and the story’s more than a bit unconvincing, but it does draw attention to the little-told story of the Holocaust in Norway.

The relationship between Esther, or, as she calls herself, Ola, and the family on the farm is complex.  She’s originally taken there by the son of the family, Axsel, who’s got cerebral palsy.  Axsel and Esther form a close bond.  Axsel’s father, Johann, sees Ola/Esther as the strong son he always wanted … apparently not noticing that she’s actually a girl, even though they’re in close physical proximity for a lot of the time.  Johann’s wife Anna is having an affair with a Nazi officer, but, when she finds out who Esther really is, is quite sympathetic towards her – and, at the end of the film, when Esther returns to Trondheim and Anna is there, being spat at by locals as a Nazi sympathiser, Esther shows her sympathy in return.

The Nazis are around all the time – the German Nazis, and also the members of the Norwegian far right party led by Vidkun Quisling.  There’s no mention of the Resistance.  There’s no mention of anyone helping Jews to escape: Norway didn’t see the mass rescue that Denmark did, but about two-thirds of Norwegian Jews were still able to leave.  Nobody’s wearing paper clips attached to their clothes.  There’s no mention of Telavag, the town destroyed by the Nazis in a horrific atrocity which saw all the men either executed or sent to a concentration camp and all the women and children imprisoned.  There’s certainly no reference to the brave Norwegians who sailed from Bergen to Scotland in little boats, to be trained by British forces and return as saboteurs.

That’s very unusual for a story set in wartime Norway: the extent to which there was collaboration is still controversial, but I certainly wasn’t expecting the film to show so many characters as being pro-Nazi, with barely a mention of any who weren’t.  It’d be interesting to know how this film was received in Norway, if it’s been shown there.

To get back to the story, after the bit with the naked Nazis in the sauna, Esther and Axsel flee together but, sadly, the ice cracks and Axsel drowns.  Esther makes it to Sweden, survives, and returns to Norway after the war.  You do wonder why, if neutral Sweden was so close, she didn’t try to escape across the border sooner.  But a lot of things about this film don’t bear up to too much scrutiny.  The best thing about it is all the glorious shots of snowy Norwegian scenery.  But, as I said, it does show one of the many little-known stories of the Holocaust.  There are a lot of them.

 

The Chalet School in Guernsey by Katherine Bruce

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Pity the Coronation Street scriptwriters, who’ve tried so hard to reflect the reality of Covid-era Britain but, not having crystal balls, couldn’t foresee the imposition of Lockdown Two and Tier bloody Three.   And so the episodes we’re seeing now, filmed three months in advance, are sadly a long way removed from what’s actually happening.  Now pity, a million times more, Elinor M Brent-Dyer (EBD), who moved the Chalet School and Jem Russell’s Sanatorium from post-Anschluss Austria to the safety of Guernsey, only for the Nazis to occupy the Channel Islands almost as soon as she’d put down her pen.

The need to get the School and the San over to the British mainland in the next book meant that EBD didn’t have much chance to write about their time in Guernsey, and this new “fill-in” … well, fills that in.  It includes quite a lot of detail about life and restrictions in the early part of the war, which is fascinating from a social history viewpoint.  The Armada editions of the wartime books, the ones in print when I was a kid, annoyingly had a lot of the detail specific to wartime cut out of them.  It’s good to have so much included here.  Our favourite characters may be fictional, but they live(d) in a real place, in a real time.

Fill-in authors do, obviously, have to work with what EBD wrote.  And, as much as I love the wartime books – The Chalet School in Exile really is a very special piece of writing – , it does have to be said that some of what’s in them is a bit bonkers.  Karen, Anna, Frau Mieders and her sister, Herr Laubach, and Emmie and Johanna Linders all somehow escape from/”get themselves smuggled out of” the Third Reich, and a whole gang of people, two of whom have escaped from a concentration camp, somehow all end up meeting up in Bordeaux.  Too many escape stories told in detail would have just been too unconvincing, but I’m delighted that the one we get here is Karen’s … even though I maintain that Karen wasn’t actually a Pfeifen but a family friend (yes, I know that everyone else thinks she was a Pfeifen), and that Anna was Marie’s cousin rather than, as stated here, Marie’s sister (but the books are rather unclear on this).  I’d love to know just how EBD thought they all managed to escape, and indeed to enter the British Isles without the necessary visas, but never mind!

A gripe.  It traumatises me when people use “England” instead of “Britain” or “the UK”, and “Russia” instead of “the Soviet Union”.  I am a pedantic historian.   I always pick up on that.  Moan over!

Then, getting back to what EBD wrote, there’s the rather unlikely coincidence of Bob Maynard just happening to have a friend who just happens to have an enormous house to let, which just happens to be close to where Paul Ozanne’s just got a new job.  But, again, never mind!    Ernest Howell’s appearance at the School is one of the scenes which overlaps with The Chalet School Goes To It/The Chalet School At War; but there aren’t many of them, and it wouldn’t have made sense had that one not been included.

It’s nearly all original stuff, other than that.  Some things which never quite get explained by EBD are explained here, which Chalet School fans will enjoy –  notably Rosalie Dene’s job change and Evvy Lannis’s comings and goings.  It’s also great to see a positive portrayal of Marilyn Evans, who’s vilified in the “canon” books without ever actually appearing.  I’ve got a lot of sympathy for Marilyn, the Head Girl who put her school work ahead of the vast array of duties which the Chalet School expects from its prefects.  She was actually at the school to get an education and some qualifications!  She appears in this book as a new girl, and her hard work is actually appreciated at this point.

As much as I love the books, I do get quite frustrated by the attitude towards Marilyn, and the attitude in the wartime books and immediate post-war books towards education, qualifications and university entrance in general.  They don’t say anything very positive about women’s place in life, and that ties in with the very strange scene which we see at the beginning of the The Chalet School in Exile, in which it’s Jem Russell, rather than Madge Russell, who turns up at a staff meeting to say that the School’s going to be moving to the Sonnalpe, and Jem who makes all the decisions about moving to Guernsey.

Until then, Jem hasn’t really got involved in the running of the School.  Why would he?  He’s got more than enough to do with the San.  And he respects the fact that it’s Madge’s school.  Then, later on, Gay Lambert’s brother writes to Jem, rather than to Madge.   And Jack Maynard orders Miss Bubb about, and in front of a pupil to boot!   Miss Bubb’s the acting headmistress, and he’s only the owner’s brother-in-law.  It’s rather odd, in a series which starts with a strong young woman making her own choices and decisions, and shows women managing perfectly well to run a school without any male input.

Anyway.   In this book, Jem and Jack don’t deliberately take over, but we see Hilda Annersley coming to speak to Madge about leaving Guernsey, only to find that Madge is out … and talking it through with Jem and Jack, who both just happen to be around, instead.  It ties in with what EBD wrote, but I do wish EBD had let Madge be the one to decide – or, at least, Madge and Jem jointly, given that the San was affected too and they obviously had to move together.  But, hooray, in this book, Madge does go to the staff meeting at which all the details are discussed.

Before then, there’s a wonderful original, and wonderfully original, chapter in which we see some of the older girls taking part in a rehearsal/role play scenario of what might happen in the event of an invasion.  It’s based on real life events, and it’s fascinating –  a real taste of wartime Guernsey, and a reminder of how frightening those times were.

And there’s also a lot about Melanie Kerdec, a character who appears in the wartime books without it ever being made clear whether or not she’s the same Melanie Kerdec who was part of “The Mystic M” in The New Chalet School.  Presumably she was, but we’re never told.  Without wanting to post a lot of spoilers, in case anyone’s reading my waffle – is anyone reading my waffle?! – and is getting the book as a Christmas present, Melanie is a prominent character in this, in a classic “troublesome new girl eventually settles in and decides the school is great” storyline.

This is the second wartime fill-in in a row, and it’s really interesting to see our old friends – the characters are our friends, aren’t they 🙂 ? – against the background of such a difficult time, and in a setting which is firmly rooted in a particular time.  We know what lay ahead.  EBD didn’t.  And the characters didn’t.  What did EBD have planned for the Chalet School in Guernsey?  We’ll never know, and it’s sad that she never got the chance to write it, but maybe this was some of it.  And any Chalet School fill-in is always a good comfort read, and that’s something which I think we could all do with at the moment.

 

My Family, the Holocaust and Me, episode 2 – BBC 1

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I think part of the idea behind this series was to show that the events of the Holocaust, whilst they were 75/80 years ago, are still having a big impact on perfectly ordinary British people leading perfectly ordinary lives; and it got that across very well.  The lady whose family were arrested by the Nazis only a few hundred yards from the safety of the Swiss border, near the ironically idyllic setting of Annecy – it sounded like a story from a book or a film, but it was real life – spent her teenage years in Manchester and went to my old school, so that was certainly pretty close to home for me.  We also saw Bernie Graham, who featured in the first episode, and Robert Rinder’s mum Angela Cohen saying memorial prayers for uncles and aunties who’d been killed in concentration camps, and being overcome with emotion: these were immediate relatives whom they should have known and loved and who should have played a big part in their lives.  

And we saw Robert and Angela meeting Leon Ritz, the last survivor of Treblinka, and hear him saying that anger wouldn’t do any good and that you had to look to the future.  Finally, we heard Robert say that he’d feared Treblinka would rob him of his optimism, but that he was still able to feel hopeful.   

These two programmes really were very well done.  Personal history programmes can sometimes be more effective than ordinary documentaries, and these were a prime example of that.

We learnt last week that Bernie had always been told that his young uncle had taken his own life in Dachau.  This week, we learnt that that wasn’t the case: he’d died in the terrible conditions there.  At that point, the ashes of Dachau victims were being sent to their friends and relatives, and so there was a grave for Bernie to visit, in Frankfurt where his uncle had come from.  He was able to say the Kaddish, the Jewish memorial prayer, there, as Angela was for her aunts and uncles at Treblinka, and it clearly meant a lot to both of them and to Robert … but so, so distressing.

The mum of Noemie Lopian, the lady from Manchester, who’s still alive and whom we met later on in the programme, had been a young child in France during the war.  She and her siblings had been sent away by their desperate parents, in the hope that the Resistance could get them into Switzerland.  They’d been part of a group of 32 children accompanied by young Jewish French Resistance member Marianne Cohn.  Only a few hundred yards from the border, they were arrested and imprisoned in the border town of Annemasse.  We saw Noemie actually visit the prison where they’d been held.

Marianne, who’d already saved the lives of many children by getting them into Switzerland, was raped, tortured and murdered.   The children were eventually freed, due to the intervention of the local mayor, and were helped to escape to Switzerland.  Noemie’s grandparents survived in hiding, and were later reunited with their children.  So that was a positive story, but, as she said, her mum had been through a horrific ordeal, and she felt that hearing the detail and seeing where it had happened gave a new dimension to her feelings for her.  

It really was a very emotional programme, all in a very natural way about very unnatural events.  I don’t always have a lot of praise for the BBC these days, but well done to them and to Robert Rinder and everyone else involved.  These two programmes were superb.

 

My Family, the Holocaust and Me – BBC 1

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Family history programmes are becoming increasingly popular, and they do work very well: they personalise and humanise history in a way that text books and ordinary documentaries can’t do, especially when talking about the murder of millions of ordinary people.  Many Holocaust survivors, and Second World War veterans, went to their graves without talking about what had happened: there was so much that the people in this programme didn’t know about their own grandparents and great aunts/uncles.

A lot of Holocaust programmes only focus on the death camps.  That’s understandable, but it means that other aspects of what happened are overlooked.  This programme didn’t: we did hear about the horrors of the camps, but we also saw Robert “Judge” Rinder visiting the site of an Einsatzgruppen massacre on the Lithuanian-Belarusian border, and we saw Louisa Clein (Maya in Emmerdale) and her sister Natalie looking into their grandmother’s involvement in the Dutch resistance, and how she gave her children up to foster parents for their own safety.  And it really was very well done.

The mass grave where hundreds of people, including some of Robert Rinder’s relatives, were buried, some of them still alive, is still there.  There’s something particularly sad about those little villages.  I’ve been to Babi Yar/Babyn Yar, but so many of the Einsatzgruppen massacres took place in little villages, or in forests, and nobody goes to visit the sites: how many people go to visit small villages on the Lithuanian-Belarusian border?  And that way of life, going back to the Middle Ages, was wiped out for good: communities in cities were to some extent rebuilt, but not those in villages.

This is highly recommended, and there’s another episode next week, which I’ll certainly watch.

We had three family stories in this.  Robert Rinder himself was looking into the history of some relatives on his father’s side.  His maternal grandfather was a Holocaust survivor, but his paternal grandfather, who featured in the programme but sadly died with coronavirus earlier this year, was a Cockney born and bred.  However, some of his relatives died in … ah, the wonders of Eastern European moving borders.  It was part of Russian-ruled Lithuania, which was in Poland in the inter-war years, and was then split between Lithuania and Belarus, even though most of the surviving population’s Polish … so the village where they actually lived is now in Lithuania, and the village 20 miles or so away, where they were murdered, is in Belarus.  He was able to speak to an elderly lady who actually remembered the massacre, remembered hearing the screams.  She talked about how the ground was still moving as they covered it up: people were still alive.  And the grave’s there – and it’s huge.  So many people, just gunned down.

We also saw a man called Bernie Graham visit Frankfurt, where his grandparents had come from.  His grandfather had survived, and been reunited with Bernie’s mum, who’d come to England on the Kindertransport: his grandmother hadn’t.  He’d never been to Germany before, because he’d felt uncomfortable about it. There’d been some sort of family rumour that his grandmother had died after the liberation of Auschwitz, but she hadn’t: she’d died in Sobibor.  He heard her story, and he also heard about the brutality suffered by his grandfather.  His grandfather had lost an eye, and he’d often said about how that was down to the Nazis, but hadn’t talked any more about it.

Bernie, named after an uncle who’d taken his own life in Dachau, said that he felt that he’d been born into a state of bereavement: his friends would talk about their grandmas and aunties and uncles, and he didn’t have any.

And we saw Louisa Clein and her sister Natalie visiting Amsterdam, to learn about their grandmother, and her sister who hadn’t survived.  The grandmother’s story was not what you’d expect at all: she’d been involved with the Dutch resistance.  They knew that, because she’d received a certificate from Eisenhower after the war, but they didn’t know the detail, and they heard about how she’d helped Allied airmen to escape, which was fascinating.  And she’d given her children up to foster parents, and that saved their lives.

But her sister had died.  She’d been taken to a transit camp in Westerbork after refusing to wear an “S” symbol, and then deported to Sobibor, where she’d been killed.  They were able to speak to a man whose father had been this great-aunt’s boyfriend, and had actually gone to Germany to try to find her after she’d been deported.  There was a system whereby some Dutch Jews were sent to another place in the Netherlands, at Barveneld, where they were able to live relatively normal lives and she’d have stood a good chance of survival.  Having been a teacher, she was considered important enough to be put on this list – but the news came one day too late.  She’d been deported the day before.  You couldn’t make it up.  So sad.

They said that they’d known very little about her: their grandmother didn’t talk about her.  And that now they felt that at least they knew about her life, and what she was like.  And that was what this programme was really doing: it was taking individuals, it was humanising the worst period of human history.  This was their grandma’s sister, a teacher, a dancer, someone who was stubborn enough to refuse to wear an “S”, who had a boyfriend who was so devoted to her that he went into Nazi Germany to try to find her, and at least now they knew all that.  It was very powerful.

This really was an excellent hour’s TV.  Not everyone feels comfortable watching programmes like this, but they are very well worth watching.

The Occupation by Deborah Swift

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The occupation in this case was the Nazi occupation of Jersey during the Second World War, and the book did quite a good job of getting across what that meant for the islanders – the deportations and in some cases the killings, the bringing of Eastern European prisoners to the islands to be used as slave labour, the billeting of Nazi troops in civilian homes and the abuse of women that that sometimes brought about, the taking over of food and other essential supplies, and the general restrictions on daily life.

I kept thinking that the lives of the main characters were far-fetched but, to be fair, they were based on real life stories.  Fact can be a lot stranger than fiction.

Our main people were Celine, a Jersey woman, and Fred (Siegfried), her German husband.  He was called up into the Wehrmacht – which seemed a bit odd in that this was before the Occupation, but Germans were certainly ordered home from other areas, so I suppose it may well have happened.   Then he wasn’t given any training, so he struggled.  Then he was assigned to Paris as a spy, but got involved with the French Resistance.  I wasn’t 100% convinced by the idea of a German spy, even a reluctant one, joining the French Resistance, but the accounts of the Resistance’s work were certainly realistic and interesting.

Meanwhile, back in Jersey, Celine was hiding her Jewish best friend, Rachel, even after Fred’s brother arrived in Jersey, moved into her house, and forced her to share his bed.  As unlikely as it sounded, this really was based on a true story – that of Dorothea Weber, who hid her Jewish friend Hedwig Bercu in her Jersey home throughout the war.  The idea was that Rachel and Celine had both missed the last boat to England, which wasn’t overly convincing as boats were apparently still running after this was supposed to have happened: it might have been better just to have made some excuse for them both deciding to stay.  Rachel faked her own death before hiding out at Celine’s, which sounded totally far-fetched but was what Hedwig Bercu actually did … although, in her case, the Nazis weren’t convinced, whereas, in this book, they apparently were.

This wasn’t brilliantly written, which might be why I kept feeling that it wasn’t entirely convincing even though it was based on real life stories, but the accounts of what went on both in Jersey and in Paris under Nazi occupation were certainly worth reading, and the story of Dorothea Weber and Hedwig Bercu is fascinating, and inspiring.  So too is any story of resistance work under Nazi occupation.  There are some truly wonderful human beings out there.

The Bettany Twins and the Chalet School by Helen Barber

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OK, this really wasn’t what I was expecting!   I don’t want to give the game away for anyone who’s got this book but hasn’t read it yet (I never know whether anyone actually reads anything I write or not 🙂 ), but let’s just say that it involves a wartime spy story about an Indian jewellery box and a Nazi plot, in which are embroiled both Dick Bettany’s new house in Devon and the Armishire poacher once encountered by Daisy Venables and her two best pals.  Rather more Enid Blyton than Elinor M Brent-Dyer.  However, as the author points out, the “canon” books also include spy stories – Gertrud Beck for one and the Chart of Erisay for another – and strange adventures (notably the one where a kidnapping drug gang give Val Gardiner rich creamy milk and pay for her train ticket, and not forgetting Professor Richardson’s spaceship).  And it means that we get to see Madge being the heroine of a dramatic car chase through the countryside.  I love Madge, so I particularly enjoyed that bit.

If you were expecting Sales, Christmas plays, showdowns in the study, prefects’ meetings and tea parties at Joey’s, though, you’re going to be out of luck – and, given that people pay the premium prices for the “fill-in” books because they want to read about the Chalet School, some readers may have issues with that.  But there’s school stuff in there too, we get to see plenty of the Bettany and Russell families (and not too much of the Maynards, which makes a pleasant change), and we get to see quite a bit of interaction between the School and the locals, something which most people love about the Tyrol books and bemoan the lack of in the British and Swiss books.  This isn’t one which I’ll read over and over again, but I did quite enjoy it.

I love the family scenes in The Chalet School in Exile and Bride Leads the Chalet School, and am always sorry that we don’t see more of the Russell and Bettany boys during the course of the series.  I was disappointed that David Russell, for whom I’ve got a soft spot, didn’t feature in this, but, as the title makes clear, it’s mostly about the three sets of Bettany twins – Madge and Dick, Peggy and Rix, and Maurice and Maeve.  People on fan fora/fan groups often say that it’d be interesting to see more about how the Bettany family got on when two families suddenly became one – Madge, Dick and the two youngest children, who’d lived as a family unit in India, and the four eldest children, who’d been brought up by Madge and Jem alongside the Russell and Venables children.  So I think this was a great idea for a fill-in book.

As we – i.e. Chalet School fans –  know, there’s a bit of a muddle over the Bettanys’ return from India.  The three short “retrospectives”, Tom, Rosalie and Mystery, seem to forget that there’s a war on, and so we get Dick, Mollie, Maeve and Maurice sailing from India to Britain in wartime, which seems very odd, and then there’s also a mention of them spending time in Australia, which doesn’t seem to fit with anything else.  So Helen Barber did face quite a challenge in making sense of it, and explained it by saying that Dick was involved in secret war work which necessitated his return home.

I thought that that was a good idea, but the spy/mystery/adventure story itself really is very far-fetched, and, as I said, seems to belong far more to an Enid Blyton series than to the Chalet School.  Also, we see quite a few characters who are Helen Barber’s own creations from her Taverton books, rather than being the old Chalet School friends for whom most readers are probably looking.  But the school scenes and the family scenes do work very well, and it’s nice to see Miss Wilson in her role as brevet auntie as well as her role as headmistress.

The characters are all very well-portrayed, too.  Maeve and Maurice are only seven at this point, and the Chalet School books don’t include many school scenes with such young children – apart from the excruciating ones in which Robin Humphries is treated like a toddler, and, even with those, we don’t see things from Robin’s own viewpoint.  We do with Maeve in this book, and Helen Barber manages that very well.

All in all, this wasn’t what I was expecting, but it’s a fair point that the Chalet School books do sometimes veer off into spy stories, adventure stories, etc … and I did love the idea of Madge whizzing round country lanes in pursuit of a Nazi spy who’d got Maeve and a Welsh harp in the back of his van.  We also hear that Madge has recently been appointed secretary of the local WI.  I love the description of Madge in the later books, sounding a bit like Audrey and Marjory from To The Manor Born, involved on loads of committees, and always wish we’d seen some of that during the war years, as I’m sure Madge would very much have wanted to Do Her Bit.  Go Madge!   If you were looking for a classic Chalet School story, this isn’t one.  But, if you want a general GO book to read, then this isn’t a bad one at all.

The Singapore Grip – ITV

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I hope that this gets better, because, despite the attractive sets and the interesting historical context, the first episode wasn’t particularly, well, gripping.  Whilst I understand that it’s supposed to be a satire, the nasty businessman, the temptress daughter, the spoilt brat son and the nice but dim new business partner were so caricatured that it was hard to take them seriously.  That sort of thing works brilliantly in Carry On films or ’80s sitcoms (speaking of which, all the references to the rubber industry kept making me think of the Union Jack Rubber Company in You Rang M’Lord), but not in something which is supposed to be a drama.  The best character was Webb senior, played by Charles Dance, but he’s been bumped off already!   And the jumping about with the timeline was confusing.

But the sets are nice.  There were no historical/anachronistic blunders.  And maybe it’ll get better, once we get into the love triangle between Mr Nice But Dim, the temptress daughter, and the “mystery” Chinese woman played by Xin from Coronation Street.  And I assume that we are actually going to see the fall of Singapore to the Japanese – I think we’re meant to be in 1941 at the moment.  I hope it gets better, anyway.  There’s nothing else on on Sunday nights at the moment.

We’re in Singapore.  Obviously.  Charles Dance, Mr Webb senior, sadly died part-way into the episode, although not until after he’d struck a blow for the older generation by wandering around the garden topless.  Without a scythe, though. So his nice but dim son has inherited his share of the rubber company which he owns jointly with Mr Blackett/Nasty Businessman, who has two giddy daughters.  The elder daughter told her dad, to whom she’s creepily close, that of course she’d marry the nice but dim guy, and it didn’t matter what he was like, followed by lots of tittering and giggling.  However, it appears that the nice but dim guy is involved with the mysterious Chinese woman, whom the Blacketts met a few years earlier and who has now arrived in Singapore as a refugee, and is suspected of being a communist.  I’m not quite sure what the point of the other daughter and the spoilt brat son is.  Or the wife, which is a shame, because Jane Horrocks is wasted playing a character who hardly does anything.

I shall persevere.  I’m hoping that young Mr Webb is not as dim as he seems, and I’d quite like to know what’s going on with the mysterious woman.  And it might get better …

 

After the War: from Auschwitz to Ambleside by Tom Palmer

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There was a lot of praise earlier this year for BBC 2’s The Windermere Children , about a group of young Holocaust survivors who were brought to the Calgarth Estate on the shores of Windermere to begin rebuilding their lives.  This book covers the same subject, but it’s aimed at children in the Juniors/Key Stage 2.  It’s a difficult theme to tackle in an age appropriate way, but the author’s done an excellent job of it.

Most of the adult characters in the book were real people; but the three main characters, the protagonist Yossi and his friends Leo and Mordecai, are fictional, although their experiences are based closely on those of the real Windermere Children.  As with No Ballet Shoes in Syria , the story of Yossi’s experiences in his (unnamed) home city in Poland and in the concentration camps is told through a series of flashbacks as particular incidents trigger memories, which I think works well for this sort of book.  Whilst it doesn’t actually talk about gas chambers, it does mention ashes, and it doesn’t shy away from showing shootings and beatings, and telling us that the boys’ relatives have been murdered.  But there has to be a balance between getting that message across and not upsetting young children too much: this way, readers know from the start that at least Yossi and his friends survive, and that they’re now in a place of safety.

We also see how they do begin to rebuild their lives, thanks to the wonderful care provided at the Calgarth Estate – physically, with nutritious food and exercise, emotionally, and practically as they learn English and consider what they might do when it’s time to move on.  The author’s from Leeds and there’s a very strong Leodensian bias, with representatives of the Leeds Jewish community visiting the estate and our three boys eventually deciding to move to Leeds.  I’d have made it Manchester 🙂 , and the word “London” is never even mentioned, but, OK, the point is that they’re moving to somewhere where they’ve been told that they’ll be welcome!  Another key point is that they’re moving there together.  They’ve lost all their relatives, and the communities in which they grew up have been pretty much wiped out, but they’ve got each other now; and that does come across very well.

The author’s put a huge amount of effort into this.  He’s visited not only Windermere but also Auschwitz and Theresienstadt, spoken to representatives of Holocaust-related charities and people who grew up in the Calgarth Estate area, and interviewed some of the surviving Windermere Children.  That’s a lot of work for a 176-page book for children, and it shows how much he wanted to handle a sensitive subject well.  And he has done.

My only real quibble with it was that none of the main characters were girls.  To be fair to the author, nearly all the Windermere Children were boys, but I think it would have been nice, especially with an eye to appealing to female readers as well as male readers, to have had some female input.  Having said which, most of the adult characters were female, and there was also a sub-plot involving the book, her husband and their young daughter waiting anxiously to see if their son/brother had survived the war in the Far East.  It’s the son’s safe return, and reunion with his family, which makes Yossi accept that, despite the Red Cross’s best efforts, none of his own family are going to be found: they’ve all gone, even his father, whom he hoped might have survived..

A lot of the themes will be familiar to people who watched the BBC 2 programme – the children being scared to sleep in a room on their own, the grabbing and hoarding food because they couldn’t process the fact that they weren’t going to go hungry again, the sports, the lessons, and the riding bikes without proper clothes. They’re all described very effectively, bearing in mind the target age group.  The flashbacks are dealt with very sensitively.  They are going to be upsetting for children to read, and children are going to ask parents or teachers why this happened; but that’s something that’s necessary.

We also see how Mordecai has a strong religious faith, but Yossi hasn’t: he’s lost that.  At one point, he does actually despair, and wonders why he’s even going on at all, what the point is.  That’s quite a powerful scene, when he remembers his father talking about how the Nazis wanted to dehumanise them and how the only way they can fight back against that is to keep whatever vestiges of civilised behaviour they can, even if it’s only washing their faces, and his mother, as she and her sisters went off to their deaths, telling him that he had to survive.

It’s also made very clear that they are going to be OK now.  The TV programme showed that there was some hostility towards, or at least mockery of, them from some local lads who didn’t understand what they’d been through.  That doesn’t happen here, but I think that’s due to the need for the young reader to see that the boys are safe and being made welcome.  It was a minority view anyway.  We do, however, at one point see the boys splitting into factions, largely along lines of nationality of origin, and fights breaking out, but then we see them all reuniting … to burn an effigy of Hitler.

And we’re told that Leo did return briefly to Poland, but was told in no uncertain times that he wasn’t welcome there.  This would have been twelve months or so before Kielce, so it wasn’t getting at that, but … well, this is a difficult subject, and it’s come to the fore in recent years, especially given the current regime in Poland.  I thought it was quite interesting that that was included.

Going back to Poland is never really an option.  Leo considers going to what was then Mandatory Palestine, but in the end the three friends agree to stick together, and that’s the positive ending, if not exactly a happy ending.  They’re moving on, and they’ve got each other.

Historical fiction is a very good, and underrated, way of both learning and teaching about history, and I think that this is an excellent book for enabling children of the target reading audience to understand about the Holocaust, without overfacing them with too much horror.  Highly recommended.

 

 

The Plot Against America – Sky Atlantic

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The scheduling of this chillingly well-written and well-acted “alternative history” series has sadly turned out to be very timely, coinciding with the deeply unpleasant and distressing Wiley affair.  It’s reassuring that the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, together with a number of other public figures, have been quick to speak out against Wiley; but the alternative universe depicted here, in which Charles Lindbergh defeats FDR and leads an extremist government in America, is frighteningly convincing – there’s nothing in it that makes you think, nah, this is just a story, it couldn’t really happen.

What *is* happening?  The OSCE’s comments on the Polish president’s recent election campaign were that “the incumbent’s campaign and coverage by the public broadcaster were marked by homophobic, xenophobic and anti-Semitic rhetoric”.   The welcome news of an unreserved apology and damages over the Panorama programme about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party has worryingly been criticised in some quarters.  Without wanting to make generalisations, the feeling in this programme that some police forces in the US were failing to protect certain communities sounds more than a little familiar.  And how often do we hear governments say that they’ve “got” to do business with some very questionable regime, as this version of Lindbergh says when he pals up with Nazi Germany?   We’re a long way from this nightmare alternative history, thankfully, but there’s certainly some worrying stuff going on out there, and this series certainly struck a few chords.

I haven’t read the book, written by Philip Roth and published in 2004, but gather that the TV series, showing events through the eyes of a Jewish family in New Jersey, is based closely on it.  It’s so scarily plausible, and the writing and the acting are so good.  The kids are particularly good: it can’t be easy for children to act out such unpleasant scenarios.  I’m not normally a fan of “alternative history” series, but this one’s well worth watching.

The idea is that Charles Lindbergh stands against FDR, on an America First message tied in with a message about staying out of the Second World War, and is duly elected president.  And you can see exactly how that would have worked.  Imagine the reaction now if it were announced that American or British or Australian or French troops were being sent to East Turkestan, or Rakhine province, or Yemen, or Syria.  Yes, there are atrocities being carried out there, but no-one would want to see boots on the ground and Our Boys and Girls being killed there.  OK, that’s not quite the same as the Nazis taking over most of Europe, but still.  And this was very soon after the Great War, when so many lives were lost.  A lot of people here backed appeasement in 1938.  You can see how the anti-war message in America would have worked.  Especially with a national hero like Lindbergh putting it across.

And, from there, Lindbergh says that America has to work with Nazi Germany. You know, a bit like we have to work with Saudi Arabia.  OK, obviously I am not comparing Saudi Arabia to Nazi Germany, but it’s that same idea of “we’ve got to work” with a morally very questionable regime.

I’m not convinced that using real people in prominent roles in alternative historical universes is acceptable, I have to say.  OK, I don’t suppose anyone’d mind that much if someone wrote about an alternative universe in which King Harold won the Battle of Hastings or Henry VIII stayed married to Catherine of Aragon, but four of Charles Lindbergh’s children are still living, and I don’t suppose they’re very happy about their father being portrayed like this.  Both Charles and Anne Lindbergh are known to have had Nazi sympathies, but I don’t know if this is a step too far.  It does make it seem all the more realistic, though.

And anti-Semitic incidents rise.  We see it all through the eyes of the Levin family – mother, father, two sons, and a nephew who goes to Canada to enlist in the Canadian Army.  The family’s been written so as to encompass a range of views, which again all comes across as being very realistic.  Bess Levin wants to keep her head down and her family safe, and feels that the best option would be to leave for Canada, and let someone else put their head above the parapet.  Herman Levin, however, wants to make a stand: he insists that he’s not submitting to the anti-Semitic policies of the new government, and that he’s not being driven out of his own country.  Both characters are so convincing, and so easy to sympathise with – you can see where each of them is coming from. Philip, the sweet little younger son, just wants things to stay the way they are; but Sandy, the older son, is swept along with the views of creepy Rabbi Bengelsdorf.

Rabbi Bengelsdorf is in some ways the most interesting character  – the Jewish community leader who’s closely allied with Lindbergh, and keeps insisting that Lindbergh isn’t anti-Semitic, even though everyone else can see exactly what Lindbergh is.  Rather like certain factions of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn.   Bess’s sister Evelyn becomes involved with, and eventually marries, him, and they end up attending a state dinner and ball for Joachim von Ribbentrop, where she actually dances with him.  I could live without the faint suggestion that she’s so desperate to get a man that she’s going along with anything Bengelsdorf says, but maybe that’s not how it’s meant to come across.

I was originally assuming that Bengelsdorf was only interested in power and influence, and was saying whatever he thought the president wanted to hear, but it’s actually more complex than that.  He does a lot of talking about the need to assimilate and how Jews shouldn’t all be living in closed communities – and the way he says it makes a lot of sense.  And it’s exactly what was said in 19th and early 20th century Budapest and Vienna.  I wish that that comparison’d been made, but I think it was a case of American writers only looking at America.  Instead, a big deal was made of the fact that Bengelsdorf was from South Carolina and his ancestors fought for the Confederacy.  I really could have done without that.  Can we all get past this making a big deal of the fact that there were prominent Jews in the antebellum South, please?  See Song of Slaves in the Desert .

Bengelsdorf leads a programme called “Just Folks,” as part of the “Office of American Absorption”, which temporarily places Jewish boys into rural families to make them “more American”.  This does, on the face of it, sound a little more far-fetched, but the story’s told so well that it seems to follow on naturally from everything else.  And then, the next step, Jewish families are being relocated to “America’s heartland”.  The Levins are told that they’ve got to move to Kentucky: Herman’s boss is given little choice by the government but to say that he’s being transferred there.  It’s all made to sound so attractive – away from the pollution and the crowds of the big city, property’s so much cheaper … .  They can get out of it if Herman quits his job, but the authorities’ll make sure that he never gets another one.

Radio host Walter Winchell, another real person, tries to whip up support against Lindbergh, and announces his intention to run for the presidency.  There are violent clashes at rallies.  Winchell is assassinated.  Then Lindbergh’s plane goes missing – has there been an accident or has he been assassinated as well?   We know that the British and Canadian secret services, with whom Alvin’s working, may well have been involved.  [We hope they are.  The British and the Canadians are the good guys in all this.]  Riots break out.  We’ve seen how easily that can happen. They turn into pogroms.  [This happened in South Wales, of all places, in 1911.]   Philip’s friend’s mother is murdered by the Ku Klux Klan.  Conspiracy theories abound.  Bengelsdorf is arrested.  An emergency presidential election is called, with FDR standing, but some of his supporters are stopped from voting, and we see the contents of ballot boxes being emptied on to fires.

And there it ends – which I assume the book didn’t.  Are we going to get a second series?

Just a couple of other things.  I did wonder why Lindbergh didn’t seem to have turned on any other group of people – African Americans or Native Americans, maybe – but I assume that Philip Roth wanted to focus on the Jewish community, and the fact that we saw it all through the eyes of one family did work very well.  And I also wondered how it worked for viewers not familiar with Jewish culture and religious practices.  Herman said that you probably couldn’t even get a minyan in Kentucky.  The Italian American guy moving into the Levins’ house took the mezuzah off the door and handed it to Philip.  None of this was explained – would all viewers have “got” it?    I’m never sure how much explanation should be given – it would make the dialogue unrealistic if characters explained something that they wouldn’t need to explain.  It’s a lot easier in a book, where you can put a footnote.

By the end, there were scenes of riots, shops burning, people lying shot dead in the street, cars burnt out where the Ku Klux Klan set them on fire with their drivers inside.  I can’t even say that you think this couldn’t happen, because …. can anyone actually say that they genuinely cannot imagine this sort of thing happening?  That’s why it was so good.  We didn’t see Nazis in jackboots marching along Pennsylvania Avenue: it wasn’t externalised.  Things like this happen from within.  There was nothing in this which you could not imagine happening.

I don’t usually watch alternative historical universe things – give me proper history – but this had such good reviews that I thought I’d give it a go.  I think I’m glad I did.  It was so good that it was horrific.  And so relevant that it was even more horrific.  No-one wants to be paranoid.  But nor should anyone be complacent.

 

#NoSafeSpaceForHate

 

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