My Grandparents’ War (series 2) – Channel 4

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The loss of the Queen marks a break with the wartime generation, and a reminder that there aren’t now many of that generation left with us.  It’s important that their stories not be forgotten, and this series shows celebrities looking into the roles played by their grandparents during the War.  First up was Kit Harington, whose two sets of grandparents each met and married whilst serving in the war effort in their different ways.

His maternal grandfather was in the Army, and, following a training accident, was admitted to the Exeter hospital where his future wife was serving as a VAD.  Later, he fought at Monte Cassino.  We saw Kit meeting a 99-year-old lady who’d been in the same team as his grandmother, and also visiting a Commonwealth war cemetery at Monte Cassino, and reading some of the poetry which his grandfather had written partly to try to cope with PTSD.

On his father’s side, both grandparents had been posted to the Caribbean.  His grandmother was with the censorship office in Barbados, and his grandfather had been with naval intelligence, detailed to keep an eye on the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.  He’d have known both Ian Fleming and Kim Philby.

That was rather exciting, but the roles of all four grandparents were fascinating, and the programme was really very well done.  This is an excellent series, and highly recommended.  And readers of A Chalet Girl from Kenya may be interested to know that the third episode, featuring Emeli Sande, covers the Mau Mau Rebellion.

All Creatures Great and Small (series 2) – Channel 5

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How lovely to have this wonderfully comforting programme back, just the thing for autumnal evenings and especially at such a difficult time for the nation.  It was particularly nice that the new series started with James and Helen’s wedding.  Needless to say, there were all sorts of mishaps before the happy couple finally made it to the altar, but they got there in the end.  Some valuable points were also made about farming being a reserved occupation, and the importance of vets in keeping the food supply safe, both in terms of keeping it going and in terms of keeping TB out of the bovine, milk-producing population.

Was it filmed during Covid restrictions, though?  There were only 8 guests at the service!

Anyway, it was a perfect mix of light-hearted comedy, romance and some more serious elements, and the views of the countryside were lovely.  Having this back is a real tonic.  Thank you, Channel 5.  “Reboots” don’t always work, but this one definitely does.

Britain’s Secret War Babies – Channel 4

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  This programme was about two people seeking to find their fathers, African-American GIs stationed in Britain during the war.  It was sad to hear that many black GIs with white British girlfriends had been unable to marry them because the US Army had refused permission, even when there was a baby on the way.   That left the women concerned with a choice between bringing up a child alone, with the stigma of illegitimacy and the additional issue of raising a mixed-race child in areas which were otherwise 100% white, or giving the child up.

In the two cases covered by this programme, one woman had been kept apart from the child’s father by her own mother, who didn’t want her daughter and grandchild moving to America, and the other woman had married a British boyfriend who’d ill-treated both her and her son when he realised that the child couldn’t be his.

Both the stories had happy endings in the programme, in that the biological fathers were identified, and half-siblings who were happy to meet the two “war babies” found; but, as the programme said, many people haven’t been able to trace their fathers, and many children grew up in care because their mothers couldn’t keep them and mixed-race children were difficult to place for adoption.  The presenter seemed determined to stress the negative aspects of everything, but even taking a more balanced view, it’s quite a sad part of wartime history.   Some couples would have been unable to marry anyway, because one or both partners were already married, because of family objections or because they just didn’t want to, but hundreds of children could have had very different lives if there hadn’t been that US Army objection to mixed marriages – marriages which would have been perfectly legal in Britain.

The presenter clearly had an agenda and kept trying to turn things on to it, but the human stories won through, and at least each of the “war babies” involved found their American relations and were welcomed by them.  Happy endings.

 

 

 

Flight of a Chalet School Girl by Katherine Bruce

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The only time I’ve ever enjoyed an exam was when one of my General Studies A-level papers asked for the historical background to the war in Yugoslavia.  I love Balkan history.   I even love the history of fictional Balkan countries, so I’m delighted that, as a change from school stories, Katherine Bruce has written a book about Crown Princess Elisaveta of Belsornia’s flight from her homeland, as Nazi German troops prepare to invade, to safety in Britain.

We’re given the outline of the story of Elisaveta’s journey by Elinor M Brent-Dyer (EBD), and it has to be said that it’s one of several rather silly and unlikely episodes in the wartime Chalet School books.  For a kick off, Belsornia moves from the NW Balkans to the SE Balkans.  Then, on arrival in Britain, the princess takes a job as a charlady until she can afford to kit out herself and her children with clothes from a second-hand shops, and then takes a taxi to Armishire!   I mean, what on earth?!   Why didn’t she just report to the authorities?   Or send a telegram?  And who would employ a well-spoken woman, and one who probably had a foreign accent, as a charlady anyway?  Plenty of Continental royals sought refuge in Britain during the war, but none of them worked as charladies!

However, Katherine’s made a brilliant story out of the brief account of the long and extremely eventful journey, and has clearly done a lot of research into the situation in Europe and North Africa at the time.  She’s even made sense of the charlady affair, and generally made everything as realistic as a book about an unlikely journey made by a Ruritanian princess could be.  We even, touchingly, see Elisaveta going to London to sign the Allied Declaration condemning the treatment of Jews by the Nazis.

At the beginning, we see the visit of Elisaveta, her fiance and his aunt to the Tiernsee, and then we see the royal wedding, both of which are referred to by EBD after the events, not actually shown.   GGBP “fillers” are consistent with each other, but Bettany Press books evidently aren’t included, because neither Madge Russell nor Jack Maynard attend Elisaveta’s wedding in this book, although they did in Two Chalet Girls in India.  However, we do get some senior Yugoslavian and Bulgarian royals there, bringing Belsornia and Mirania into the real Balkan world.  It may be a Ruritanian country, but there’s nothing Ruritanian about the Second World War.  We jump forward to 1941 by means of letters exchanged between Elisaveta and Jo, and then the “adventure” part begins.   It all comes across very well and very realistically, as we hear that German troops are massing on the Miranian border and will in all likelihood soon reach Belsornia, and Elisaveta, her children and her maid are leaving, initially planning to go to Turkey and take ship from there, until things went wrong.

The name “Constantinople” is used even though the city had officially been called Istanbul since 1930; but, to be fair, EBD did that too.   And I could have done without the repeated use of “England” for “Britain” and “Russia” for “the Soviet Union”, but both were and are very common.  EBD sometimes even used “England” when referring to places in South Wales!  Also, the afterword mentions that a family with whom they travel are Armenian, which isn’t clear in the text as they had Turkish names.  Sorry, I’m a right nitpicker.  There are only minor nits to be picked, though!  The one big EBD-ism/KB-ism was saying that Jem Russell had been knighted.  He wasn’t knighted: he was created a baronet.  But what would a Chalet School book be without an error?   It’s all part and parcel of Chalet lore!   Having said which, Hilda Annersley would ban computerised spell-checkers, which don’t pick up typos such as borders for boarders or miner’s for miners’.

There’s a lot of careful detail about how they manage for food and shelter on their journey through Turkey and North Africa, and also about the ups and downs – literally! – of sailing on a small boat.  Arletta must have had superhuman strength to have been able to carry both the boys, but there wasn’t really an alternative: EBD doesn’t seem to have considered the practicalities of travelling with a newborn baby and two small children!  Just as an aside, my first ever piece of Chalet School fanfic featured Freddie Helston, Elisaveta’s eldest son, as the hero, so I was very pleased to see him in a “real” book.

The section about their time in Spain and Portugal is a bit rushed, but it would have been a bit samey to have heard any more about trekking and looking for food and shelter.   There’s no suspense element because we know that they’d make it safely to Armishire in the end, but then you kind of know anyway that children’s adventure books will have happy endings, and it doesn’t make the exciting bits any the less dramatic.  And Katherine’s done an excellent job of making sense of what happened when they arrived in Britain, by saying that the six week wait was due to quarantine after coming into contact with a scarlet fever case, that the charring job was shared with a woman with whom they travelled from Portugal, and that they only took a taxi from Armiford station to Joey’s!  She’s also shown Elisaveta being in touch with Belsornian officials in Britain, and other Belsornian exiles, which EBD curiously never does.  Much more realistic than the idea that an exiled Crown Princess would just have a jolly time living with an old schoolfriend.

I thoroughly enjoyed this.  I wonder if we’ll see more “fillers” along this line, a bit of a spin-off.  I think all the missing terms have been “filled” now, and books retelling the story of a “canon” term from a different viewpoint are limited as to what they can say because the story’s already there.   I’d certainly read anything else like this one: it was excellent.

 

Maybe, at some point during her stay in Britain, Elisaveta got to meet the young Princess Elizabeth.  I am so saddened by the loss of our beloved Queen.  May she rest in peace.

The Girl in the Pink Raincoat by Alrene Hughes

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This isn’t a particularly well-written book, but it was on a cheap Kindle offer; and there’s an awful lot of local interest in it for anyone from the Manchester area.   It includes some very evocative scenes of the Manchester Blitz.  It also covers the largely-forgotten story of the internment camps at Warth Mills (in Radcliffe, near where Newbank Garden Centre is now), where many members of the local German/Austrian-Jewish and Italian communities were taken during the Second World War, and how many of them were tragically killed when the SS Arandora Star, taking them to Canada, was torpedoed.   There are also some vivid descriptions of Heaton Park before the war, of town, and of the factories both in the Strangeways area and in Trafford Park.

The storyline’s not particularly convincing, but it’s all right.   Gracie Earnshaw works in a raincoat factory, where she becomes involved with the boss’s nephew, Jacob Rosenberg.   His family aren’t keen, because he’s Jewish and she isn’t, but the two agree to marry … only for him to be taken off to an internment camp just as she was waiting at the registry office.   Without wanting to post spoilers, the story then develops with two other men, with an unlikely switch from war work to working in the theatre, and with a secret long kept by Gracie’s mother.

It’s not the best of books, as I said, but it’s worth reading for the descriptions of the local area and the local communities, and also for the inclusion of the story of the Warth Mills camp.  The author makes good use of real events, and her descriptions of Manchester are very much Manchester.  Overall, not bad!

Walking Wartime Britain – Channel 5

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After reading The Forgotten Village, I was pleased to find this Channel 5 programme which included a section on Strete, another of the villages taken over by the War Office in 1943.   This one was handed back to its residents after the war, and presenter Arthur Williams interviewed a lady who remembered the evacuation.   She told him how they’d been given just six weeks to leave, with the deadline being five days before Christmas, and no assistance in finding somewhere to go.   Farmers had had to sell off their livestock at whatever prices they could get.   Books and indeed TV programmes tend to focus on the Blitz, rationing and the evacuation of children.  That’s understandable, but it was good to see this neglected subject being given some coverage.

The programme also showed the nearby Royal Naval College at Dartmouth.   What a beautiful building – sadly damaged by bombing during the war, but thankfully the Nazis chose a day when the cadets were on leave, so there were no casualties – and what a beautiful town!

And Arthur also learnt about the Devon beaches used by GIs to train for the D-Day landing, and how, tragically, German intelligence picked up on what was going on, and sank a ship with the loss of 639 lives.  Years later, a local man was able to recover the wreck, and it now stands as a memorial to those lost.

This was only a short programme, the second in a series, but it was very interesting and very well-presented.

The Resistance Girl by Mandy Robotham

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  I heard a lot about the “Shetland Bus”, the Special Operations Group forming a link between the Shetland Islands and the Resistance movement in Nazi-occupied Norway, when visiting Bergen, where this book’s set, some years ago.   Books about Resistance and SOE operations very much tend to focus on France, so a book focusing on operations in Norway is very welcome … even if it *is* written in the present tense.  We’re reminded every Christmas of the importance of the wartime link between us and our Norwegian friends, but the work of the brave British and Norwegian individuals involved still doesn’t get as much recognition as it deserves.

That’s one of the major themes of this book.  The other, very difficult, theme is the Lebensborn programme, with which I think most people are familiar because of Frida Lyngstad from Abba.   The Norwegian women involved voluntarily or forcibly became partners of German men, and their “racially pure” babies, born in special maternity homes, were sent to Germany to be adopted by Nazi couples.  It’s a horrible part of history.  Due to the post-war reprisals against those seen as collaborators, many of the women concerned, if they’d been able to keep or recover their babies, moved to Sweden, as Frida’s mother did.

Our heroine, a member of the Norwegian Resistance, is Rumi, who’s just lost her fiance in a Shetland Bus run.  New love is on the cards in the shape of Jens, her neighbour’s half-British nephew, who’s with the SOE.   The horror of the Lebensborn programme is told at one degree removed, when Rumi’s best friend Anya falls victim to it.  The book does a good job of getting across what’s happening without it being too difficult to read, but the romance doesn’t detract from the seriousness of what’s going on – life in a country occupied by the Nazis, the missions being carried out by both the Norwegian Resistance and the British authorities, and the Lebensborn programme.   The Raid on Telemark, which is probably the best-known Allied/Norwegian act of anti-Nazi sabotage, doesn’t feature in the story, but it does get a mention.

There should be more novels like this, and about the SOE and Resistance work in other countries too.  There were no landmark events marking this particular element of the war effort, so there are no special dates on which to remember it – and it’s so important that it not be forgotten.   This book is well worth reading.

The School That Escaped the Nazis by Deborah Cadbury

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Parts of this book are very harrowing, because they contain first-hand accounts of children’s experiences in concentration camps, in ghettoes, and in hiding from the Nazis.   But it also brings across the wonderful humanity of people who tried to help either bring children to safety before war broke out or to rebuild their shattered lives after the Holocaust, chief amongst them Anna Essinger, the owner/headmistress of the school in question.

I’d been expecting a dramatic escape narrative along the lines of The Sound of Music or The Chalet School in Exile, but it was actually quite easy for the 66 pupils (mostly Jewish), teachers and other staff to get from Germany to Britain in 1933, pretending to be going on a school trip to the Netherlands.   Emigration from the Third Reich became virtually impossible later on, but it wasn’t at that point.  “Tante Anna” set up a school on the Summerhill model, with a lot of emphasis on outdoor pursuits and the arts, initially in Kent and then later being evacuated to Shropshire.   The school took on additional pupils, most of them children arriving on the Kindertransport in 1938/39 and then children who’d survived the Holocaust once the war was over.

Much of the book consists of former pupils’ accounts of their experiences during the Holocaust, and it’s difficult to read but also important to read.   And the rest largely consists of, as well as school life, accounts of Anna’s work to raise money to set the school up and keep it going.  That came mainly from Jewish and Quaker philanthropists – the author, as a Cadbury, took a lot of interest in the wonderful contribution made by the Quaker community in rescuing Jewish children.  It also details her involvement in welcoming Kindertransport children, being responsible for their reception at holiday camp buildings and helping to try to find them foster families.   Others gave a great deal of their time and effort too: those mentioned particularly include Elaine Blond, co-director of the Refugee Children’s Movement and Old Girl of my school, Norman Bentwich and the Marchioness of Reading.   People in the Netherlands, too, did so much to help.   Then there are the accounts of how the school tried to help child survivors back to some sort of normality, similarly to what happened with The Windermere Children.

Sadly, the school closed in 1948, as Anna’s health was failing and she didn’t feel able to hand the school over to anyone else, but it made a huge difference to hundreds of traumatised children, some of whom had lost their entire families.   The book’s a fascinating juxtaposition of the worst of humanity and the best of humanity.

The Railway Children Return

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I’m pleased to say that this film is about evacuees from Salford.  It’s a bugbear of mine that stories about evacuees practically always feature children from London, as if no other part of the country were affected.  There’s been so much publicity about it that I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying that the children concerned are sent to Oakworth – although much of the Oakworth village set is actually Haworth – where they’re billeted with the former Bobbie Waterbury, her daughter (the headmistress of the local school, referred to as “the head teacher” as kids today apparently can’t be expected to cope with the word “headmistress”) and her grandson.

The shots of the village and the surrounding countryside are glorious, and there’s plenty of Blytonesque running around in fields, having conker fights and collecting eggs from chickens.  The plot wasn’t really very dramatic, though.   It followed the original film in that the children helped someone in need and stopped a train, but the suspense and emotion weren’t really there.  Maybe the scriptwriters focused a bit too much on appealing to a young audience demographic?

(Don’t read the rest if you don’t want any spoilers at all!)

I’d been expecting a spy story.  Instead, we got a wartime racism story.   It might have worked better in an adult film, but there wasn’t enough sense of menace here.  It was obviously aimed at a young audience – I could have lived without seeing kids using the outside of a train as a toilet, and the remarks about farting, but, OK, I’m not really in the target demographic – and maybe that was why the fear of the military police just didn’t come across very well, despite the talk of our man possibly facing hanging if he were caught.  The police just never seemed very intimidating.   Also, it was hard not to wonder why no-one seemed to notice kids just disappearing from school in the middle of the day, or why everyone’s rations seemed to stretch so far that they could hold food fights and feed biscuits to their dog.

Having said all that, the racism story was historically accurate.  We know that there were major issues over the segregation in the US Army, especially concerning black soldiers engaging with white British women: the film actually borrowed the true story of the Battle of Bamber Bridge, in which US military police attacked black soldiers drinking in a pub.   The idea in this film was that a young black soldier had deserted as a result.  He was discovered hiding out by the four children – the three evacuees, an older girl with a younger brother and sister, as in the original film, and their new pal, Bobbie’s grandson.   It was then rather unconvincingly resolved (I won’t say how), and he was allowed to gallivant around the countryside and then return home to his mum, thanks to all the children stopping the train (but without red underwear) and the intervention of Ric Griffin from Holby City.

It was all right, and it was worth seeing for the shots of the countryside.  And it was also lovely to see a film in which the Brits were the goodies.  The liberal elite will hate that … which is probably a recommendation in itself.  But don’t be expecting a classic, and don’t be looking for an unforgettable moment like the legendary “Daddy, my daddy” scene, or you’ll be disappointed.   It’s OK, but it’s not great.

 

The Forgotten Village by Lorna Cook

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I’m not a fan of dual timeline novels; but I read this one for a Facebook group reading challenge, and it wasn’t bad.   It’s set in and around the real life ghost village of Tyneham, Dorset, which was requisitioned for use as a firing range in 1943.  It was supposed to be returned to the villagers after the war, but the Ministry of Defence have hung on to it, although some of the buildings are now open as museums.

The past timeline of the book, in 1943, revolved around the fictional, unhappily married, Standishes – Sir Albert, the local squire and MP, and his wife Veronica.   Infuriatingly, the book referred to her, incorrectly, as “Lady Veronica” rather than as “Lady Standish”: OK, it’s a common mistake, but if people are writing a book then they should do a bit of basic research.   The present timeline, in 2018, revolved around holidaymaker Melissa and her new boyfriend, TV historian Guy, who’d seen a photograph of the Standishes and became curious as what had happened to them.  Added into the mix was the fact that Guy’s grandma had once been Lady Standish’s maid.

I was hoping to read about the effect of the evacuation of the village on its inhabitants, but there was very little about that.  The focus was all on the two couples’ lives and relationships, and the 2018 couple’s search for information about the Standishes.  And the far-fetched twist in the tale could be seen coming well before the end.  So it wasn’t really what I’d hoped for.   However, it wasn’t a bad book, and I quite enjoyed it.  Dual timeline books are just not my thing, though, even if they *are* all the rage at the moment!