Summer of Rockets – BBC 2

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This was fascinating.  I was expecting John le Carre, but it was more Antonia Forest.  I’m sure there’s plenty of spy stuff to come, but I’m far more interested in how sweet little Sasha copes with life at his snooty, sadistic boarding school (Stephen Poliakoff apparently hated it) and how his sister Hannah finds the London Season when she thinks that being a debutante’s a load of rubbish.  And there was a lot of suspense over a broken shoe outside Buckingham Palace.

It’s called “Summer of Rockets” because it’s set in 1958.  Hydrogen bombs, Cold War, etc.  But not much has really happened about that yet.  Not much has actually happened at all.  Apart from some sinister-looking men getting out of a car, the only real drama was Hannah’s mishap with her high heel.  But the characters are all so interesting that that doesn’t really matter.  Every scene’s telling.

Samuel Petrukhin, based on a combination of Poliakoff’s father and Poliakoff’s grandfather, invents and sells hearing aids – to customers including Winston Churchill.  He’s also in the process of inventing hospital pagers.  Clearly a very clever and successful man … but what he really wants is to climb the social ladder.  As a Russian-born Jewish man, who speaks with a pronounced accent even though he kids himself that he speaks pure RP, this isn’t going to be easy.  His right hand man, Courtney Johnson, is black.  You can imagine how the posh types in gentleman’s clubs react when “the darky and the Jew”, as one of them put it, turn up.  And Samuel wasn’t allowed to deal with Churchill during the war years, in case he was bugging the hearing aids.

Samuel’s wife, Miriam, is from the “Jewish aristocracy” – just like Poliakoff’s mother, the granddaughter of a baron.  She’s done all the debutante stuff, but she’s far more lacking in confidence than he is: she’s not kidding herself that it’s easy to gain acceptance when you haven’t got WASP credentials.  However, they’re both determined that their daughter Hannah has to be presented, and poor Hannah is packed off to etiquette school to learn how to walk the walk and talk the talk.  She thinks it’s all stupid.

Meanwhile, little Sasha, brilliantly played by young Toby Woolf from The Last Post, is sent to a posh boarding prep school, when he just wants to go to the local school.  The headmaster makes pointed remarks about how he’s the only Jewish boy there.  The other teachers (sorry, masters) make pointed remarks about him being the son of an inventor.  The poor kid’s clearly going to have a nightmare there.

At the start of the programme, at Glorious Goodwood, once their party’s finally been admitted, Sasha wanders off and is found by posh Kathleen Shaw (Keeley Hawes, who seems to be everywhere these days!), wife of an MP and war hero who seems to be suffering from shell shock.  There’s clearly something very dodgy about the Shaws, which is presumably where the spy stuff’s going to come in.  Samuel is desperate to be best buds with them, because they’re part of the social elite.  It’s obviously going to end in tears … but what I really want to know is how Sasha and Hannah are going to get on.  It was billed as a Cold War drama, but it’s also – I’ll say “also” rather than “actually”, because the spy stuff’s obviously coming – a period drama about class and elitism and outsiders.  And that’s more interesting than spy stuff!

What makes it particularly interesting is that it’s not stereotypical.  I think this can be very challenging for scriptwriters: if they create characters who fulfill stereotypes, they’re accused of perpetuating stereotypes, but, if they create characters who don’t, they’re accused of not accurately reflecting the experiences of particular demographic groups.  There was an argument over this twenty years ago, when Coronation Street brought in its first Asian family, the Desais, as the new owners of the corner shop.  The same arguments still go on now.  I want to say that we should just be looking at characters, not their ethnicity, religion, sexuality, gender identity, etc, but that doesn’t work either because then the issues relating to particular groups aren’t being reflected.

It’s a difficult one.  But I do like the fact that Samuel, Miriam and Courtney are all removed from stereotypes.  Courtney is not the stereotypical 1950s West Indian working-class man: he’s in a managerial role and “talks posh”.  We haven’t been told Samuel’s back story, but we can tell from his age that “Russian-born” doesn’t mean “fled the pogroms” (most of which weren’t even in Russia itself, whatever people may think!!) but rather means “post-Revolution emigre”.  Poliakoff’s Russian ancestors (thank you, Wikipedia!) owned a flat in a nice part of Moscow and a dacha in the countryside.

And Miriam’s from the “Jewish aristocracy”.  No-one talks much about the “Jewish aristocracy”.  There are books like The Matriarch and The Hare With Amber Eyes, about international banking dynasties, but not about people like Rufus Isaacs (Marquess of Reading), Ernest Cassel (before he converted to Catholicism), Poliakoff’s great-grandfather Samuel Montagu (Baron Swaythling), or Montagu’s nephew Sir Herbert Samuel.

Samuel’s not a very good social climber, TBH.  Why give your kids first names that scream “non-WASP”?   And he’s kidding himself that he sounds like an aristocrat: everyone can see that apart from him.  He’s a brilliant man, a genius inventor with so much going for him – but he wants to be accepted into upper-class society, and it’s obviously going to lead him into trouble.  That’s going to be interesting.  But what happens to Sasha and Hannah is going to be even more interesting.

The Seamstress by Maria Duenas

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This book is set partly in Madrid, partly in and around Lisbon, partly in Tangier, then a multicultural international zone associated with everything from artists to espionage, and mostly in Tetouan, which served as the capital of the Spanish protectorate of Morocco from 1913 to 1956. Four fascinating cities, and an interesting story set mainly during the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War, with a mixture of real people and fictional characters.

It’s not a spy story – I don’t really do spy stories, apart from James Bond! – but a lot of it does involve the Special Operations Executive. I generally associate Special Operations Executive with Occupied France – and I’m afraid that that’s just made me think of ‘Allo ‘Allo, but never mind – and the Norwegian heavy water sabotage, and don’t think very much about Spain and all the other countries where operations were taking place; and I think there’s also a tendency to think of Spain and Portugal as being outside mainstream European history during the period of the fascist dictatorships there, despite the well-known links between Franco and Hitler.

Also, despite the Rif War and its effect on Spanish politics in the 1920s, and for all the ongoing rows over Western Sahara (why does no-one make a fuss over the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara?), and the fact that Spain holds Ceuta and Melilla, it’s easy to forget that Spain was, and still is, involved in North Africa – it wasn’t all about France, Italy and (in Egypt) Britain. As the book points out, Spain didn’t really get involved in the Scramble for Africa, but it did, after losing control of Cuba and the Philippines, make an agreement with France which gave it control of a couple of bits of Morocco.  Tetouan, a city with a complicated history (involving a lot of pirates, back in the day!), and a mixed population of Arab Muslims, Berber Muslims and Sephardi Jews, was the administrative centre of the southern bit.

I’m not sure that we really got the distinction between Arabs and Berbers, though: there were just a lot of references to “Moors”. I was slightly bemused in Sicily recently to see a sign warning people to beware of “Saracens” in cafes.  I assume that it was in the sense of the old-fashioned English term “street Arabs”, but you just wouldn’t dream of using that term in English now, and you wouldn’t really say “Moors” when talking about the 20th or 21st centuries.  Anyway, things are presumably different in Spanish and Italian … and I have now got off the point.  I just have a lot of sympathy with the way that the Berbers have been treated in Morocco, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia and elsewhere.  And, having said all of this, there were quite a few references to “Riffians”, and Riffians are Berbers.

OK, OK, back to the point!   Amongst the Spanish officials there in the 1930s were the pro-British Juan Luis Beigbeder y Atienza, later Franco’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Franco’s pro-German brother-in-law, who would eventually replace Beigbeder as Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ramon Serrano Suner.

So some pretty influential people. Both of them, especially Beigbeder, feature in the book, as do Alan Hillgarth, the British adventure novelist who was an intelligence agent in Spain in the 1930s and 1940s, and Rosalinda Powell Fox, Beigbeder’s lover and a British spy.  Churchill’s supposed to have said that “the war might have taken a very different course were it not for Rosalinda”.

None of them are very familiar figures. It’s not a part of twentieth century history that gets a lot of attention.  Too much else going on at the time, to be fair!

The main characters, though, are the fictional ones. The first person protagonist, the seamstress of the title, is Sira Quiroga.  The early part of her life’s a bit like a cross between Evita and a Georgian melodrama – she’s the illegitimate daughter of a Madrid seamstress and her married former lover, grows up in poverty, and dumps her nice boyfriend for someone who is clearly bad news.  Her long-lost dad reappears on the scene, gives her a load of money and jewellery, and suggests that she get out of Spain because trouble (the civil war)’s coming.  She and the new boyfriend go off to Morocco, and, whaddaya know, he runs off with her money and jewellery and leaves her with a huge pile of debts.  She gets involved with various shady characters, and sets herself up as a high-class dressmaker in Tetouan, where most of her customers are the wives of Nazis hanging around there, but where she also meets and becomes friendly with the aforementioned Rosalinda Powell Fox, and is recruited by the British Special Operations Executive.

She goes back to Madrid, and is sent on a mission to Lisbon, and there’s a lot of chasing around and jumping off trains … it is all a bit James Bond, but it’s largely a historical novel, full of information about what was going on in the Spanish protectorate and in Spain itself at the time. What would have happened if Spain had joined forces with the Third Reich and Mussolini’s Italy?  It could well have happened.  Maybe it’s best not to think too much about it.  It sounds a bit weird that a book should start off as a tale of poverty and dodgy boyfriends and then turn into a wartime thriller, but it does work really well.  I love the idea of writing notes in Morse code, made to look like the stitches for a sewing pattern!

And it’s been made into a TV series, under its original title – El Tiempo Entre Costuras (The Time Between Seams) – in Spain, but unfortunately it’s never been shown in the UK. Sky Arts used to show some good Spanish drama series – I really enjoyed Grand Hotel and Isabella – but they don’t any more, which is a shame.

The ending is really annoying, though. We see Sira reunitedwith Marcus Logan, a British spy with whom she’d become involved in Tetouan and then (as you do) just happened to bump into whilst she was on her secret mission to Lisbon.  After they’d dramatically got off the train together to escape the agents of the Spanish double agent who’s working for both the British and the Nazis (I did say it was all a bit James Bond), and it’d turned out that he knew her long-lost dad (yes, OK, it did get a bit far-fetched), but we don’t actually find out what happens to them after the war – we’re told that it’s all a mystery.  Sorry, but that’s a rather silly way to end a book!

But, apart from the ending, and the fact that some of the spy adventure stuff is a bit bonkers for a book that isn’t actually a spy story, it’s very entertaining, and very interesting. It really is easy to think of Spain and Portugal as having been outside the mainstream of European history for much of the twentieth century, and maybe even the second half of the nineteenth century too.  They weren’t.  And Tetouan – I love Morocco, but I knew nothing about Tetouan before reading this book, but what a fascinating place it sounds!  And, come on, Sky Arts, give us some more Spanish drama!