Back in Time for School – BBC 2 (episode 5)

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I think this series, covering the 1970s this week, has lost the plot – which is a great shame, seeing as it’s doing the 1980s next week. Seriously, how many schools let kids skive off PE and spend the time in a meditation sanctuary room instead?   If only!   I’d have been the first one in there.  Not to mention missing lessons to play golf for “personal fulfilment”, calling teachers by their first names, and serving up the produce of home economics lessons for school dinners.  And please would someone tell the BBC that not all kids want lessons that involve role play and “active participation”?  Confident, outgoing kids might, but give me the set-up from the 1950s episode any day!  And did your old school have loudspeaker systems like Rydell High?  Mine certainly didn’t!   But, hey, they did mention Grange Hill!  Good old Grange Hill 🙂 .

I’ve been getting increasingly annoyed over the way the BBC’s used what began as a very interesting series to push its own political agenda; and it reached ridiculous proportions this week, when we were informed that the introduction of comprehensives was part of the same cultural shift that included women’s lib and the Race Relations Acts. What??  The most sensible comment in the entire episode was when one of the teachers said that education was constantly being used a political football.   I don’t think anyone would disagree with that, but need the BBC use programmes about education as political footballs, as well?  And every episode of Casualty and Holby City now revolves around criticising the NHS.  Enough!

Anyway. Back to the point!  I think this was the first time we’d seen inside a staffroom.  In between looking at copies of The Sun and discussing page 3 girls – the circulation of the aforementioned newspaper apparently doubled when the page 3 pictures started, which says rather a lot, and none of it good – the teachers commented that the loudspeaker system reminded them of Rydell High.  That was my reaction as well.  Did schools in the ‘70s actually have loudspeaker systems?  My school certainly didn’t have one even in the 1990s.  Announcements were made either in assembly or on notes sent to classrooms.  Assembly in this programme involved singing Kum Ba Yah.  The original version, not the one that goes “He scores goals, my Lord, he scores goals”.

Then on to a “commerce” lesson, in which everyone had to pretend that they were on an aeroplane. The BBC enthused about how brilliant this was.  I have no idea why.  What was it supposed to achieve?  And the gender division issue raised its head again, with girls being told that they couldn’t take the roles of pilots.

More interesting was the tuck shop, selling sweets. Oh yes!  We had one of these for a couple of years, although it was something to do with the Young Enterprise Scheme rather than actually being run by the school.  My then best friend and I – although this was in the ‘80s, not the ‘70s – used to buy X number of sweets each to eat on the bus on the way home, and we had a series of “landmarks” at which we ate the next sweet.  No wonder I was always so bloody fat!

Then on to decimalisation and school banks. This bit was fascinating.  By my day, we didn’t have school banks.  The big banks had all started running accounts for children, and tried to appeal to us by offering rewards or free gifts.  I had all the Nat West piggies.  Other kids had free schoolbags given away by the Midland – which was incredibly confusing, because it meant that umpteen people had the same bag.  I quite like the idea of a school bank, although it must have meant a huge amount of admin work for the staff.  Having said which, would you really want teachers knowing how much money you had or didn’t have?  Maybe not.

We then moved on to that staple of British school life – the lectures about how your hair was too long (for boys) or too messy, and how you shouldn’t be wearing make-up for school.   I’m amazed they didn’t add lectures about customising the uniform.  This is one that pretty much everyone in every generation will have memories of.  Being fat and uncool, I once decided that I was going to make myself look cool, just for once, by turning up at school wearing bright orange nail varnish.  One of the other girls told me that I looked as if my hands had been hit by the fallout from Chornobyl.  So much for looking cool 😦 .  The teachers weren’t impressed either.  Then there was the time that two of the lads at the boys’ school decided to see if it was true that, if you went for weeks without washing or cutting your hair, it would start cleaning itself.  Our jumpers were too long.  Our skirts were too short.  Our coats were the wrong colour.  Yep.  We’ve all been there!

In this programme, three kids were banned from going on a school trip because of issues around hair and make-up. Why are schools so obsessed with how kids look and dress?!  They are, though.  This bit was very realistic.  The trip wasn’t very exciting, though – it was to Spaghetti Junction.  Apparently, this was typical of a geography field trip in the 1970s.  How horrendously boring!

After that, the programme went a bit berserk, as the BBC tried to make out that the 1970s were all about schools letting kids do whatever they wanted. Student councils.  Were these common in the ‘70s?  And schools where kids called the teachers by their first names, and got to choose whether or not they even turned up at school, and, if they did, whether they went to PE lessons or sat in a very lavishly-decorated “sanctuary”.

PE in the ‘70s was apparently supposed to be about “personal fulfilment”. I have to say that that wasn’t a bad idea.  I was worse than useless at team sports, and something like golf or archery might have suited me better – but was it really practical?   A couple of kids go to the nearest golf course, or presumably the nearest municipal golf course as I can’t imagine private golf clubs wanting schoolkids wandering around their courses, others go to the nearest archery butts (if indeed there were any nearby archery butts), and so on?  I don’t really see how it would have worked.  Surely only very few schools can have done this?  I appreciate that the BBC was trying to make this entertaining, but I’d rather have seen something that was typical rather than something that was extreme.

There were also “Black Studies” lessons. Again, I don’t know how common these were – and two people who were called in to discuss them said that there’d been no such things at their own schools in the 1970s!   It was an interesting concept, though.  It was a genuinely well-meaning attempt to promote race relations by teaching about Afro-Caribbean culture, but there was something quite discomfiting about the idea of teaching “Black Studies” as if black culture was somehow “other” and apart from the mainstream; and that was how both the children and the teachers, of all ethnicities, seemed to feel as well.  It was meant well, but it just wasn’t the best of approaches.  It was mentioned that some schools had Afro-Caribbean carnivals, and these seemed to work much better.

Next up, home economics. This series is obsessed with home economics!   They made curry, which was then dished up for school dinners.  Hmm.  I know this happens in books, but I’m very glad that the stuff I made in the home economics room never got served to the other kids.  My mum and dad and sister had to help eat it, and I think they’d rather it’d all been chucked in the bin.  This was the first time that home economics lessons were co-ed.  Good to see – although this concept hadn’t reached our schools even by the time I left in 1992.  Although CDT lessons started at the girls’ school whilst I was there, cookery and sewing were not taught at the boys’ school.  But ours were fairly old-fashioned places, it has to be said!

Then, in line with the gender equality thing, we were told that, with far more mothers working, after school clubs were started. And the after school club was shown an episode of Grange Hill!   I loved Grange Hill.  I wish it’d never been scrapped.  It was great!  Even in the late ’80s, when everyone got obsessed with Neighbours and Home and Away, we still watched Grange Hill as well.

And, to finish up, a school disco. Er, yep.  As with role play and “active participation”, teenage discos were great if you were a confident, outgoing kid, but rather less so if you were the shy fat kid hiding in the corner or the toilets!   Mind you, if you’re the sort of kid who’s going to be on a reality TV series, you’re not going to be the sort who hides!

The teacher who complained last week that she’d never heard “Jerusalem” before said that she’d found this week “inspiring” and had taken a lot from it. It figured.  None of the other teachers were very impressed, and the pupils weren’t that keen either.  And now I’m waiting to see what they do with my era, the 1980s.  From what the preview showed, it’s going to suggest that all classrooms in the ’80s were full of computers, synthesisers and robots.   No.  They weren’t.  Any more than schools in the ’70s let you skive off PE to sit in a “sanctuary”.  This series has gone a bit mad!

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Danny Dyer’s Right Royal Family – BBC 1

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I thought that this was just going to be silly; but some of it was genuinely touching. Danny Dyer, evidently *not* being an avid reader of the works of Jean Plaidy 😉 , had never heard the tales of the Plantagenets’ turbulent family history before; and was clearly moved by hearing how Henry II had faced rebellion by his own sons, and Edward II had had to marry a woman even though he was probably gay – and then met a very horrible end.  There was a lot of wisecracking, but he was obviously taking it all pretty seriously and taking it all in; and he was just so enthusiastic about everything that he made it a joy to watch.

As we know from watching Who Do You Think You Are, Danny Dyer, who grew up on a council estate in the East End and usually plays or fronts series about East End hard men, recently found out that he was descended from Edward III. Yes, all right, all right, so are zillions of other people, but it was clear how much it meant to him to find that out.  And this was a voyage of discovery for him, because he obviously knew very little about the Plantagenets.  Schools fail big time on teaching kids about the Middle Ages.  Such medieval history lessons at we had at school involved drawing pictures of the Bayeux Tapestry, motte and bailey castles and pie charts of how medieval monks spent their time.  And that was about it.   Maybe the teacher would actually have preferred to be teaching art rather than history.  And why would anyone think that a class of 11-year-old girls wanted to draw pie charts showing how medieval monks split their time between eating, studying and praying?!  Even at university, the medieval history modules weren’t great.  So thank you, Jean Plaidy, for introducing me to the glorious soap opera that was the lives of the Plantagenets!   And thank you to the BBC for doing the same for Danny Dyer.

We actually started well before the Plantagenets, with King Rollo. The real one, not the one in the cartoon.  This was good, because there can be a tendency for royal history programmes to start with William the Conqueror and ignore everything that went before.  There was a lot of dressing up and re-enactment in this, so, yes, we did get Danny dressing up as a Viking, but the Viking re-enactors whom he met in Sweden were keen to tell him about Viking life, dispelling all the Victorian myths about horned helmets and so on, and explaining how Rollo pretty much came from nowhere to become Duke of Normandy and found a dynasty.  Danny said, whilst visiting Scandinavia and later Paris, that he’d had no idea that the word “Norman” actually came from “Norseman”, and that was a good point.  We’re all taught about the Battle of Hastings, but the fact that the Normans were descended from Vikings, and the very complex personal and political ties between England, Ireland, Norway, Denmark and Normandy tend to be ignored.

Danny was pretty impressed by what he learnt about King Rollo, and it was also great to see a historical programme (of sorts!) covering something different, rather than Henry VIII all over again!    Even when we got on to William the Conqueror, the focus wasn’t on all the same old, same old stuff about the Battle of Hastings and whether Harold was or wasn’t shot in the eye, but on the Tower of London and the way in which the Normans imposed their authority on the country.  Yes, it was pretty daft when Danny was presented with a set of faux Norman era coins showing his own face on one side and a simplified version of the West Ham crest on the other, and when he dressed up as a knight and tried to drive a lance through a watermelon, but this was never going to be a serious documentary!   And the hunting laws – we also saw him shooting arrows in the woods – have played a fairly big part in English history.

He was so enthusiastic about it all!   What about the swearing and the “unusual” slang words and the wanting to hug everyone all the time?  Well, if he’d been putting it on to present a certain image, it might have been annoying; but he was just being himself.  I’m not suggesting that everyone should go around saying “fuck” in one of the most important churches in Europe (Saint-Chapelle in Paris), but maybe it’s not a bad thing sometimes to show that history’s not just for people talking in … shall we say “ a scholarly way”?

Then on to Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the most interesting couples in the whole of British royal history.   My one big moan about this programme was that it gave a very one-sided view both of Henry II and of Louis IX of France.  I appreciate that they were only spending a short amount of time on each person, and couldn’t go into too much detail, but they might have pointed out how badly Henry treated Eleanor!   I find it hard to have much sympathy over the whole “Revolt of the Eaglets” thing, because I just don’t like the man.  Anyway.  This is another neglected area of history – not just what was going on at home, but the extent of the Angevin Empire.  Thomas Becket got a mention as well, although only a passing one.

Danny was so interested in it all. And his take on the rebellion of Henry II’s sons against him was that they were “ungrateful little brats”, which in some ways did sum it up very well!  And humanised it.  Yes, this is history, these are kings and queens and princes and princesses, but it’s also about family fallings-out and family breakdowns.  A couple’s marriage breaks down, there are tensions between siblings, the kids want to take control of the family business, the parents are each accused of favouring one kid over the others … it’s like a soap opera storyline, isn’t it.  As I’m always saying, if schools taught people about all this, instead of making them draw pie charts about the daily lives of monks, everyone would be a lot more interested in medieval history!

Then, for something different, over to France, to learn about Louis IX. I read The Life of Saint Louis when I was 18.  I am not in the habit of reading medieval hagiographies, but I had to read it as part of my degree course.  The book does go on a lot about the Seventh Crusade, but it doesn’t really tell you about the role Louis played in persecuting Cathars and Jews and promoting the work of the Inquisition.  Louis is a big hero in France.  Like Isabella of Castile is a big heroine in Spain.  OK, let’s not get on to the thorny issue of the attitude of the medieval authorities towards anyone who didn’t toe the line in the religion department.  All Danny was told was that Louis was a very pious man who shunned luxury, and tried to help the poor and marginalised – which, to be fair, he did.  We also heard about how Louis obtained many supposed relics, including the supposed Crown of Thorns.  And how he was very into self-flagellation.

Almost 500 years after the English Reformation, the culture here has developed in a very different way to that of countries where most people are Catholic or Orthodox.  And our culture here is now very secular.  We tend to shy away from religious talk in this country.  That, as far as I’m concerned, is no bad thing; but, when we’re talking about the Middle Ages, we really can’t do that.  Even if you’re looking at the present day, rather than the Middle Ages, it can be quite a culture shock when you go abroad and see shrines by the side of the road, or religious images in hotel receptions and dining areas.  I don’t mean that in any sort of critical way, just that it takes some getting used to.

We got Danny dressed up in a brown shift, walking along like a penitent. And then he visited the Saint-Chapelle, where the historian accompanying him told him that Louis had been canonised, and that a vial of his blood was regarded as being miracle-working.  I got the impression that she genuinely believed this.  I’ve no idea what he actually thought about it all, but the magnificence of the chapel, with stained glass windows all round, and I’m guessing probably a strong smell of incense, was clearly quite dazzling and overwhelming, and, on top of that, being told that one of his ancestors had been canonised … it was a long way from West Ham and Albert Square, and it was really getting into a different sort of medieval mindset.    And you wouldn’t have got that in a programme fronted by someone who knew about history, because it wouldn’t have been new to them, and that was partly what made this programme so interesting.  That and the personal element, because we never forgot that, however many umpteen generations away, these actually were Danny’s ancestors.

Then back to England, for the sorry tale of Edward II. Son of the great Edward I, father of the great Edward III.  Lost the Battle of Bannockburn, upset all the barons, was deposed by his wife, Isabella the “She Wolf” of France, and her lover, and may or may not have been murdered by having a red hot poker shoved where the sun doesn’t shine and used to burn out all his innards.  OK, the red hot poker story probably isn’t true, but (whilst there’s the odd romantic novel that shows him escaping abroad) he did meet some sort of very sticky end.  He also had the bad luck to be king at the time of the Great Famine of 1315.

Was he romantically involved with Piers Gaveston and Hugh le Despenser, or were they both just close friends? Well, no-one really knows, but it’s quite likely.  The medieval re-enactment  bit in this programme involved a woman dressed up as Isabella shouting about having a husband who preferred guys.  OK, the way it was done was a bit silly, but it was really touching to hear Danny talking about how difficult it must have been for Edward, if he was gay but had to marry a woman to try to produce heirs, and indeed to forge an alliance with France, and seeing that he was clearly moved by it.  When you’re used to the Plantagenet soap opera, it’s easy to forget how it must all seem to someone hearing it for the first time, especially when it’s someone who’s found out that they’re directly descended from these people.

It was interesting that they chosen Edward II, rather than Edward I or Edward III.  Human interest over legal or military achievements.  The main reason that we hear so much about the reign of Henry VIII isn’t because of the importance of the Reformation on the development of Parliament and English culture – it’s because it involves a story of someone dumping their loyal partner of many years to go off with a younger, better-looking model, and that story resonates with every generation.

Speaking of Henry VIII, the programme then jumped on to the Tudor and Stuart eras. By this point, Danny’s direct line had long been detached from royalty – but travelled down through Elizabeth Seymour, sister-in-law of Henry VIII, and Catherine Tollemache, nee Cromwell, great-granddaughter of Thomas Cromwell.  First up, a visit to Wolf Hall, now associated with those ridiculously overrated books by Hilary Mantel.   This mainly involved Danny dressing up like one of Henry VIII’s courtiers, joking about codpieces, and being taught Tudor court dancing, singing and etiquette.   There’s so much on TV about the Tudors that this just didn’t have the same fascination as the earlier stuff, but he got really stuck into it all – and it was quite sweet when he kissed an effigy of John Seymour, Elizabeth’s father.  Then on to Helmingham Hall, seat of the Tollemaches, where he was joined by his wife and children and they all got dressed up.

They joked about how it was like one of those “And here’s what you could have won!” moments from Bullseye.  Maybe it was more like a real life version of one of those Edward Rutherfurd novels where two branches of a family tree go in completely different directions.    If everyone could all employ the services of professional genealogists with all the time and resources they needed, who knows what they’d find?  But this was great, because it was like a soap opera storyline and yet it was all real, and the fact that Danny Dyer was so into it all meant that the viewer couldn’t help but get drawn into it all with him.  I thought I’d be moaning about how silly this all was – I mean “Right Royal Family” is hardly the most promising of titles – but I genuinely enjoyed it.  Good stuff!

Heaton Park on Great British Railway Journeys – BBC 2

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All right, it was only for a few minutes, but I was very excited about it!  Several generations of my family have spent numerous hours of their lives in Heaton Park.  My primary school was (and indeed still is) next door to the park.  We used to have Sports Days there.  In the second year infants, we had a “nature table” on which we proudly displayed leaves, twigs, pine cones and assorted other things which we’d carefully collected during walks there. When we were in the juniors, we went there to do “educational” things like drawing pictures of Heaton Hall, although we were far more interested in rolling down hills and throwing bits of grass at each other.  At weekends, my sister and I would sit on “the lions”.  Everyone who grew up round here remembers sitting on “the lions”!  When we were older, we took our little cousin there.  I still go there a lot: I live within walking distance.  It’s rare for me to be there for more than a few minutes without seeing someone I know.  I watch all Michael Portillo’s railway programmes, and this one felt like the series was coming right to my doorstep.

In last night’s episode, Michael arrived in our great and wonderful city at Victoria station, and then visited the Manchester Art Gallery – not so much to look at the art as to discuss the 1913 attack on the gallery by three suffragettes.  Yes, all right, all right, damaging artwork is not ideal, even though the idea was only to damage to glass casings, but campaigners for women’s suffrage had tried to make their point by peaceful means, and got nowhere.  This particular attack took place on the day after Emmeline Pankhurst had been given a three year prison sentence.

Oh, and you could see my favourite cafe, The Vienna Coffee House, in the background, as Michael was going into the art gallery.  Sadly, he didn’t pop in for a drink and one of their highly recommended cakes, salads or sandwiches afterwards, but I’m just giving it a mention even so 🙂 .  I’ve been going there ever since it first opened.  It’s extremely nice.

Michael also visited the site of St Peter’s Fields, where, of course, the Peterloo Massacre took place on August 16th, 1819.  The Free Trade Hall was built on the site in 1850s, and, in 1905, was the scene of the famous incident in which Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney heckled Sir Edward Grey, and were later, after refusing to pay a fine, carted off to Strangeways.  That was really the start of the militant phase of the suffragette campaign.  Michael talked about all of this, and also visited the Pankhurst family’s former home, now a museum and a women’s community centre.

With last year’s centenary of (some) women finally being given the vote, and this year’s forthcoming bicentennial of the Peterloo Massacre, there’s a lot of focus at the moment on Manchester’s history as a city – in fact, I’m going to say the city – which took the lead in the fight for democracy in the UK.  I am so, so proud of all this, and very pleased to see this part of our city’s history being covered in this lovely series.

I’d assumed that he was visiting Heaton Park – to which he travelled from town on the Metrolink – to see the Heritage Tramway, and that we’d be hearing all about how, back in the 1870s, the new Manchester to Bury line had to be diverted through an expensive tunnel because the Earl of Wilton, who owned the park and the hall before selling them to the council in 1902, refused to let it go through his land.  However, instead of focusing on selfish aristocrats, the visit to Heaton Park was all tied in with Manchester’s history as the city which promotes the rights and needs of the ordinary people.  Hooray!  (Although it was rather a shame that the tramway didn’t get to appear on TV.)

There’s a well-known local garage called Grimshaws.  Well, it’s now officially called Pentagon, but everyone still calls it Grimshaws.  I used to take my car there for MOTs, when I was in my old job.  Anyway, the garage developed from a bicycle shop owned by one William Grimshaw, who, when he wasn’t selling bikes, also sold gramophones, and was known as the “Gramophone King”.  In 1909, he heard the famous tenor Enrico Caruso sing at the Free Trade Hall. We used to have our secondary school Speech Days at the Free Trade Hall. They were horrendously boring, but being in the Free Trade Hall was always exciting.  I’m still annoyed that the council sold the Free Trade Hall off to be converted into a hotel.

Anyway, to get back to the point, the enterprising Mr Grimshaw recorded the concert (you’d never get away with doing that these days!), and then played the recording on a gramophone at Heaton Park a few days later.  This was the first time a gramophone concert had been held in the open air in this country.  40,000 people turned up!  And – despite our “lovely” climate – the idea soon caught on.  More concerts at Heaton Park, and William Grimshaw was also asked to hold gramophone concerts at other parks, first locally and then nationally.  There was no way that most people would have been able to go to concert halls regularly, and there wouldn’t have been that many tickets available anyway; but this brought music to the masses, and out in the fresh air which Edwardians were so obsessed with.  And it all started here.  Brilliant!

It was very exciting indeed – well, it was for me! – to see Michael sat on a bench on the path where you go up from the lake towards the hall and the farm centre.  And the aerial shots were amazing.  I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen aerial shots of Heaton Park before.  They looked so good!  And then he went out in the lake in one of the lovely rowing boats which are available to hire.  The far side of the lake, the wooded area, is just land, and behind it’s a car park, but, when I was a kid, I liked to pretend it was one of those islands that people got stranded on in Enid Blyton books, and that I was going to go there and have a big adventure.

I’d like to say that I used to play tennis there as well, but, being a fat and unfit kid, I was always better with imagining and daydreaming than exercise.  Oh well.  However, we heard all about the importance of the park in the changing role of women, as the Victorian era gave way to the Edwardian era, and how women would go to the park to cycle and to play tennis.  And, even better, to attend suffragette rallies held by the Pankhursts!  I’ve mentioned about fifty million times that I went to the same secondary school as Christabel, Sylvia and Adela Pankhurst, haven’t I?  We heard that crowds of up to 200,000 people (I’m sure I’ve heard 50,000, but I’ll definitely go with the figure of 200,000 given in the programme!) attended the great Heaton Park suffragette rally of 1908.  It didn’t mention the fact that suffragette activists burnt down the Heaton Park bowling pavilion … but they did.

I’m not going to say anything about burning down a bowling pavilion 😉 , but, had I been around in 1908, I’d like to think that I’d have been at that rally.  Had I been around in 1909, maybe I’d have been at the gramophone concert.  I did go to an Oasis concert at Heaton Park a century later, in 2009!   I have spent so much time in that park over the years!  Very, very exciting to see it featured in this lovely series.

American History’s Biggest Fibs with Lucy Worsley (third episode) – BBC 4

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UFOs apparently merit more attention than the McCarthy witch hunts, and Ronald Reagan was only elected president because American radio stations were banned from playing songs in the top 40 (why??) and played music from the 1950s instead.  So, if they took to playing songs from my era, the late 1980s, who would be the next President of the United States?  Tom Hanks, maybe?  Jodie Foster?  Answers on a postcard, please!  And it doesn’t half annoy me when people insist on referring to the Soviet Union as “Russia”.  There were fifteen Soviet republics, OK – fifteen, not one.  Finally, just to prove that the BBC really does intend to wind people up with this programme, Martin Luther King was accused of being a male chauvinist pig.

Lucy Worsley can be great sometimes, but she was incredibly annoying in this.  The smirking.  The excessively bright red lipstick.  The failure to wear a seatbelt.  And just the general feeling that she was mocking everything.  Is there any need to be like that? Most of what she said was genuinely interesting, but I just found her manner extremely irritating.  I think she was enjoying doing something different, though – it felt as if the jolly hockey sticks head girl had been transformed into the school bully.

We were informed that everyone loves 1950s America, because of Happy Days.  I’d have said more because of Grease, which wasn’t mentioned until later on; but you get the idea.   There is an awful lot of nostalgia about the 1950s.  We then jumped back – there was a lot of jumping around in this programme – jumped back to 1945, and the idea that America won the war.  I have to say that I do find it very annoying when people say that America won the war.  Er, what about Britain, and the other nations of the Empire and the Commonwealth?  What about the Soviet Union?  Lucy didn’t mention Britain, presumably because it might have upset all the avocado-eating Britain-bashers whom the BBC loves to please, but she did suggest that Japan’s surrender had more to do with, or at least as much to do with, the Soviet Union’s declaration of war on her than with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  It’s certainly something that Western histories of the Second World War pay very little attention to.

I’d got the impression that this was going to be about the Cold War, so I was expecting it to focus on all the myths peddled by both sides about the other.  I never “did” the Cold War anti-Soviert thing.  OK, I was a bit young for it anyway, only ten when Gorbachev came to power, but I was always too keen on Eastern European history to be negative about Eastern Europe.  I remember being rather upset when most of the other kids in my GCSE history group were astounded to find that Britain had fought on the same side as Russia in the First World War (not to mention on the same side as the Soviet Union in the Second World War).  Even those of us born in the mid-1970s were fed all that anti-“Russian” stuff.  But this programme wasn’t about that after all – only on America’s own ideas about America, the land of peace and prosperity and supremacy.

So we got lots of shots of housing estates built in the 1950s, and pictures of smiling moms and dads and kids.  All white.  We heard the story of a black family who moved into one of these housing estates, and not even in Mississippi or Alabama but in Pennsylvania, and received death threats.  The legal documents for a lot of these properties even included “racial covenants” – and that wasn’t made illegal until 1968.  None of that was surprising, but things like that never stop being shocking.  When Barack Obama was elected president, it felt as if those days might finally be over.  Now, things seem to be going backwards.

The programme then jumped backwards again – to 1950, when the National Security Council warned Harry S Truman (What is it with American presidents and their middle initials?  No-one goes around talking about Theresa M Mary or Angela D Merkel, do they?!) that there was a threat from the Soviet Union, and so America whacked up its defence spending.  It’s horrifying to think of how much money’s spent on defence, when it’s so urgently needed for other things, because we can’t get to a point where all countries are able to trust each other enough to reduce it.  And that never changes.  Again, it seems to be getting worse, with America pulling out of this nuclear arms treaty.

Testing atomic bombs.  This was all told in a very sarcastic tone.  And, OK, it was utterly bizarre.  Day trips were run from Las Vegas to viewing points for the main atomic testing site in Nevada.  People drank “atomic cocktails” and watched “atomic ballets”, and “Miss Atomic Bomb” contests were held.

Meanwhile, rates of cancer amongst those living downwind of the site soared – resulting in around 11,000 deaths.  The authorities knew of the danger, but felt that developing missiles to match those of the Soviet Union was more important than people’s health.  This was nothing we didn’t already know, but, as with racism, knowing something doesn’t mean that hearing it again isn’t shocking.   And the “Happy Days” of the 1950s were overshadowed by the fear of “the bomb”.

Then, from all this incredibly serious and distressing talk about cancer and fear, we were suddenly on to UFOs.  Roswell was 1947, not in the 1950s, but never mind.  Lucy went on at length about UFOs, and even interviewed a man who was clearly entirely convinced that the truth was out there and either didn’t realise or didn’t care that she was making fun of him.  Everything she was saying did make sense, though!   Yes, there does seem to be a conviction in America that, if aliens were going to land on Planet Earth, they would land in America.  Linking this to Manifest Destiny sounds like a complete piss-take, but it’s actually very hard to say that it isn’t true!

Finally, nearly halfway into the programme, we got to McCarthyism.  I was expecting a whole load of spiel about this.  The Red Scare.  Reds Under The Bed.  Everything that it says about repression and victimisation in what’s supposed to be The Land of the Free, and how easily a politician can whip up fear.  But it barely got a mention.  UFOs were apparently more important.

On to Eisenhower and the “military-industrial complex” – arms companies whipping up fear of the communist threat, and pressuring the American government into upping its defence spending again.  The term doesn’t really get used any more – but I honestly hadn’t realised just how much America does still spend on defence.  According to Wikipedia, “In 2011, the United States spent more (in absolute numbers) on its military than the next thirteen nations combined”.  And, from what Lucy said, the Soviets never really had that many missiles … and what’s quite that much defence spending about now?  This episode was quite disjointed, going from bombs to UFOs to Red Scares to military-industrial complexes without any real thread running through it all, but the points were certainly all valid.

Well, I suppose the thread was meant to be myths and fibs, but it just didn’t flow very well.  From B52s to Camelot, and the idea that JFK was fit and healthy and had a perfect marriage.  Hmm.  And that he saved the world at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis – whereas, in fact, the deal was two-way, with the Americans agreeing to remove their missiles from Turkey at the same time as the Soviets agreed to remove their missiles from Cuba.

No-one ever mentions that, in the West.  Very true.  It would have been interesting to have heard the take on it in Warsaw Pact countries, though.  I know that the programme was meant to be about the USA’s image of itself, but it would have been good to have heard the alternative view.

Then another complete change of topic, from the Bay of Pigs to the 1963 March on Washington.  This bit was fascinating – not so much about what it said, as about the fact that it was said at all.  I’m not that keen on either Abraham Lincoln or John F Kennedy, and find the hero worship of both of them rather odd.  But it’s very unusual to hear anyone criticise Martin Luther King, especially in today’s political climate when people are so quick to label anyone a racist.  People are also increasingly quick to label anyone a sexist – and that’s what Lucy Worsley did with Martin Luther King.  No women spoke on that famous day in 1963.  Why didn’t Rosa Parks, for example, make a speech?  And, apparently, Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King were both invited to the White House, but Coretta was left outside whilst her husband went in for a boys’ only get together.

Fair point.  And a brave point, as well.  I think people are becoming nervous of saying what they think, because of the fear of being wrongly labelled as a racist or a sexist.   Or being accused of “cultural appropriation” – it appears that some people are up in arms over a Marks & Spencer vegan biryani wrap.  I felt quite uncomfortable hearing Lucy saying negative things about such an iconic and admired figure as Martin Luther King, and I was annoyed with myself for that.  She wasn’t taking away from everything he achieved and stood for in terms of civil rights for African-Americans.  She was just saying, quite truthfully, that women were not fairly represented within that movement.  But it was still surprising to hear outspoken criticism of someone whom no-one would usually say a word against.

1963 also saw the publication of The Feminine Mystique.  Finally, a section of the programme that followed on logically from the previous section … but, rather than an insight into the changing role of women in the 1960s, we were left with the impression that the entire female population of the USA spent the 1950s and 1960s taking Valium.

And finally, the radio stations.  I must admit that I never knew this, but, in 1967, AM and FM stations in the US were banned from playing “identical content to” the top 40, in an attempt to encourage musical diversity.  I can’t quite get my head round that!   What a weird idea.  So they played music from the 1950s, and everyone got obsessed with the 1950s, and even more so when Grease and Back To The Future came out. Back To The Future was 1985, by which time Ronald Reagan was into his second term of office, but never mind.  So everyone was really into 1950s nostalgia, and that’s why Ronald Reagan became president.  Well, OK, it wasn’t put exactly like that, but that was the general idea.

And I was expecting McCarthyism and the space race …

I think I actually prefer Lucy when she’s being the jolly hockey sticks head girl.   There was something about this series that smacked of … well, to go back to the subject of Grease, it was a bit like the “too cool for school” Pink Ladies and T-Birds making fun of the all-American kids like Patty Simcox and Tom Chisum for helping to organise the school dance and being on the school sports teams.  But, hey, didn’t you always really want to be one of the cool kids who swaggered around with their cool gang jacket slung over their shoulder?  And I’m just proving that, yep, I do 1950s America nostalgia as well!  It’s a powerful myth.  So many historical myths are.

The Last Survivors – BBC 2

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I’d have said that there was quite a lot of attention paid to the Holocaust; but recent surveys have shown that over 50% of German schoolchildren have never heard of Auschwitz, 20% of French people aged between 18 and 34 have never heard of the Holocaust, 41% of American adults aren’t sure what Auschwitz was, and 5% of British adults don’t believe that the Holocaust took place.  Hopefully this is ignorance, rather than some sinister political forces manipulating history for their own ends, but it’s very worrying.  Ignorance can easily facilitate manipulation, and is best answered by education – and it was a shame that the BBC, put this programme, showing the testimony of some of the few remaining survivors living in Britain, over on BBC 2 and head-to-head with The Voice and Les Miserables.  But at least the programme was made, and shown – on Holocaust Memorial Day.  On the same day, a Polish far-right group held a demonstration at Auschwitz, at the same time as the official commemorations were taking place.  And all forms of hate crime seem to be on the rise.

We’re supposed to learn from history, but something’s going badly wrong somewhere.

The people interviewed, now mostly in their late 80s, had been children at the time of the Holocaust.  Some had survived Auschwitz, others has survived other concentration camps.  Some had been old enough, or convinced the Nazis that they were old enough, to be used for forced labour, rather than being sent to the gas chambers.  Others had been at camps which weren’t actually extermination camps.  One of them, the well-known cellist Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, had been saved from the gas chambers at Auschwitz at the last minute, when a chance remark about her musical studies had led to her being given a place in the Auschwitz Women’s Orchestra, which had saved her life.  One way or another, they’d all somehow survived, and come to Britain.  You’d think that living through such horrific conditions would weaken your constitution, for lack of a less Victorian way of putting it, but these incredible people were all hale and hearty, and extremely eloquent.

It was very personal, and that worked really well.  Statistics and pictures and film reels are effective and hard-hitting, but listening to someone’s personal story gets a message across in a way that nothing else does.  The stories of loss – even more than their own horrific experiences, they were telling their stories of loss – of the ordinary families, ordinary communities, which had been destroyed, of the relatives and friends who’d been murdered.

One man had never been able to find out what had happened to his little brother.  He himself had been out as part of a forced labour gang, and, one day, when he returned to his barracks, his brother and three other little boys had disappeared.  He said that he knew they must have been murdered, but part of him had never quite stopped hoping that his brother was alive somewhere: you hear these occasional stories of miraculous reunions.  And there was the man with the school photo of his class in Prague, taken in 1942.  He’d made it his mission to find out what happened to all his classmates, and had labelled the photo with stickers – red for those killed in the Holocaust, blue for those who’d survived.  There were a lot more red stickers than blue stickers.

Another man had kept trying to draw his murdered mother and sister: he had no photos of them.  He’d managed to produce a likeness of his mother, but said that he couldn’t get his sister’s face down on paper, so he’d drawn an abstract picture as a representation of him.  A well-known sculptor said that most of his sculptures had the face of his murdered father.  His younger sister had died in a concentration camp, and their elder sister had had to take her body outside and leave it on a pile of other bodies: there was nothing else to be done.  And no justice to be sought.  A man remembered seeing the flames from the chimneys at Auschwitz and, having seen his mother being taken away to the gas chambers, wondering which flame was her.

Why would anyone think that people would make this up?  And what is thing in Poland about trying to make it into some sort of competition?  Yes, there is an issue in that not much has been written about some of the groups affected by the Holocaust – the Roma and Sinti communities, gay men, people with physical and mental disabilities, for example.  More research and greater awareness is badly needed.  And no-one is denying the fact that the Nazis murdered many Poles who were not Jewish.  But what’s going on in Poland has a lot to do with the manipulation and misrepresentation of history, and it just shows how frighteningly easy it is for things to reach that stage.  This demonstration only numbered around two hundred people, but … that’s still two hundred people.

Many of those interviewed, although not all, were the only survivors of their families, and had presumably also been separated from friends, neighbours, and anyone else from their childhoods.  Most of them had married British partners, and had children and grandchildren.  How does that work, when someone close to you has been through such horrific experiences, and you’ve lived an ordinary life?

The partners seemed to cope quite well.  Or maybe they just didn’t want to say much, being of the stiff upper lip generation.  But the children were obviously struggling.  One woman said that she’d felt resentful as a child, because her mother had been too focused on trying to rebuild her life.  Another woman got frustrated with her father, whilst they were actually visiting Auschwitz, because he wasn’t expressing his emotions and he kept saying that part of the reason he was anxious was just that he was bothered about missing the coach.  She obviously adored him, and she then got tearful and hugged him; but she was obviously finding it frustrating.

The children and grandchildren seemed keener on expressing emotions about what had happened.  The survivors themselves said that that was something they couldn’t do.

It was interesting that several of them were involved in the arts, either as professionals or as amateurs – could that be a way of letting emotion out?  Anita Lasker-Wallfisch was defiant, saying that she wasn’t going to let people see her spilling her emotions all over the place.  Another woman said that she didn’t dare to cry, because, once she started crying, she’d never be able to stop.  The man who went back to Auschwitz said that he was crying inside, all the time.

There certainly seemed to be a consensus that, afterwards, they’d focused on rebuilding their lives and moving forward.

And also that they hadn’t wanted to revisit the places of the past – until now.  There were three return journeys.  One was the visit to Auschwitz, with the man whose daughter wanted him to express his emotions more.  His young granddaughter also accompanied them.  One of the women said that she found it difficult to see adverts for sightseeing trips to Auschwitz – on the hotel noticeboard, along with adverts for sightseeing trips to the Wieliczka salt mines.  It’s a difficult one.  I suppose it has sort of become a tourist attraction, and I remember being quite shocked to see people taking photos of themselves and their travel companions there.  I did take some photos of the site, but I certainly didn’t want any photos there with myself in them, and the fact that anyone did made me quite uncomfortable.  But I think it’s a very educational experience, and I do think it has to be open for people to visit.  There was nothing there that I found disrespectful or sensationalised.  I wish I could say the same of the Warsaw Ghetto: there was a souvenir stall there which was selling things that were in extremely poor taste.  Hopefully that stall’s not there any more.

Another was the visit by the man whose brother had disappeared, to consecrate memorial stones in his home town of Kassel.  It was the first time that he’d actually said memorial prayers for his brother, acknowledging that his brother was gone and saying that he was at least thankful that his brother had had a few years of a happy and loving childhood.  He also said that he hoped that people would stop to look at the memorial stones, but accepted that they wouldn’t.  You don’t, do you?  Names on park benches.  Blue plaques on buildings.  War memorials.  Statues in city centres.  But they’re there.  And Kassel was acknowledging what had happening.

There are a lot of Holocaust memorials in Germany.  The main one’s in Berlin.  This is the main German memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, I should say: there are also memorials to other groups.  They shouldn’t be separate: there should be one memorial to all the victims.  But there isn’t.  Anyway.  It’s an odd-looking memorial – a lot of concrete blocks.  Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, visiting it on the third of the return trips, her visit to Germany to address the German parliament, said that she’d rather have had a garden as a memorial.  But it’s there.

There was a lot of talk about “Germans”.  I know that sounds like stating the obvious, but … is that a hallmark of the wartime generation?   Things said or written now tend to refer to “Nazis” rather than “Germans”.  Neither term is entirely accurate, when talking about the perpetrators of the Holocaust.  In the immediate post-war era, every country other than Germany was presented entirely a victim, which was certainly not entirely the case.  And this is part of the Polish right-wing issue again.  And, conversely, all Germans were stigmatised – look at the carry-on when Bert Trautmann signed for City.  I don’t know what the right term is.  We haven’t really got one.

She spoke so well, saying that it’s understandable that today’s Germans do not want to identify with what happened.  Why should they: it wasn’t their fault.  But that it must never be forgotten.  There’s a lot of talk about “never again”, but look what happened in Cambodia, in Iraqi Kurdistan, in the former Yugoslavia, in Rwanda, in Darfur …

At the end, we saw one of the women dancing round her house.  She said that she’d been denied her youth, her teenage years, so she was having them now.  That was lovely.  The whole programme was very watchable.  Moving rather than harrowing.  I don’t know what the viewing figures were, but I hope they were good.  It’s just very unfortunate that the people who most needed to hear what was being said won’t have been watching.

 

American History’s Biggest Fibs with Lucy Worsley – BBC 4

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This certainly didn’t pull any punches. It was actually quite malicious; and I’d love to know what an American audience would make of it.  Remember the days when Auntie Beeb was actually neutral?!  Anyway.  I’ve been studying American history since 1986.  It’s one of the things I go back to if I’m having a bad spell with anxiety, because it reminds that me that I’m still me.  My specialist period’s the Civil War, and I’m rather looking forward to seeing Dr Lucy debunking some of the myths about that; but I do tend to get a bit soppy and romantic over the Revolution.  I’ve got my own little model of the Liberty Bell.  And I’ve even got a copy of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution (which I last night located behind my copy of the National Trust Book of Scones, for some reason).  But I do know very well that most of it is more romance than fact, and there was nothing factual in this programme that I found surprising or that I’d even really argue with.  It was still quite “interesting” to see the BBC absolutely lay into the United States like this, though.  I don’t think they’d have shown a programme like this before The Donald (he who thinks that it was the Canadians who burnt down the White House in 1812) got himself elected president.

Is it really weird for a British historian to get soppy over the American Revolution? Or is it a Mancunian rebel thing 😉 ?  I got genuinely emotional at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, and even more so at the National Archives in Washington, seeing original copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.  (Maybe a bit less so at Boston Harbour, because the thought of all that tea being wasted was rather upsetting.  I’m very fond of tea.)   It’s all that “land of the free” stuff.  It really does get to you … even when you’re a Civil War specialist and can talk about the history of slavery in the US until the cows come home.

So, we started off with the basic point that the Declaration of Independence was actually made on July 2nd, 1776.  I remind people about that every Fourth of July – and probably really annoy them, sorry! Then we jumped back to 1773.  Lucy Worsley did surprisingly little dressing up in this: Michael Portillo dressed up when he covered the Boston Tea Party, but Lucy didn’t.  I did wonder if maybe she was trying to get herself taken more seriously, but there was some dressing up later on.  Incidentally, if someone is trying to get themselves taken more seriously, maybe they should avoid using the word “fibs” in the title of their programme.  It sounds like something you say to a naughty five-year-old who’s insisting that they weren’t the one who left toys out all over the floor.

It was pointed out that Washington, Franklin et al weren’t very amused by the Boston Tea Party – not so much because it was a waste of good tea as because it involved the destruction of private property. As we all know, the British and American well-to-do classes in Georgian times were obsessed with private property.  And it meant that those who’d been arguing against no taxation without representation were made to look like criminals.  Big black mark.  A bit of a dig was also made about the modern use of the name “Tea Party” by people who are … shall we say, not exactly associated with liberty and equality.  I nearly added “and fraternity” there – oops, wrong revolution.

Next up for debunking was Paul Revere’s ride. No, Paul Revere did not make a daring solo ride to warn the people of Lexington and Concord that the British were coming.  There were two other blokes involved, and Revere himself was captured at Lexington and never even got to Concord.  Paul Revere’s always annoyed me, for some reason.  I don’t know why, given that I do get soppy over the Revolution.  Lucy, quite rightly, put the blame for the Paul Revere myth on Longfellow.  That’s twice in a week that I’ve had a go at Longfellow (who also wrote Evangeline).   I much prefer Longfella.  Sorry – couldn’t resist that.

And then there was the idea of the American army as being made up of gallant farmers. Er, yep, I think we’re all a bit past that, and know very well that it was, or at least became, a professional army, but the myth persists.  I actually blame Oliver Cromwell for this.  He’s the main reason (Louis XIV is the runner-up, but a long way behind) that people in Britain got so paranoid about the idea of professional armies, and that idea crossed the Atlantic.  It took the Duke of Wellington to change people’s minds here, but he, obviously, didn’t have any influence in the US, and so the idea of the army of gallant farmers remained a romantic ideal.  It just isn’t actually true.   And, of course, the Second Amendment had to get a mention there.  Whilst I think practically everyone in the UK wishes that America would tighten up its gun controls, the BBC is supposed to be politically neutral.  Between that, the digs about immigration and the digs about fake news … well, as I said, I don’t think they’d have shown a programme like this before Mr Trump took up residence in the White House.

Ah yes, presidents. The great George Washington … slaveowner.  I’ve recently read Monticello, by Sally Cabot Gunning, and a lot of that revolves around the paradox of Thomas Jefferson owning slaves.  I didn’t get soppy at Monticello, nor at Mount Vernon.  It’s worth noting that Revolutionary France did abolish slavery (although Napoleon restored it a few years later).  As we all know, the new United States did not, and many of the Founding Fathers, including Washington and Jefferson, were slaveowners.  You can’t call that a myth, or indeed a fib, because no-one pretends otherwise, but … well, you can tie yourself in knots trying to reconcile the idea of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness with another nine decades of slavery.  Not to mention with the lack of rights for women.  The treatment of Native Americans.  Discrimination against non-Protestants. I love the United States and am not criticising her any more than I’d criticise any other country, but … it just doesn’t sit very well with the idea of the “land of the free”.

And poor old George III. Dear old Farmer George, with his fifteen kids and his health problems, cast as some sort of tyrant.  This really does annoy me.  Have a go at Parliament, by all means.  Either in the 1770s or today!   But it’s extremely unfair that the myths of the American Revolution cast George III as a tyrant.  In fact, it’s not even fair to class Parliament as tyrannical.  Look at what was going on in most Continental countries at the time!   But the specific point being made was that the colonists originally saw George III as an ally against Parliament, and that that changed – with Thomas Paine, who didn’t even move to the colonies until 1774, being the one who called for independence.  John Adams apparently said that American independence wouldn’t have happened without Paine.  In the wonderful North and South trilogy by John Jakes, Cooper Main idolises Paine … and I think that was where I first came across Paine.  But no-one talks about him very much in connection with the American Revolution, more about the Rights of Man.  And poor old George III got labelled as a tyrant.  He was nothing of the sort!

This was tied in with the myth of Who Started It. Well, you get that with all wars.  It’s always the other side’s fault.  But, with a civil war, which the American War of Independence was, there’s always a build-up beforehand.  The British blamed the colonials.  The colonials blamed the British.  And I’m not happy with the terminology there, because most of the colonials would have regarded themselves as British.  Interestingly, that was one road Lucy never went down … that of the American Tories, who remained loyal to the British Crown.  I suppose you can only fit so much into an hour, but I would have thought that that was quite a big issue.  American history tends conveniently to forget how many Americans actually fought for the British!  The role of Native Americans wasn’t really covered, either.  I suppose that doesn’t class as a “fib”, because American history doesn’t pretend that most Native Americans didn’t support the British (apologies for appalling sentence construction there!).  It just rather ignores the subject.

The Spanish got ignored, as well. It’s Aussie Open fortnight, OK: my brain’s running along rather Spanish lines ATM!  And, whilst I’m having a moan, I’d have liked a mention of the fact that the great Bostonian supporters of liberty were hitting the roof over Catholics in Quebec being allowed civil rights.  But the programme pretty much made out that the French were responsible for the Americans winning the War of Independence.  I think that’s a bit of an exaggeration.  It’s a reasonable point … but it’s an exaggeration.  But, yes, it was definitely all part of the … well, the so-called “Second Hundred Years’ War” that began with England fighting Louis XIV and ended with the United Kingdom defeating Napoleon.  It most certainly wasn’t just about the Thirteen Colonies.

They couldn’t even let the actual Declaration of Independence alone. I really do think some Americans would get very upset by this programme!   As a kid, I remember getting terribly confused by the fact that the battles of Lexington and Concord took place in 1775.  It didn’t make sense.  The whole thing didn’t kick off until 1776, so how could there have been battles in 1775? Why was the “shot that was heard around the world” fired a year before independence was declared?  Well, ahem, the fighting actually kicked off well before the Declaration of Independence – so presenting the said Declaration of Independence as something peaceful and heroic and idealistic is seriously misleading.  Well … OK, but I do wish the programme hadn’t clearly taken so much delight in knocking all those ideals.  There really was something quite nasty and vindictive about it … and, only an hour earlier, I’d been watching another BBC programme which had been pretty nasty and vindictive about the idea of grammar schools.  The BBC is supposed to try to present a balanced view of things, but it doesn’t do that with anything any more.

After that, it felt as if they were just looking for stories to tear apart. The idea of Molly Pitcher at the Battle of Monmouth is probably rubbish.  Well, like a lot of stories, it’s probably an amalgamation of various different stories about various different people.  That’s hardly uncommon, in history.  And the idea of the Liberty Bell ringing to proclaim the Declaration of Independence is untrue as well, we were told, not least because the steeple of the Pennsylvania State House was under repair at the time.  I don’t know.  OK, there wasn’t any big proclamation on the actual day of the declaration, but there are certainly accounts of bells being rung a few days later.  And no-one’s entirely sure what sort of condition the steeple was in at the time: there’s a lot of confusion about that. The Liberty Bell idea partly belongs to the 1830s, when it got tied in with the Abolitionist movement, but it was certainly a “thing” during the War of Independence, when it was hidden to prevent it from being melted down for use as munitions, and that does suggest that it was associated with July 1776.  I think Lucy was a bit too dismissive there.

After the Liberty Bell, we moved on to the Statue of Liberty. Hang on.  What’s the Statue of Liberty got to do with the American Revolution?!    It wasn’t built (do you “build” statues?) until a century later, and it wasn’t dedicated until 1886!  This was basically a dig at Donald Trump.  I’ve got a little model of the Statue of Liberty as well, incidentally, and I had as copy of part of Emma Lazarus’s poem stuck up next to it at one time!   We were told that everyone was getting rather cynical about the idea of liberty by the 1880s, and that the Emma Lazarus poem changed the meaning of the Statue of Liberty into being a symbol of the USA opening its arms to immigrants.  Oh come on, BBC!   I won’t repeat what I think of Donald Trump’s ridiculous idea about building a wall on the US-Mexican border, but what on earth has that got to do with the Revolution?  This was supposed to be a history programme!

It finished up with the Alexander Hamilton musical. That at least was relevant to the Revolution, but most of what was said seemed more of a comment on the current state of race relations in the US than on “fibs” about the Revolution.   It was all getting a bit silly by this point.

There was some interesting stuff in this, and it’s been a while since we’ve had any sort of new programme about American history, but I’m getting rather sick of the BBC shoehorning political opinions into everything. EastEnders. Holby City.  When I want to watch someone putting forward their views on the current political situation, I’ll watch a political programme.  This was supposed to be a history programme!  But, as I said, I get soppy over the Revolution.  If next week’s programme debunks the ridiculous idea that the Civil War (and it wasn’t a Civil War, but unfortunately you can’t say “War Between The States”, the more accurate term, without someone thinking you’re a racist) was about ending slavery rather than about preserving the Union, and if the following week’s episode debunks the myth that “the Russians” (why can’t people say “Soviets” instead of “Russians?!) were the big bad guys of the Cold War, then I’ll stop moaning and start praising!

 

Great Canadian Railway Journeys – BBC 2

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Next Monday’s episode is about one of my favourite cities in the whole wide world, Vancouver 🙂 , and  Thursday’s episode is going to finish in another place that I’m very fond of, Quebec City; but last night’s episode was about Prince Edward Island and I’m not passing up an excuse to write about Anne of Green Gables.  It also discussed people who’d sailed from Wester Ross to Nova Scotia – let’s just get The Proclaimers in there 🙂 .  I think Thursday’s episode’s also going to cover the Acadian Expulsions, but that will probably involve Evangeline and I’m not writing about that for anybody.  It’s like Uncle Tom’s Cabin: you feel under some sort of moral obligation to think it’s wonderful, whereas it actually just makes you want to throw up.  The Green Gables books, on the other hand, genuinely are wonderful, and it was lovely to hear people saying that they felt that Anne, Gilbert & co were the soul of Prince Edward Island.

We started in Pictou, Nova Scotia, where Michael Portillo was shown round the Hector, a ship which carried some of the earliest emigrants from the Scottish Highlands to Canada, in 1773.  OK, the programme didn’t actually say that they sailed from Wester Ross, but they probably did!  It did say that around 15% of Canadians have Scottish ancestry, and we saw a lot of tartan signs, and people playing the bagpipes and dancing Scottish reels.

It was, however, rather frustrating to hear the local guide claiming that the emigrants in 1773 were leaving Scotland because “English landlords” had taken over the Highlands after Culloden. What a load of rubbish.  The suppression of Highland culture after Culloden was appalling, but the Clearances, which forced a lot of people off their land, were the work of Scottish landlords trying to make their estates more profitable.  Scottish author Reay Tannahill covers this very well in one of my all-time favourite historical novels, A Dark and Distant Shore, although that covers the second wave of clearances, in the 1820s.  All right, I appreciate that it wasn’t meant as a political comment, but there’s a lot of tension in the world at the moment, and it doesn’t really help when people go around blithely claiming that the English were to blame for this or the Germans were to blame for that or the Russians were to blame for the other, when it isn’t even true!

Rant over!   It was more interesting to hear about the appalling conditions on board the ship – something covered in a lot of detail in Vilhelm Moberg’s The Emigrants, which is about Swedish emigrants to the American mid-West in the early 19th century, but says much the same as the guide in Pictou was saying about the Hector.  We also heard about how people wanting to leave the Highlands were tricked by the organisers of “emigration schemes”, who promised them land and supplies – which, of course, never materialised.  I’d hesitate to use the term “people traffickers”, because it’s not as if people were being forced into slavery/sex work, but there were certainly a lot of unscrupulous people around.   And, as Michael said, you have to admire the tough folk who made that journey and then made new lives for themselves in a strange place and under difficult conditions.

We then heard a lot about lobsters. OK, whatever!  And then on to Prince Edward Island.  Not too much about actual railway journeys in this episode: we saw Michael riding a bike along a disused railway line!   He was heading for Cavendish, where “the” Green Gables house is.  It was owned by L M Montgomery’s grandparents’ cousins, apparently.  She (LMM) was brought up by her grandparents after her mother’s death: her father was a real-life example of one of those widowers you find so often in books, who leave their motherless children with relatives.   I’m so jealous that Michael got to see the house!   I did consider a Maritime Provinces trip for this year, and seeing the Green Gables house was the main attraction.  I went for something else in the end, but I’ll do it one of these days, hopefully!

I love the fact that Michael did talk about Anne of Green Gables, just as he talked about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books in an earlier series, and I think I remember him talking about Louisa M Alcott as well.  People can be quite snotty about books that were aimed mainly at young girls, but he’s shown them the respect they deserved.  I do love Anne, and the way she makes everything so romantic and such a drama!  I love her romance with Gilbert.  I love her attempts at writing a book.  I love the fact that she goes off to college and that she becomes a teacher.  I have never dared try to dye my hair at home, because of that scene where Anne accidentally dyes her hair green!   And so I loved the fact that the people Michael spoke to did genuinely seem to feel that the books were an essential part of the island’s culture – not just as a way of attracting visitors and peddling tourist tat, but … well, the word “soul” was actually used.  OK, he was talking to people who worked at the Green Gables house, or who were taking part in the Anne of Green Gables musical which has been running for three months a year for fifty-four years, but even so.

We also got to hear about harness racing, particularly associated with Irish settlers, and about red loam soil And then he finished up by saying that Prince Edward Island’s main interest for historians is that it was the scene of the Charlottetown Conference of 1864, which was what really set the ball rolling with Canadian confederation … although, when the Dominion of Canada was formed, in 1867, Prince Edward Island didn’t actually join in, remaining a separate entity until 1873.  Saying that Confederation was about railways was pushing it a bit 🙂 .  OK, railways were an issue, but the ramifications of the American Civil War, general economic issues and the fact that the existing system wasn’t really working did have a bit to do with it as well!

Charlottetown is, therefore, very important in Canadian history. And Confederation is very interesting.  I once delivered a bit of a lecture in it whilst I was sat in canoe on a river (or was it a lake?) in British Columbia.  Seriously, I did!  The canoe supervisor guy for some reason started firing questions about Canadian history at us, and the rest of the group, being more into outdoor sports than history, just didn’t answer … er, so I gave a mini-lecture about Confederation.  I am so weird, I know.  But saying that the Charlottetown Conference is more interesting to historians than Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe and co?   Hmm … I’ll have to have a good long think about that one!