Great British Railway Journeys (series 12) – BBC 2

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 I wasn’t sure how this was going to pan out, but Michael Portillo and BBC 2 have done an excellent job of adapting to Covid restrictions; and they managed to make Slough, Pinner, Hatch End and various other places which, with all due respect, don’t scream “glamour”, sound very interesting!   Windsor, Winchester and Oxford added some rather more traditional interest, along with Downton Abbey (OK, Highclere Castle), and we even got to see Michael riding on Thomas the Tank Engine along the “Watercress Line” heritage railway in Hampshire.

The theme was the 1930s, and we heard about a wide range of subjects relating to that decade, although we did also cross into the 1920s and 1940s.  We got the Abdication, the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, the establishment of the spinal injuries unit at Stoke Mandeville, the opening of a Mars factory 🙂 in Slough, Heath Robinson’s cartoons and the model village at Bekonscot, to name but a few.  And, of course, we got Thomas the Tank Engine!  The second week’s going to cover the Kindertransport, Sutton Hoo, the (in)famous Summerhill School and 1930s art in the first episode alone, so they really are packing a lot into each half hour slot.

The pandemic wasn’t really mentioned, but we did see Michael wearing his (garishly-coloured) mask on the trains, and he only spoke to one person at a time – no big groups, no joining in with dancing or other activities.  And he’s unlikely to be filming abroad any time soon.  But it didn’t spoil any of the programmes.  This is what we’re all having to do at the moment – adapt as best we can, and try to find interesting things to see and do within the restrictions.  It’s lovely to see another series of this, and it’s wonderful that they’ve been able to film it despite everything that’s been going on.

Nadiya’s American Adventure – BBC 1

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This is historical and cultural, OK: it’s not just an excuse for me to talk about food!   I have to admit that the first thing I did, on arrival in New Orleans in 2014, was go to the Cafe du Monde for a beignet.  I did go and look at the historical sights, and have a ride on a Mississippi steamboat, after that; but, when it comes to New Orleans, it’s food first!  Nadiya Hussain looked as if she was having a wonderful time, making and eating food from different New Orleans traditions.  And what a refreshing change to see a BBC documentary in which everyone was just being nice to each other.  No-one was pushing an agenda, making nasty remarks, or making accusations against anyone.  Everyone was pleasant, cheerful, enthusiastic and positive.  What a lovely, lovely hour’s TV!  When we can travel again, could Nadiya be given her own series, please?  Let’s all be nice to each other and eat cake.

Sadly, there weren’t any beignets in this programme.  I was rather put out about that!   But we did start with Mardi Gras … I’m assuming that this was Mardi Gras 2019.  And King Cake – this is what we would know better as Twelfth Night cake (always reminds me of the disastrous picnic in Katherine L Oldmeadow’s Princess Prunella!), complete with a small figurine hidden inside, brought to New Orleans by French and Spanish settlers and now associated with Carnival rather than Christmas.  In New Orleans, they get through the most enormous amounts of it, and we saw it all being made by hand.  And we heard the bakers talking about what an amazing time of year Mardi Gras is, everyone feeling the love and sharing the love.  I can’t see it happening in 2021, but fingers crossed for 2022.

Also in the French quarter, we got to see, and Nadiya got to make, the famous po’boy sandwiches.  No-one’s 100% sure how they originated!  But they’re very nice.  And usually very big!

But, as we were reminded, New Orleans isn’t all about the French Quarter, and we then saw Nadiya visiting an African-American neighbourhood which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  There, she met a family trying to revive their local community with a restaurant serving soul food, the traditional African-American cuisine of New Orleans … although the actual term “soul food” only dates back as far as the 1960s.

And then it was out of the city and into the bayous, on a boat with a couple and their young daughter.  Or should that be “bayoux”?  There, she met five generations of a Cajun family, and was treated to gumbo and jambalaya, and a discussion about Cajun history.  Now, certain BBC presenters – Simon Reeve’s travel programmes are now virtually unwatchable – would have done the whole “Evangeline” thing, used it as an excuse to make abusive remarks about Britain, then made abusive remarks about America, and then probably said that Nadiya was guilty of “cultural appropriation” for trying on a Vietnamese hat later on in the programme!  Not in this.  Everyone, Nadiya herself and all the people she met, was friendly and welcoming and genuinely interested in what each other had to say.  This is the sort of programme we need!  More of this, please!

Next up came a children’s jazz band, and rocky road for the kids!  And then, finally, we were treated to members of the New Orleans Vietnamese community combining Creole crawfish dishes with traditional Vietnamese food to create something new – a melting pot, in fact.  And, yes, Nadiya tried on a Vietnamese hat.  And, no, no-one found that in the slightest bit offensive.  They were interested in her, and she was interested in them.

This was just wonderful.  Bravo, Nadiya, and bravo, all the people of New Orleans who made her so welcome!

Victoria Four-Thirty by Cecil Roberts (Facebook group reading challenge)

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I’m amazed that Cecil Roberts actually found time to write.  As well as having a wife, he had affairs with the Duke of Kent (the Queen’s uncle), tennis player Gottfried von Cramm, Laurence Olivier and Somerset Maugham.  Anyway, in between chasing after, or being chased by, famous blokes, he was a journalist, and also wrote several books.  They included this one, published in 1937, about a number of very different passengers on the 4:30pm train from London Victoria, the boat train which travelled through France and Switzerland to Austria, and then connected with the Arlberg-Orient Express and went on to Hungary, Romania and Greece.  You’d think that a journalist would have known that a) Salzburg was not in Tyrol and b) Russians had patronymics rather than middle names, but apparently not.  But, despite that, it’s really very entertaining.

It’s a strange mixture.  We’ve got a Ruritanian prince, but we’ve also got very harsh reality with a German actor who’s being persecuted by the Nazis because of his Jewish connections, and a number of passengers who lost loved ones in the First World War.  And, perhaps more in the spirit of the 1920s than the 1930s, we’ve got the romantic ideal of leaving the world behind and going off to live amongst “simple peasants” in little villages.  One lady has left London to become a nun in Transylvania.  As you do.  And one man is on the hunt for his errant nephew, who’s dropped out of his studies and is eventually found shacked up with a hunky cowherd in Alpine Austria.  It should be noted that the cowherd is actually from a well-to-do middle-class family, as otherwise they’d have had no money, and that would obviously never have done.  Oh, and there’s a bit of Orientalism as well – it turns out that a Turkish man with a French wife has a mini-harem hidden away in Istanbul.

It really is a very good read.  I know I’ve just been a bit sarcastic, but most of the stories are genuinely moving and serious, with the shadows of the First World War and the Russian Revolution, and the menace of Nazism, hanging over many of the characters.  It’s generally very well-written, and, as someone who much prefers lakes and mountains to beaches and swimming pools, I love the fact that the dream holiday destinations of the day are Tyrol and Ticino.

Obviously, this only applied to people with a lot of time and a lot of money: the comments about “everyone” heading off to the Alps in August are countered by a young porter who can only dream of taking his future wife on honeymoon to Lugano.  But, if you did have the time and money, how lovely to travel on this luxury train … and to wonder about all the other passengers.  Oh, and most of them are travelling alone.  Even better.

So, who have we got?  A young couple going for a Tyrolean honeymoon before taking up a posting in Burma.  An author who’s lost the plot and is looking for a new one, and finds inspiration from a woman with a complicated story about her husband being thrown in prison.  A single man who’s somehow ended up as a cash cow for his married siblings and their children, and has decided to leave them all behind and go and see the Pyramids – good for you, mate!   The man looking for his nephew.  The French-based Turkish man with the various wives.

Then there’s the elderly lady who’s a nun in Romania: this is a very moving story, because she’s come home to London to consult a doctor, who’s told her that she’s dying, and she knows she’ll never see her children, grandchildren or home city again.  And a very dignified man who was once a senior officer in the Tsarist army, but, following the Russian Revolution, now works as a tour guide driving rich American ladies round Austria.

It’s all very bitty.  I thought that, as with Love Actually, it would turn out that everyone was somehow connected, but they aren’t.  And, given that they’re all from very different backgrounds, it wouldn’t make much sense if they were.  There’s one chapter about each of them, and then we see them all briefly when they reach their destinations.  Some of the stories are very sad.  The German actor with the Jewish connections tries to gas himself.  A Greek waiter who’s been working in London arrives back in Athens to find that his sweetheart’s been hit by a car and will never walk again.

And then there’s the Swiss maid who’s been working in France and has been seduced by her mistress’s nephew, who was then killed in an accident (keep up!) and gives birth to an illegitimate child, with the elderly nun acting as midwife.  The baby is adopted by a widowed conductor who’s involved with the Salzburg Festival and decides that he’d like to have a child.  The poor maid doesn’t have much choice other than to give the baby up.

Last but not least, there’s young Prince Paul of Slavonia, who’s been at school in England but is having to return home because he’s now King Paul of Slavonia, his father having been assassinated.  If this is 1937 and he’s in his early teens, could he be the father of Leopold, Fazia and co in the Sadlers Wells books?  Principal Role was published in 1957, and Leopold must be at least 20 then … er, no, that doesn’t work.  Must be a different Slavonia!  Bizarrely, this Slavonia – and bear in mind that there is a real place called Slavonia, in Croatia – is actually set in a real part of the Balkans, in Serbia, with its capital at Nis.  That’s totally mad.  Having a Ruritanian prince in the middle of all the reality is also totally mad, but the story of the grieving, frightened young boy is very touchingly told.

There are a lot of different characters and different stories, and so it’s very bitty and there’s no proper ending.  There are that many characters that, by the time I’d got to the end of the first bit, I’d have been struggling to make a list of them.  But, if you can handle the fact that the book’s episodic and there’s no story running right through it, this is well worth reading.

I was about to say “Oh, what wouldn’t I give to head off on a train to Tyrol or Ticino?”, but the answer is probably actually not much, because Austria’s in lockdown and, with trains not running between Switzerland and Italy due to virus issues, it’s probably a bit manic at stations in Ticino at the moment.  But we can dream …

 

 

 

Great Continental Railway Journeys – BBC 2

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I was so excited to see a new series of this – I didn’t realise that one had been recorded pre-lockdown – in the TV schedules, and found it particularly interesting that much of the first episode was spent talking about the Spanish Civil War … largely with reference to Michael Portillo’s dad, who came to Britain as a Republican exile.  Scores of men from North West England fought in the International Brigades, and Spanish relief/aid committtees were set up all over the region; but no-one ever talks about it.  I remember once getting quite excited during a mid-1990s episode of Neighbours in which Karl Kennedy’s dad gave Billy and Toadie a lecture on the International Brigades!  It’s a subject that’s rarely discussed – except in connection with George Orwell, and we saw Michael visiting a Republican trench outside Huesca with Orwell’s son.

We also saw Michael visiting Salamanca, Avila and Madrid, all of which I’ve been fortunate enough to visit, and Zaragoza, which I haven’t … yet.  And a border railway station in the Pyrenees, used as an escape route by Jews and Allied soldiers fleeing Occupied France during the war.  No-one spells Zaragoza the old English way, “Saragossa”, since Real Zaragoza had that good run in the mid-1980s.  And no-one spells Marseille with an s on the end since they got to the European Cup Final in 1991.  This is an interesting linguistic phenomenon.  It should be investigated.

Anyway.  Michael, resplendent in a yellow jacket, purple shirt and vermilion trousers – I wonder if he dresses like that when he’s not filming – started off in Salamanca, with a Bradshaw’s guidebook (everyone knows that George Bradshaw was from Salford, yes?) from 1936.  We did hear a bit about the general history of Salamanca, but this was a very personal episode and the focus was on Michael’s late dad and his time as a professor at the university there: we even saw the index cards which Franco’s government had kept on Luis Portillo Perez.  Oh, and sliced ham.  Then lovely Avila, famed for its association with St Teresa.

And then on to Madrid.  We saw quite a lot of the architecture of Salamanca and Avila, but Madrid’s too big to cover in one segment of one programme, although we did see some of its highlights.  And, again, we heard about Portillo snr.  Michael stood in front of Picasso’s “Guernica” and talked about how his parents would never have met had it not been for the bombing of Guernica.  To be fair, he did talk about the devastation it caused, as well, not just its role in his own family history!  The lady at the Museum Reina Sofia said that “Guernica” was the most important painting of the twentieth century.  There’s certainly a good case for saying that.

Then it was on to Zaragoza, capital of Aragon … and we got a mention of Ferdinand and Isabella.  Things got a bit more light-hearted here, with the requisite making-an-idiot-of-himself segment, this one involving Michael trying to join in with the Aragonese Jota dance.  But then we returned to the subject of the Civil War, with the visit to the trench at Huesca.

Finally, after a journey through some lovely countryside, Michael ended up at the Franco-Spanish border station of Canfranc, opened in 1928, at which time it was the second largest station in Europe.  It’s not used much now.  That’s rather sad.  I do love those grand old railway stations!

And I love Spain.  We’ll get back there.  One day!   I’m not sure when this was filmed, but who would have guessed that, by the time it was filmed, going to Spain and indeed travelling by train at all would have largely vanished off the menu?   Let’s just hope that this doesn’t go on for too much longer.  In the meantime, especially with so many repeats on TV due to the disruption to filming caused by the pandemic, it is wonderful to have a new series of this lovely programme!   Thoroughly enjoyed this first episode, and looking forward to the episodes to come!

A Greek Odyssey with Bettany Hughes – Channel 5

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Ah, this was lovely.  Remember those halcyon days of yore, four months ago – seems like four years – when you could travel abroad, enjoy a meal with friends, go into a small souvenir shop and take a boat trip?  All of that was going on here.  The idea of this programme was that Bettany Hughes was retracing (ish) the journey taken by Odysseus on his way from Troy back to Ithaca. Odysseus always really annoys me, TBH.  Taking ten years to get home, when he knew that Penelope was waiting?!   But never mind.  This was a lovely programme.  Sunshine, blue sea, lots of meals eaten al fresco, and, hooray, lots of ancient Greek ruins.  And a type of cup, supposedly designed by Pythagoras, which spills all the wine if you overfill it, to stop you from getting too drunk.

Bettany sailed first of all to Chios, where she received a very warm welcome and discussed the tradition of “Philoxenia” – a love for strangers, making them feel welcome.  Then on to Lesbos, where she went to some wonderful thermal baths – oh, when will we be allowed even to go in a swimming pool again?! – and visited the theatre of Mytilene, which gave the Romans the idea for all the theatres (ditto being able to go to theatres again) they built.  And then her next stop was Samos, where she visited an amazing ancient Greek aqueduct, heard the tale of Pythagoras and the cup, and saw what was supposed to be the birthplace of Hera, and also where the marriage of Hera and Zeus took place.

I usually find it frustrating when history and myth get too tangled up together, but somehow it works really well in Greece.  I’ve got a pair of earrings which a shopkeeper in Delphi assured me solemnly were exactly like the ones Helen of Troy would have worn!   And, after staggering up the steep hill to the citadel of Mycenae, in extremely high temperatures, no-one was telling me that this wasn’t Agamemnon’s city.

This was a lovely programme.  Bettany Hughes is so knowledgeable and enthusiastic, without ever being silly, or sarcastic, or trying to push across an agenda.  And all that lovely Greek sun and sea.  There were even dolphins!   Just so, so nice 🙂 .

Absolutely India: Mancs in Mumbai – ITV

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Now there’s something I missed doing when I went to India – teaching a class of very cute primary school kids, all in smart uniforms, to say “Hello, our kid”.  Why did I not think of that?!  This half-hour programme, the first in a series of six, was a strange combination of Who Do You Think You Are?, Long Lost Family, The Jeremy Kyle Show and a travel programme, but it worked pretty well, probably because the three lads and their dad all came across as such likeable characters.  I’m extremely sad that none of us will be travelling to Mumbai, or even to Muncaster, Malham, Matlock or Morecambe, any time soon, and am actually still struggling to take that in; but we can look at film of the Gateway of India, which I’ve always wanted to see, and of wonderful, colourful, crowded Indian food markets, and hope that better times come again soon.  Meanwhile, this programme was genuinely entertaining.

The idea of this programme was that the three lookalike Thomas brothers, Ryan (Jason from Coronation Street), Adam (Adam from Emmerdale and Donte from Waterloo Road) and Scott (who was in Love Island), along with their dad Dougie (whom they all look like!) were visiting Mumbai, where Dougie’s dad Nolan came from.  Nolan Thomas moved to Manchester around the time of Indian independence, and seemed to have lost touch with his family back in Bombay/Mumbai.

None of the three lads had ever been to India before, and they didn’t really seem to know much about it, so it was partly a connecting-with-your-heritage trip.  Inevitably, there were a load of jokes about not being able to cope with the hot curries, but they also enjoyed seeing the sights, especially the gorgeous markets.  It was also partly a family bonding trip.  Dougie had split from the boys’ mother when they were young, and had very little contact with them for several years after that, and they were very open about the fact that they’d effectively grown up without a dad, and that Ryan had been more like a dad to his younger brothers than Dougie had.  They all seemed to be getting on pretty well, but there were obviously some wounds that ran deep there.

However, the main aim was to try to find out more about Nolan Thomas, who’d been very close to Dougie but had died when the three lads were very small, and to see if they could find any relatives still living in Mumbai.  I’d really like to have known more about the family background, and am hoping that that’s coming in the later episodes.  It was clear from what they said that he was ethnically Indian, but “Nolan Thomas” is hardly a typical Mumbai name, and (being nosy!) I’m hoping we’ll find out more about his family history.

They found out that he’d worked at the Times of India, which sounded exciting.  And they found out which school he’d gone to, and that one of the teachers there had known his brother.  So they went to visit the school … and that was where the lesson in Mancunian dialect came in!   They also met a little girl there whose surname was also Thomas, and whom they assumed was a relative.  But they didn’t go into how they might be related, and we haven’t yet really found out very much about Nolan Thomas and his Mumbai family at all …  but, with five more episodes to come, hopefully we will.

This was really good fun.  I didn’t know if it might end up being a bit too stag party-ish or Jeremy Kyle-ish, but they all came across very well and it was genuinely entertaining.  I’m hoping we learn more about both Mumbai and the family history in the episodes to come, and I’ll certainly be tuning in to find out.

 

Pilgrimage: the Road to Istanbul – BBC 2

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That’s not Istanbul, obviously 🙂 – that’s my local park.  The first episode of this new series involved a lot of time spent in rural parts of Serbia, and some of the “celebs” taking part said that, for them, getting close to nature was the best way of experiencing peace and spirituality.  It is for me too, which is why I usually spend a weekend in the Lake District at this time of year.  That wasn’t to be this time, but I’m really feeling it even at home at the moment, during this very strange time when everything’s so quiet.

You can hear the birds tweeting, the bees buzzing, and I could even hear the thud of a squirrel’s little paws on the ground earlier today.  In the park, I could hear the sound of the water in the stream as it passed over the stones.  Normally, especially on a Saturday, the place is full of people and noisy dogs, and you can hear the traffic from the busy main road nearby, and sometimes there are planes flying overhead; but, now, it’s as if we’ve gone back in time.  I didn’t even know that that huge bank of daffodils was there.  I always go to look for the daffodils on the other side of the park, but I haven’t walked round that side for years.  There are woodland daffodils, too – they make the wooded areas look like enchanted forests from Enid Blyton books.  And I haven’t stood and watched the stream flowing since I was a little kid going for “nature walks” with the rest of my infant school class.

It’s a strange feeling.  These are very, very strange times – such terrible things are going on, especially in Italy and Spain, and yet, because of it, everything’s suddenly so peaceful and so natural … like it was for our seven “pilgrims” in the wilds of rural Serbia, to get back to the point.

This was scheduled to coincide with the run-up to Easter, Passover and Ramadan, but I think we’re all feeling rather more like hermits than pilgrims at the moment.  Life doesn’t half throw curveballs sometimes, and this is a pretty major one!   Unlike the Santiago de Compostela series and the Rome series, this is following a route which isn’t a historical pilgrimage trail, and in fact is the route which Ottoman armies took on their attempts to conquer Vienna.  It’s now been “repurposed” as the Sultan’s Trail, and the idea is to walk it in reverse, from St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna to the Sulemaniye Mosque in Istanbul, and to see it as a path of peace and a meeting point for all religions.

NB – it’s actually called “the Sultans Trail”, the Sultan being Suleiman the Magnificent, a familiar figure to those of us who did the Tudor period for A-level, but it just looks all wrong with no apostrophe!  Our gang are only going from Belgrade to Istanbul, but that’s OK because it means that most of their religious stop-offs will be Orthodox.  I like Orthodox churches.  Shame about the lack of seats, but they have nice music and lots of nice gold iconostases.  In the first episode, we saw the wonderful 15th century Manasija Monastery, one of the most important cultural sites in Serbia, and we also saw the gang join in a “slava”, a celebration of a saint’s day, in Nis. I’d rather have seen a traditional, historical pilgrimage route,  but I’m still  am enjoying this. We don’t get to see much of the Balkans on British TV.

We also saw the Crveni Krst Second World War concentration camp outside Nis, a reminder of some of the horrors of modern history.

As far as the “celebs” go … well, I’m familiar with Edwina Currie, Adrian Chiles and Fatima Whitbread, and I’d heard of Dom Joly, but I have to admit that I’d never heard of Mim Shaikh, Amar Latif or Pauline McLynn before.  Sorry, folks!  Amar is amazing, though.  He’s been blind since he was 18, but he’s still travelled the world.  They’re from different backgrounds, with different views on faith/religion, and it’s been interesting to hear what they’ve had to say.  I think the people in the first two series opened up more, but this was only the first episode.  What we were seeing was more interesting than what we were hearing, though – some of the most fascinating historical and cultural sites of Serbia, and the glorious, open countryside. There were even lots of fruit trees, in some of the less remote areas.  I love fruit trees.

Don’t get me wrong, I love cities, especially my city, but the noise and the traffic and the crowds can get a bit much.  It was interesting to see Dom Joly walk out of the church in Nis, saying that he found the crowds and the noise overwhelming and wanted to be outside.  We’re only allowed out once a day at the moment, and I am trying so hard to make the most of that.  I’m very sad that I won’t be seeing Grasmere, Windermere, Coniston, Chirk Castle and Biddulph Grange during daffodil season this year, but I’m so very grateful to have our lovely park within walking distance, and, even just in my own garden, I’m really feeling quite close to nature during this strange, quiet, time out from normality.  Wherever you are, if you’re reading this, thank you, and I hope you’re also finding a way to find some peace in these troubled times. Stay safe and well xxx.

I am so sorry if anyone’s had three notifications of this post – I had problems getting the picture to display on the Facebook link and had to keep redoing it!  Sorry!!

Love Letter to Italy

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Dear Italy.  Cara Italia. Thank you for beautiful Venice – photo taken during my, ahem, “significant” birthday visit to the Venice Carnival in 2015, my fourth visit to my favourite Continental city. Thank you for Assisi, a holy place which really does seem holy, for your beautiful lakes, for your magnificent historical cities, for your pretty little towns, for your stunning mountains, and for your orange and lemon groves and your fields of olives, vines and sunflowers. Thank you for your lovely cafes on the shores of the lakes, and overlooking the Bay of Capri, and in beautiful little town squares, where you can spend an evening with ice-cream and cappuccino. Thank you for your gloriously complicated history, especially during the 16th and 17th centuries. Thank you for veal Milanese and limoncello and Asti Spumante. And for the fact that every town in Tuscany has its own special cake or pastry, so that you feel obliged to try all of them! And for those little marzipan things that they make in Sicily, and for arancini, and for Murano glass and Burano lace and gondolas. Thank you for the processions that you hold to honour saints I’ve never heard of: they make for fascinating watching!

Thank you for ‘Italia 90, for Serie A which we all got into during the ban years, and for your lovely southern music which we murder into football chants and Cornetto adverts! Thank you for being the setting for so many books and plays, and for being the place that anyone lucky enough to be able to go on a Grand Tour made their priority. Thank you for the lovely old man in Sicily who stopped me in the street and told me that he’d seen me at a hotel (and he had, because he named it!) and thought I was lovely, and for the lovely old man in Pisa who told me that all English girls were beautiful – Italian men can be terrible flatterers, and it’s a wonderful confidence boost when you haven’t got any confidence!

Thank you for the man who, whilst dressed up as a gladiator in Verona, chatted away merrily with me about United beating Roma 7-1 – Italians, like Mancunians, love to talk about football, in any circumstances! Thank you for the Italian tour guide who sat with me on an island in the Venetian lagoon and listened to my tale of woe about not being able to get a job after leaving university, and told me that it would all be OK. Thank you for all the staff in the Sicilian restaurant who, because I was the annoying fussy idiot who didn’t want the stuff on the set menu which had been put on the table for everyone to share, kept bringing me plateful after plateful of alternative food to make sure I didn’t starve, even though I’d said I’d be fine with bread and salad.

So many special places … I’ve hardly got started!!

Venice is the star of the north, but there are also those beautiful lakes. I always say that I’ll buy a villa at Lake Como if I ever win the lottery. We’ll draw a veil over the time I trekked up a steep hill in 90 degree heat to find the site where Mussolini was captured, but, hey, it probably burned off some of the gelato calories! Lake Maggiore and its beautiful islands, and its hydrofoils which carry you off to Switzerland. Elegant Milan, a capital of football and a capital of fashion, and Genoa with its lovely port and its lovely buildings. And the little seaside resorts where I spent my first visit to Italy, when I was 3.

Moving a little further southwards, beautiful Assisi. There are a lot of places which are supposed to be holy, and sometimes you feel it and sometimes you don’t. In Assisi, I do. I was so sad when it was badly damaged by an earthquake, and so glad to see that much of the damage had been repaired. Glamorous Portofino, and the little trains running between the Cinque Terre towns. The castles outside Parma. And, of course, stunning Tuscany – the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Florence with its fascinating history and Renaissance buildings, San Gimignano with its towers, Lucca with its little stalls in the streets, Siena with its lovely Palio and for the sandwich shop where they actually understood my manifold instructions about what I did and didn’t want … in fact, thank you to anyone in Italy who’s ever understood my Manchester-accented Italian!

And, of course, Rome – the magnificent Eternal City, with its incredible Roman remains, its grand buildings, its squares and its fountains. And the Vatican, although technically that’s not part of Italy. We’ll also draw a veil over the time I got chocolate ice-cream all down my T-shirt in St Peter’s Square: you can’t take me anywhere! Thank you for lovely Sorrento, and for the Neapolitan cafe that provided us with breakfast when our overnight ferry from Palermo docked late and we were horrendously hungry! For Capri, and for Pompeii – when you’ve had to do the Cambridge Latin Course at school, seeing Pompeii really is a thrill! And for Sicily – for Mount Etna, and for all those lovely little seaside resorts, Greek-built towns and steep villages.

I could go on for ever! And there are so many places in Italy which I haven’t been to and want to, and so many places that I’ve been to and want to go back to.  Thank you, Italy, for so much.  It is heartbreaking to see what you’re going through at the moment – it’s like some nightmare out of the Middle Ages, or even out of the Bible.  I know that good wishes from abroad aren’t going to help, but I find myself wishing that heads of state would send messages of support to Italy at this difficult time, and also to China, South Korea and anywhere else particularly badly affected.  Italy is a very special place to me, and I’m thinking of it and hoping that this horrible situation doesn’t get much worse and doesn’t go on much longer.

Lots of love – con amore,

Me xxx

 

 

Great Asian Railway Journeys – BBC 2

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I appreciate that Thailand doesn’t like “The King and I”, but, without it, I wouldn’t have read up on King Mongkut and King Chulalongkorn, and then I wouldn’t have got so excited over hearing the many mentions of them throughout Michael Portillo’s journey across Thailand.  Michael clearly felt the same: we were even told about the involvement of Louis Leonowens in the Anglo-Thai teak trade.  He doesn’t half get to go to some exciting places for these railway programmes!  This new series has already taken us through Hong Kong and Thailand, and we’ve got Vietnam to come.

“It’s pointless trying to apply the values of the 21st century to the 19th.”  Hooray, someone on the BBC who talks common sense.   And, hey, someone on the BBC who gives a balanced view – that, in the 19th century, China thought it was superior to the West, and the West thought it was superior to China.  Six of one and half a dozen of the other.  Make that man director-general!

This was in relation to the Opium Wars, for the first episodes, which were in Hong Kong.  We went from the Opium Wars to the transformation of Hong Kong from a backwater to one of the busiest ports in the world, to the dark days of the wartime Japanese occupation, to the handover in 1997 (how on earth was that 23 years ago?), and right up to date with the current protest movement.  And we also went back in time, especially in the beautiful rural areas – you think of Hong Kong in terms of skyscrapers, and it was lovely to see how much more there is to it.  We saw a beautiful family temple in one of the villages.  And there were cups of tea.  That was good.  There should always be cups of tea.

It did get quite political … there was quite a bit of talk about Sun Yat-sen, the provisional first president of China, having spent time in Hong Kong, and that moved on to claims that the protesters’ ideas are similar to his.  The series is not including mainland China, but I don’t know whether that’s simply due to its size or whether there might have been issues filming there – or whether the BBC just wanted to show us Thailand and Vietnam, two countries which don’t feature on TV as often as China does.

Various strange things were included.  Hong Kong included bouncing up and down on a pole to make noodles, and Thailand included a snake farm.  Thailand also included elephants, which are much nicer than snakes.  An elephant hospital, in fact, because elephants are sadly sometimes injured by landmines laid in the Thai-Myanmar/Burma border area as part of the ongoing internal conflict in Myanmar/Burma.

Thailand looks so, so interesting.  OK, OK, a lot of that’s because I get excited every time the kings from “The King and I” are mentioned, but even so!   We heard about the religious traditions, the foods, and the arts and crafts.  We saw beautiful, lush countryside, and stunning Buddhist temples – as well as one temple, built in Chulalongkorn’s time, which looked bizarrely like a Northern European church.  We heard about the history of the Lan Na kingdom, now part of Thailand but previously an independent state in the north, and about Atyutthaya, which was the capital of Siam until it was destroyed by the Burmese in 1767, after which the old Siamese kingdom collapsed, and the new one, under the present Chakri dynasty, was established.

On a more sombre note, we also saw the Death Railway – the one featured in a very different film, “The Bridge on the River Kwai”.  Around 90,000 civilian forced labourers and 12,000 Allied prisoners of war died constructing it, and we saw Michael visiting a cemetery there, where many of the Allied dead are buried.

But then it was on the modern Thai capital, wonderful Bangkok, and the Royal Palace there.  Well, the outside of it, anyway!  Sadly, King Mongkut, Rama IV, didn’t really dance the polka with Anna Leonowens in there, or indeed anywhere else.  He was, however, interested in astronomy, and we saw his observatory at Phetchaburi.  We also saw some photos of him.  And some pictures of Yul Brynner.

Then on to the holiday resort of Hua Hin, where – this journey through Thailand was gloriously royal-dominated! – we got to see a royal summer palace, which Michael was escorted round by one of the present king’s nieces.

It wasn’t all about royalty.  We also saw some snakes.  Rather too close for comfort!  And Thai boxing – where the instructor said that worldwide interest in the martial arts of the Far East was influenced by the “Kung Fu” TV series and film (which I never watched, although I know that Justin from North and South was in it!) and “The Karate Kid”.

However, the main theme of the programme is railways, and it was King Chulalongkorn, Rama V, who brought the railways to Thailand … although King Mongkut allegedly got interested in them after receiving a model train set from Queen Victoria!  They came to Hong Kong slightly later, for one reason or another, but by 1911 you could travel all the way from Britain (well, apart from 35 miles or so by ferry to Calais!) to Hong Kong by train.  Get to Moscow, get on the Trans-Siberian (which I’ve always rather fancied) to Beijing, and then change at Beijing for Hong Kong.  What would have been better, that or the longer voyage by sea?  Still trying to decide that one, but I am very much looking forward to seeing the episodes still to come.  Bring on Vietnam.

This is great: it really is.  Unless it’s in connection with The King and I, how often does Thai history and culture get mentioned on British TV?  Unless it’s in connection with the Vietnam War, how often does Vietnamese history and culture get mentioned on British TV?  We don’t even hear much about Hong Kong these days, unless it’s the protests.  This series is so informative, and so entertaining.  Great stuff!

 

 

Great British Railway Journeys, the Battle of Cable Street – BBC 2

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I really want Michael Portillo’s job. As well as the current series of Great British Railway Journeys, we’ve got Great Asian Railway Journeys and another series of Great American Railroad Journeys coming up, and we’ve not long since had Great Australian Railway Journeys.   And, as well as seeing some fascinating places, he also gets to meet some fascinating people, like Beatty, 102-year-old East End matriarch and veteran of the Battle of Cable Street.

Like the Jarrow Crusade, which took place the same month, and the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass, four years earlier, the Battle of Cable Street showed how ordinary people, many of them living in extreme poverty, and labelled as troublemakers by the authorities, came together to stand up for themselves. In this case, especially with the use of the “No Pasaran” slogan famously used during the Siege of Madrid (I’ve recently acquired a book about British volunteers in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War, but haven’t had time to read it yet), it also showed how well aware people were of what was going on in Germany, Spain, Italy and elsewhere, and how determined they were to prevent it from happening here. What a wonderful lady – 102 years old, broad Cockney accent, so very eloquent. We need so much to listen to the stories of people like her whilst they’re still here to tell them.

The Jarrow Crusade’s already been covered during this series, and it’s an interesting take on the 1930s, talking about that and the Battle of Cable Street, and also about seaside resorts, the development of television, the growth of car production and the popularity of the cinema, as well as the horrific poverty caused by the Depression.  I’m in the middle of reading a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and every single thing it says about the 1930s is doom and gloom.  Awareness of the Battle of Cable Street was raised about a year ago by, of all things, an episode of EastEnders, in which Dr Legg talked about how he met his future wife there. Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists planned to march through the East End. Locals protested to the Home Office, to no avail, and the marchers were given a police escort. Demonstrators built barricades to block their way, all sorts of things from stones to rotten vegetables to the contents of chamber pots were thrown, and the marchers were forced to turn back.

The police then clashed with the demonstrators, and around 150 people were arrested … but it’s the demonstrators who are remembered as heroes. Let all those who claim that the working-classes don’t understand anything about politics watch this, and learn … and, hey, also learn that there was a time when left-wing groups, which were heavily involved in organising the resistance to the march, actually opposed anti-Semitism.  And how wonderful was Beatty, talking about her experiences that day – how horrified she was actually to see Oswald Mosley in the flesh, how many people turned out to resist the march, how determined she was to play her part.

Many different sections of the community came together to organise the resistance to the march. People can do a lot when they pull together – whereas, now, too many people seem interested only in hurling abuse at others, making nasty generalisations about anyone who doesn’t agree with them, or turning everything into party politics and point-scoring.

We could really do with getting back to the more community-minded culture of the 1930s.

Michael said that it’d been a privilege to meet Beatty.  It was also a privilege for viewers to hear what she had to say.  I love these programmes so much!   You wouldn’t think that watching an ex-politician going around on trains could be so interesting, but it really, really is!