The new year is here. At its last knockings, the previous year offered hope of some sort of return to normality. The second new vaccine was on its way, far easier to store and distribute, it offered hope. Unfortunately, the joy of the new year has been somewhat muted as we have witnessed Covid-19 cases rise to new heights. Talks of stricter measures have turned into our new reality, as one minute the government insisted on schools opening then the next a partial U-turn before a forced full-scale retreat. But as we watch all of this unfold, I am reminded of a comment I heard from a radio presenter on the lead up to Christmas. Her view was that there was much to be happy about, we know more about the virus now than we ever did and scientists have developed a vaccine, several vaccines, in record time. Over the Christmas and new year period I reflected on last year and tried to think about what we have learnt.
Brexit has just proved to be a complete farce. Promises of a good deal turn out to be not so good, ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ the politicians said. And then in desperation, realising that any deal was better than no deal and that the best deal was the one where we were in the European Union they settled on something and thanked the gods that there was far more pressing bad news to hide their incompetence. So, we are now a ‘sovereign’ nation but poorer to boot and whilst we think we have regained control over our borders, it is only limited to bureaucratic, time consuming form filling, as we beg people to come here to work in our care homes and on the farms for a pittance. Perhaps the refugees that we have reluctantly accepted might help us out here. Brexit has been delivered but at what cost? No wonder Stanley wants to take up his opportunity for a French passport.
We are all equal its just that some are far more equal than others. We saw the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and I have a feeling that I wouldn’t be able to do that discussion justice; I’ll leave that to others that are far more capable. It did have a profound impact on me though as a former serving police officer, I would like to think it had an impact on others both retired and serving, but I’m not so sure. I think that quite often the police are simply a reflection of our society and I’m not willing to bet much on that changing rapidly. I remember Michael Holding, a former West Indian cricketer, turned commentator, talking about ‘white privilege’ and he provided what I thought at the time was a good example. Now I’m not so sure, this so called ‘white privilege’, isn’t privilege at all, it’s rights. It’s the rights that white people avail themselves of everyday in a democratic society (well that’s what we are supposed to be in anyway) without a second thought. The problem isn’t that white people have those rights, it’s that Black and ethnic minority individuals don’t, or where they do, the rights are somehow conditional. I might be wrong in my thinking, but I know one thing, without some very clear leadership from government, institutions and general societal attitudes are unlikely to change sufficiently. Although footballers and staff take a knee before every match, I fear that the momentum is likely to be lost. By the way, I’m not holding out much hope on the leadership gambit.
Sticking to the we are all equal theme; the pandemic has shone a spotlight on poverty in this country. Yes, Mr high and mighty Reece-Mogg, there really are very poor people in this country and they do need a helping hand. The fact that food banks are even required is shameful. The fact that foodbanks rely on charity is an even more shameful indictment of our government. The fact that a senior politician can stand up in the house of commons and accuse a charity of political motives when distributing aid beggar’s belief. I find it extraordinary that pre pandemic, homeless people were left to their own devices on the streets, reliant on charity and handouts and yet as soon as we went into lockdown, the government found money from somewhere to house them. What changed? My worry is that when the pandemic is over, the government are going to be more concerned about balancing the books than they are about the pervasive poverty endemic in our nation.
Children returning to school has been a huge issue for government and they rely on evidence that suggests that the best place for children is at school. A headmaster reminded us in an interview on the radio that this ‘online learning’ phrase that trips off the tongue is far easier to talk about than to achieve. What hits home is the huge disparity in opportunity for children to avail themselves of online learning. Poorer families cannot provide the technology required. Poorer families are likely to live in cramped conditions making it impossible for children to concentrate on work as siblings run around trying to keep themselves amused. And let’s not forget the plight of the parents who are more likely to be in jobs that require them to be at work, not home. Then of course there are those children that are vulnerable where school is a safe haven from abuse, whether that’s physical or mental or simply because school is where they will be fed. So, in a sense for many, school is a better place than home, but we really ought to be asking why that is. What does that say about our society? If I were to hazard an educated guess, I’d say its broken. The return of children to school had wider implications. What about the teachers and staff? It seems to me that government have different standards of risk depending on what suits. I’ll come back to this in time but I think the closure of schools owes itself more to the action of teachers in their refusal to turn up to work in an unsafe environment than it does any sensible government strategy.
Sticking to the education theme, the pandemic shone a rather harsh spotlight on higher education too. What became increasingly obvious was that the return of students to campus was purely financially driven. At least one vice chancellor put his head above the parapet and stated as much. His university would fail if he did not fill the halls of residence. So here we had a situation where scientific advisors were stating it was folly to open universities and yet universities did so with the backing of government. The reason, we can’t put education on hold and yet how many students take a gap year, before going to university? Putting education on hold doesn’t appear to be that damaging to the individual, but it is very damaging to a morally corrupt educational business model that needs halls of residence to be filled to prop up the system. To make matters worse, students flocked to university only to find that face to face teaching was patchy, the university experience was not what they were promised or envisaged it would be, and more time was spent in isolation and lock down than was healthy. If education was supposed to be good for their mental health, it had the opposite effect for many. I don’t think it required a rocket scientist to work out that online teaching was really going to be a default position, so either management and government were very naïve and reckless, or they were somewhat economical with the truth. Time to revisit higher education, I think.
Talking about government advisors, what’s the point in having them? Everything I read suggests that government advisors say one thing and government does something else or dillies and dallies its way into a dead end where it finally admits the advisors are in some way right, hence another eleventh hour lock down. The advisor’s said universities should not go back, they did and is it coincidence it coincided with a rise in Covid-19 cases? Advisors were saying schools shouldn’t go back but the government insisted they should and many did for just one day. There is a saying about tactics and strategy. Strategy is unlikely to be achieved without tactics but tactics without a strategy are useless. I have yet to understand what the government strategy is, there is however a plethora of disparate (or is that desperate?) tactics . The result though, anguish and suffering to more than is necessary. Some of the tactics seem to be based on decision regarding who is most at risk. We hear that term an awful lot. I watched the prime minister at lunch time, the man who promised us a fantastic Brexit deal, as he explained how important it was that children went back to school. Children are at very little risk going to school he said and then added, and teachers are not at very much risk or at least at no more risk than they would be normally. He bumbled and blustered over the latter part; I wonder why? A few hours later he told us schools would be closed until at least the 15th February. What happened to ‘no risk’? When we talk about risk, there are a number of ways of viewing it. There is the risk of death, easily understood and most definitely to be avoided, but what seems to be neglected is the risk of serious illness or the risk of ‘long Covid’. By ordering schools to be opened or that universities resume face to face teaching, the policy seems to have been that as long as you are not at a high risk of death then it is an acceptable risk. Time for a bit of honesty here. Does the government and do managers in these organisations really think that a group of people in a room for a number of hours with inadequate ventilation is not a serious risk to the spreading of the disease? Maybe some of the managers could reassure us by doing most of the face to face teaching when we prematurely come out of lock down again.
It seems to me that much is being made, on the news in particular, about the effect a lock down has on mental health, especially children. And I do understand the mental health issues, I can’t help but think though that whilst this is a very valid argument there is the elephant in the room that is either ignored or conveniently understated. The elephant; the fear engendered by the virus, the fear and anguish of those that have had to face the loss of a loved one. Just to put that in perspective that’s over 70,000 people whose families and friends have had to go through firstly the fear and anxiety of a loved one being ill and then the additional fear and anxiety of having lost them. Add to this the fear and anxiety of those that have caught the virus and ended up in hospital coupled with the fear and anxiety of their loved ones. Now add to this the fear and anxiety of those who have to work in conditions where they are at serious risk of catching Covid and the fear and anxiety of their loved ones. And then of course there is the fear and anxiety caused to the general population as the virus spins out of control. Somehow I think a little perspective on mental health during lock down might be needed. Is it any wonder teachers decided that what they were being asked to do was unsafe and unnecessary?
And then I think about all of those parties and gatherings despite restrictions. The shopping trips from tier 4 areas into tier two areas to snap up bargains in the sales. The Christmas and New years eve parties that defy any logic other than pure self-indulgence. Just as we see all of those selfless people that work in organisations that care for others or keep the country running in some capacity, we see a significant number of selfish people who really don’t care about the harm they are causing and seem to be driven by hedonism and a lack of social values. Unfortunately, that accusation can also be aimed at some of the very people that should be setting an example, politicians.
We should of course be happy and full of hope. We have a new vaccine (that’s providing it still works on the mutated virus) and normality is around the corner, give or take a few months and a half decent vaccination strategy (that’s us done for). A vaccine that was found in an extraordinary time period. I wonder why a vaccine for Ebola wasn’t found so quickly? I agree with my colleague @paulaabowles when she says we all must do better but more importantly I think its about time we held government to account, they really must do better. After the second world war this country saw the birth of the NHS and the welfare state. What we need now is a return to the fundamental values that prompted the birth of those provisions. There are so many pressing needs and we really mustn’t allow them to be forgotten. A strategy to tackle poverty might just ameliorate a raft of other ills in our society and the cost of tackling it might easily be mitigated by a reduction in demand in the NHS and many other public services. I can but dream, but my reality envisages a nightmare world driven by finance, political imperatives and a lack of strategy.
As someone that lives in the privilege of not actually had to experience Coronavirus (to my knowledge), I have spent a good portion of last year on the sidelines. Losing my auntie during my undergrad in January 2017, and then my cousin Steve at the start of 2020 (some of you may know him as the owner of Kettering Road’s Driver), I think many would agree with me when I say ‘grief makes you humble.’ In typical Caribbean fashion, Steve’s wake made me remember the importance of community and togetherness. He ran Drivers Menswear in Northampton and if you blinked you wouldn’t know it was there, a shop that had been there since the 1980s. With its closure in 2020, that marked the end of an era, and I will now have to find somewhere else to buy jeans!
Growing up here, many of the people I know in the community and work with have actually known me for years. And in some cases, have known me for all my life (basically), very much including staples of the West Indian community like at Inspiration FM
Some time after Steve’s funeral, we were thrust into Lockdown 1.0 by the Government and it was in those months between March and June that I saw that power of community again. Albeit a symbolic gesture, clapping for the National Health Service on Thursdays in some cases was the one thing keeping some people going. It was a recurrence that kept their mind at bay in the chaos of the pandemic. I ran events online too, and people were grateful. In that same breath, it is evident to see the number of people grassing up their neighbours for flouting the rules, or attacking people for criticising the police’s £10,000 fines for those that break the rules. Last year, I also watched a number of films, including a rewatch of Goodfellas. Even in a health crisis where people have broken the rules, Robert DeNiro’s voice as Jimmy Conway is in my head telling me “to never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut.” When in doubt, listen to Scorsese!
These people may be rule-breakers but I know if it comes to the wire, these are also the same people (not government) that would put people ahead of profit. Fellow blogger @drkukustr8talk wrote a Facebook post saying “If anything, Corona taught us____” and I commented “There is more of a community than I thought there was”, to which he replied “NOW, dear Tre, THAT is a LOT coming from you.” Yes, I’m sure @paulaabowles and @manosdaskalou will attest to that too, seeing from our number of conversations since meeting them in September 2019. Cynicism and realism are two sides of the same coin and I grew up in The Commmunity. However, not like I have seen this past year. My work as an educator engaging with people inside and outside Northamptonshire’s borders tied, with the Murder of George Floyd/the protests and the pandemic, it’s left me thinking that when I gave humanity chance, locally, humanity actually delivered.
November came and I was awarded ‘Northampton’s Male Role Model of the Year.’ That was humbling. It wasn’t the award that really got to me. It’s the love and respect of your neighbours, and that’s not something one can articulate in words. I thought about this feeling again when I found myself watching the 1970 adaptation of The Railway Children. Albert Perks has always been my favourite character, very much a man of his generation. Not taking charity but also respects his community. You do right to others, they do right to you. That sort of mentality. This is a character I came across at twelve years old and I have not been the same since. The award is second to the number of people that voted for me, and I will take that to my grave.
December came, and I bought Christmas presents. I am as surprised as you. For years, I have famously been a humbug inside and outside of my family. Forever anti-Christmas on the basis it was “a super-spreader of consumerism” (Ventour, 2010). My mother makes jokes about it, recalling to when I was kid walking around Abington Street in a hat with bah humbug on the side. The pandemic tied with BLM and meeting all the wonderful people at Amplified NN allowed me to break my “life rules.” Grief makes you humble. With the addition of Coronavirus, you could say it has made me soft (not that I was an awful person before). If the COVID pandemic and lockdowns have taught us anything, it’s that so many of us were living life on incompatible frequencies and were trying to make the parts fit. We also saw how kindness was a shock to the system, since in the words Tennessee Williams so few have ever “depended on the kindness of strangers.”
I bought presents for the first time in ten years; I have the love and respect of my neighbours and I started a Masters in September. I don’t spend my days waving at ‘kind old gentlemen’ on the trains going by, but I think in fifty years that there may be three children that may think of me as that old gentleman (but not that old of course), or by the time I’m forty-one… I’m not too different to Albert Perks and there is power in that.
Whilst cancel culture has been badged on celebrities that have said something offensive or inflammatory in the past, often when they were young and stupid, seldom have I seen cancel culture done on works of literature. Essentially, cancel culture is a medium of boycotting someone (now something) we disagree with for a past misdemanour or an opinion we don’t like. Yet, this month was the first time I had seen “cancelling” enacted on a work of literature. This reiterates a time when Britain actually banned books. One such example being when Penguin were taken to court over D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, accused for being too sexual.
Moreover, books like To Kill a Mockingbird being taken off US school curricula, ironically the go-to text of the 20th century about racism is by a White person (but that’s another conversation). The fact of the matter is I thought book boycotts were something that didn’t happen in this country, well not in my lifetime anyway, nor my parents’ life time. That when we disagreed with something we dismantled it point by point. Another example would be the David Irving who has also published books and in 1996 took historian Deborah Lipstadt to court for calling some of his statements and writings, “holocaust denial”, in her book Denying the Holocaust (1993).
But it was on a sunny May day when I happened to get a text from Criminology’s @paulaabowles with a link to a Huffington Post article calling for Amazon to pull a text from circulation. The text on display, was a collectable edition of And Then There Were None. The title on display is the original, then Ten Little Niggers. Over time it’s had many titles and is now called And Then There Were None. Obviously, the original title is overtly racist and its imagery plays up stereotypes of Black people, very much in the style of blackface minstrelsy, something that was on BBC TV until 1978!
However, studying Creative Writing as a Black student (of which many of my modules were English Literature), I think the reaction to this article is emotional; impulsive; and rather quite unnecessary. On my degree, there were books that I would call racist texts, including Dracula (Stoker), The Island of Doctor Moreau (Wells) and Heart of Darkness (Conrad). The use of the slur on this book has sparked outrage amongst Black writers and activists. But what they are doing is putting modern values onto a text that was published in a time when the British Empire still held weight.
Before Indian partition; before independence movements took hold; before the Suez Crisis, and my family’s countries’ calls for independence – not until 1966 (Jamaica) and 1974 (Grenada), both within living memory for many people.
I suppose it is rather ironic that some of my favourite books ever written could in fact be labelled racist. As a boy, I read Enid Blyton. Now, I critique stories such as Noddy for its racist leanings. We all read Dr. Seuss as children, an antisemite. Do we have to cancel him as well? I love Cat in the Hat. Tolkien’s depictions of the orcish peoples in Middle Earth can be interpreted as a disdain for racial mixing. The Carlomens in C. S Lewis’ The Horse and His Boy (my favourite Narnia book) are most definitely based on colonial stereotypes of Arabs, and their interactions with King Lune and his Archenlanders are very much reminiscent of “Anglo-Europe and The Rest.”
Whilst I get the idea to take this book off Amazon, does that mean there is going to be a movement to go after authors who could by today’s standards be deemed racist? Not even alive to defend themselves. I question, that if we cancel these kinds of books, does this allow people to forget? The N-Word is not nice but people are not reading this academically, in the context that it comes from a bygone era. As early as the start of the Second World War when colonial sentiment was still valued around the world.
If we “cancel” it, is this simply picking and choosing what is / isn’t offensive enough? Despite their sentiments, I still read Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. In cancelling this collectors item Ten Little Niggers, we are picking and choosing what is offensive. This is everything that’s wrong with woke culture. It works until it doesn’t. I find it short-sighted that supposedly “woke” activists want to get rid of a text that could well be studied under decolonisation movements, not cancelled in hindsight of modern values.
This is one of the moments I find cancel culture and workness so toxic; I’m certainly one of those people that would read these sorts of books so I can learn about how different parts of that society thought about other races
This campaign against Amazon is impulsive, in an age where many are quick to anger without forethought, particularly in countries like Britain and the US which have selective memories about their history. We criticise the Nazis for book burnings and their propaganda machine, but have we looked outside recently? The moment we censor literature, is the moment we censor learning, particularly as books like this are historical fingerprints to an era where racial thinking ran brigand. A racial thinking born in colonial times, lending its ear to many issues we see today, including White Supremacy, ethnicity award gaps, stop and search and White Privilege.
Are we going to stop people reading The Jungle Book, or stop kids watching pretty much every Disney animated film made between 1939 and 2000? I could make a chunky list of problematic books and films but they allow us a doorway into history. History is facts (sort of) and facts don’t care about your feelings. Dickens wrote about what he saw (more social history than fiction). Books allow us to see how different peoples may have thought and felt about other peoples of the time. That there is a reason why Black soldiers were excluded from the victory parades in 1918 (for example).
The cancelling is a metaphor for a country that is denial of its past and present. As someone who grew up going to school being called nigger, as someone who was monkeychanted, I do not agree with cancelling this book. It allows people to forget how the British Empire won the war on race, sorely evident in the texts on university degrees. I feel these antiracism activists have acted brashly (this time) with no forethought about context, study, or history, since I believe if the British Empire was taught (especially racial thinking), we would not even be having this conversatioin.
But to be frank, when I see antiracism activists accepting MBEs and condeming stuff like this (trying to be “woke”), I think to myself are they this ignorant or simply, do they not care? And more importantly, how dare they speak for me
In times of crisis it is beneficial to occupy yourself with things to do. This helps us to cope with boredom, and to distract us from the bleakness of reality. What better way to help with this than to start a book club? That’s right, whilst some of us were sitting at home twiddling our thumbs, @paulaabowles had sent us all a book that we were to read and discuss in virtual book club meetings. Little did we know that this book club was to be our very own ray of sunshine during such an unprecedented time.
Our first book is The Yellow Room by Mary Robert Rinehart (dubbed the American Agatha Christie by the blurb, which is generous). Set in Maine (USA) during WWII, this is a classic whodunit crime novel. With the wealthy Spencer family finding themselves tangled in a web of evidence that instigates their involvement with a dead woman that is found in the closet of their holiday home. The book is filled with intrigue and the plot thickens with each chapter, with more and more clues being thrown into the mix. Until too much is thrown in, and what is left of the book is quite simply… a mess.
The book consists of 30 chapters, and we think the club is in agreeance that the first 20-24 chapters are pretty great. Rinehart throws a number of spanners in the works, with near misses, burning hillsides, death by frights, illegitimate children and secret marriages. We all had our theories, some boarding on plagiarism (they know who they are!). However as it turns out a few of us were half right, and then so were some of the others. We will not give away any spoilers, but the ending, the answer we were all waiting for was disappointing and quite frankly we are still not 100% sure who did it, and what was actually done. The leading lady of the book Carol Spencer, dubbed drippy Carol by the club, because she is, well… DRIPPY, does nothing but smoke and drink coffee, whilst surrounded by crime and uncertainty. But, alas, when all is righted, she finds herself in the arms of an arrogant moody man, all happily engaged! Possibly a romance (although a bad one) or possible a classic whodunit (a half decent one), who can tell?
Overall the book was a success: it inspired intrigue and discussion! The virtual book club even more so! A bunch of misfits, gathered together (20minutes after the allotted time because one member of the group is late- @manosdaskalou), discussing the book, thinking about the social context, the characters, and how it is received today. It is a fantastic virtual club consisting of familiar suspects: the princess, the athlete, the criminal, the brain, the basket case, the parent and the “carol” (representations may not be literal or accurate). What will the misfits think of the next book? Will they all agree? Will one read ahead and sit silently and sheepishly, without the others knowing? Stay tuned…
On the basis of a reliable academic study, research by The University’s top senior lecturers on Criminology, I am by their words and definition “the Youth of Today.” However, my younger brother (age 12) is The Youth of Tomorrow. In our group chat, this ongoing conversation (now months old) also includes (not Harvard) references to The Youth of Yesterday (age 30+) or Yesteryear (if you’re ancient, ahem). It’s really quite amusing. Am I The Youth of Today? I hadn’t listened to any Stormzy until he did Glastonbury and our conversations around “Vossi Bop” really are worthy of critical acclaim. Is one’s youth status pigeon-holed to their date of birth?
By the time I was 17, I had watched most of Hitchcock’s catalogue and I think Woody Allen is one of the funniest writers alive (despite his controversy). Is this the point in the blog where I need to mention someone other than a White man? Again, another point of discussion in our chats. Diversity. So, true to form, I have seen the entire filmography of Vivien Leigh. I think Diane Keaton is understated in The Godfather films and Claudine with Diahann Carroll is underrated, and should be on seminal film lists when we talk about working-class life in America. It’s a lesson to us now in Britain, haunted by depressions of austerity and universal credit.
Yet, this blog isn’t about group chats, but generalisations. Are today’s youth beyond the grasp of Old Hollywood or even films made before the 2000s that aren’t franchise, or nostalgia pictures like Jumanji? I aim this question at The Youth of Tomorrow too (born post-7/7). Is it true? Maybe, maybe not. The idea remains that many people despite age are still dismissive of Old Hollywood in general, and the classic films made before the 1990s.
Criminology senior lecturer @paulaabowles has an affinity for Agatha Christie but seldom do I hear young people talk about Agatha when thinking crime stories, be it literature or not. I hear much love for Idris Elba as DI John Luther. Yet, it is arguable to say there would be no modern whodunnit without the massive contributions of crime writer Agatha Christie, who a century ago was defining the things we now we would call clichés. These people are seriously missing out by dismissing “The Old”. All it takes is the right story to alter perceptions, changing minds forever.
I do love to read, but film / the moving-image is more my thing. One of my favourite films is Mr Smith Goes to Washington. I’m of that generation that some of the boomer generation are talking about when they say “kids today” in relation to not enjoying the films that were around in their youth. I watched this film when I was 19 and I still am surprised by how complex yet simple it is. Audiences who have watched things like Veep, Netflix’s House of Cards or Thick of It will get on with James Stewart as Mr Smith.
Its searing portrayal of how systems of power crush good people just wanting to do the right thing can still be seen in society today; from politics to policing, exploring corruption and greed in the deeply flawed human imagination whilst simultaneously acting as a commentary for humanity’s blitz spirit in a film, which I would not be surprised influenced Stan Lee in creating the character of Captain America in 1941. No matter how hard you try, what keeps human beings going is their determination to fight on.
I could be offended at people that say my generation “wouldn’t know a good film if it was staring at them in the face” because “Hollywood only now makes films for sixteen year-olds and China” (both real quotes) but I’m not, because in my experience outside of online film groups on Facebook, and Film Twitter, I have seen this to be true. I will never forget the time when a former-colleague refused to watch Ridley Scott’s Alien because it was old.
When people ask me for recommendations, I need to get a notion of that person’s likes first in case I get a repeat Alien situation (I am still salty about this) Nonetheless, I think everyone should watch classic cinema, including black and white films, as they are some of the best films ever made.
In a time now where sex sells, another in for classic cinema would be to introduce them to Old Hollywood through pictures like Some Like It Hot. Most people have heard of Marilyn Monroe, and the Youth of Today or Yesterday may in fact be seduced by the “crude” title and its star, only then to get mesmerised by a God-ordained masterpiece of American cinema, mixing film noir with banter and action, a film that is certainly not boring.
Though, very much a product of the late 1960s, To Sir with Love hasn’t aged a day. Growing up in a household where education and learning were core values, watching this film at 20 was a homecoming for me. Only to then screen it at the Students’ Union as part of Black History Month 2019. It reminds me of today in how we are in a sector where many students don’t want to learn and many teachers don’t want to teach, before we even get to issues of disparities of outcomes between different student groups.
Mark Thackeray (Sidney Poitier) is the teacher we all wish we had, and certainly an entrance into Old Hollywood for The Youth of Tomorrow, let alone the wonderful song by Lu Lu. To Sir, with Love is optimistic while still commenting on social issues, including race and class. It’s pure of heart in its ideas about British education but also access to education for poor working-class communities in the East End of London. Moreover, how teaching back then was a noble profession and a pillar of the community.
If “kids today” are to have access to these films, it will often be how I had access to them. Through a clunky VHS system at school watching things for English class like Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire. I will never forget the time my brother asked me what a VHS was. And I then thought I had failed my duties. Or am I just passed it? Does he think I’m ancient? I think we’re at DVD now, or even BluRay? Who decides what a classic is? That’s another question and that debate will have to wait for another time.
Do kids today know who Steven Spielberg is? He has had a defining film for every decade of his career. Surely, they know who he is? They must have watched Jaws? Sometimes, I want to despair but I was in their position once, possibly when I was in nappies. I think I might have had grey hair then too. As we all sit in lockdown, there is no better time to watch the epics. Whilst many of us will be bingeing the likes of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, what about the epics of the silver screens of Old Hollywood?
When talking to young people, we do often look at how accessible a film is, and whether it’s in high definition? Those are two selling points. Gone with the Wind, Giant, Lawrence of Arabia, Cleopatra, Doctor Zhivago, Spartacus, Ben-Hur – these are some of my favourite epics. Cleopatra sits at a wholesome 5hrs 20mins. These were event films in the same way we court Lord of the Rings today. We don’t get many event films anymore but you can’t blame the youth for not knowing what they do not know.
And with a massive diversity of content across streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime as well, do the Youth of Today (and Tomorrow) need older films, or am I locked in the time trap of nostalgia and golden age thinking?
After reading a blog by History’s Drew Grey on ‘Racism, Diversity and Contested Histories: Some Reflection on Christmas Just Past’, I began to think about my favourite television genre (by some distance), the Period Costume Drama. Reading his post took me back to when I saw David Olusoga presenting Black and British for the first time on the BBC, but more specifically his monologues about mixed-race families in Georgian Britain. Whilst Drew’s post boasts diversity in the latest adaptation of A Christmas Carol (based on the Charles Dickens story) by Peaky Blinders‘ Stephen Knight, diversity in the Period Drama fanbase is a contentious discussion.
His post reminded me of my dissertation where I was looking at my roots. Finding myself. Lost in my race-identity politics, it feels like a decade ago reading Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talk to White People About Race for the first time. A text that colleague and blogger @paulaabowles calls “a machine gun,” (with a smirk). It’s simply relentless. However, it was David Oyelowo’s quote in the Radio Times that’s stayed with me ever since.
“We make period dramas [in Britain], but there are almost never any black people in them, even though we’ve been on these shores for hundreds of years. I remember taking a historical drama with a black figure at its centre to a British executive with greenlight power, and what they said was if it’s not Jane Austen or Dickens, the audience do not understand.” – David Oyelowo (in Eddo-Lodge, p55)
Oyelowo goes on to say “I thought – OK – you are stopping people having a context for the country they live in and you are marginalising me.” So, is it any wonder why so many of our Black actors have gone to Hollywood and made it big? Idris Elba made it as Stringer Bell in The Wire before we knew him as DCI John Luther. Oyelowo was Martin Luther King in Selma (as well as his British co-star Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King), and has had roles in The Help, Queen of Katwe and Disney’s Star Wars Rebels. John Boyega was in Star Wars and Daniel Kaluuya slayed as Chris Washington in Get Out.
Whilst many of these works aren’t all costume pieces, the fact that Black actors have to go overseas bothers me. Yet, Black History to British audiences has always been African-American history. To find Black British history, you really have to look for it. So, when we see characters like Kitty Despard (Poldark) or Miss Lambe (Sanditon) or even Dev Patel as David in the upcoming The Personal History of David Copperfield, it’s in opposition to the histories we think we know, the histories we were taught at school.
So, why is there such a backlash to non-White people in this genre? Is it one more example of Black and brown people being where they shouldn’t? You know Black faces in White spaces? From the streets of Georgian London to Walter Tull mobbed by 20,000 Bristol fans in 1909. Or is it a consequence of a population bludgeoned by historical misinformation? After all, isn’t the best way to have complacent people, to cut them off from knowledge? And if you don’t know your own history, do you know who you really are?
In the same century Charles Dickens was writing about Jacob Marley, Scrooge and Tiny Tim, Queen Victoria’s African goddaughter Sarah Forbes Bonnetta was growing up in England wondering the streets of London, as “part of Britain’s imperial project.” It’s the story of Black Victorians, many of which could “only be told through the words of others” (Olusoga, p331).
Whilst these discussion forums, are majorly female, they are some of the most misogynistic places I’ve seen on the internet. There’s one Facebook group where I have been labelled a “troublemaker” for calling out racism and homophobia, as many members are also American, card-carrying Republicans who voted for Donald Trump. And feminism is only White. They see intersectionality as an inconvenient myth and the stories of non-White women in history an afterthought. That’s how White Privilege works.
This culture of hate against non-normative voices is dominant in the Fandom Menace, as I like to call it. The online forums are infested with racism, misogyny and homophobia: from Gentleman Jack to Beecham House, Drew’s descriptions of the backlash to the mixed-race Cratchit family act as a metaphor for a toxic fanbase, and contesting these histories can often be a homophobic act, a racist act, even if it’s born from ignorance.
There is an endemic problem within society, where we allow older generations, including “sweet old ladies” in The Period Drama fanbase to get away with hate speech because that’s “how they are” and they “don’t really know any different.”
What’s more, and what was great about A Christmas Carol was how unapologetic the makers were about their diversity. This family were Black and they were White. This was mixed-race Britain in the 19th century. Moreover, Mary Cratchit and how Black women take on everyone’s emotional labour. Be it modern times or Victorian times, Black women are in the business of saving grown-ass men from their own emotional work!
Mixed-race inclusion is a testament to our history and a thumb bite to Englishness as a synonym for whiteness, and the colonised imperatives that continue to dominant storytelling, as said (but not so bluntly) by Darren Chetty in ‘You Can’t Say That! Stories Have to be About White People‘. Due to the inherent whiteness of institutions, they recruit in their own image, and history is no different. What’s that saying about apples and trees?
Certain members of the Period Drama community would like to believe Britain was only White before the 1950s. No, it’s simply the establishment has done a grand job of writing us out of British history books, but Black people have been part of every era of British history. I can tell you that.
BBC’s A Christmas Carol shows why representation matters and that history is not only the responsibility of historians. Artists also carry the load of telling these social histories (that’s what Dickens is) accurately and they can do better when it comes to the spectrum of diversity in the Period Drama.
And due to how History has been taught to every generation at all levels of education, is it surprising I encounter “sweet old ladies” using “historical (in)accuracy,” as a conduit to enable their racist, homophobic and misogynistic views?
Chetty, D. (2017). You Can’t Say That! Stories Have to Be About White People. In: Shukla, N (ed). The Good Immigrant. London: Unbound Publishing, pp. 96 – 107.
Kwakye, C and Ogunbiyi, O. (2019). Taking Up Space. London: Merky Books.
Lodge-Eddo, R. (2017). Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. London: Bloomsbury.
Olusoga, D. (2017). Black and British. London: Macmillan.