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.
This blog is inspired by an article posted on our Facebook group by my colleague @paulaabowles, from the work of Dweck (2016), suggesting mindsets can be categorised as either growth or fixed. It is interesting to consider how such a mindset can shape the way your life goes, but for me, any psychological analysis is always just part of the picture. That said, Dweck’s work is interesting and made me reflect on my life up until this week. This is a week where I seem to be waiting patiently (mostly) for acceptance of PhD corrections and to exchange contracts on my new house. Both of these processes are out of my control, require continued patience and a need to accept there is nothing I can do but wait.
For a lot of reasons, I immediately identified with the ‘growth’ mindset, being open to challenges, seeing intelligence as something to be nurtured and developed, worth the effort, understanding the need to learn from mistakes and being inspired by others. The other seems to me a life of stagnation, dismissal of anything new and creating a world which may be low risk, but ultimately unfulfilling. The fixed mindset also presents intelligence and success as something you are born with and therefore little effort is required to fulfil potential – almost as if life is mapped out for you, but it also belies a sense of entitlement, and inability to deal with failure as a challenge to move on from. However, if you are not somehow ‘blessed’ with the tools necessary for success, you must accept your fate. There are obvious social and cultural influences which can reinforce these messages, so perhaps, a fixed mindset leading to a life of success aligns with a life of privilege, but a life without this success identifies someone who cannot see a way to improve, blames others for their misfortune and doesn’t value their own ability to change. My parents always taught me the value of education (well, a lecturer and a teacher – of course they would!), and I never felt any limits were placed on me. But a big part of this must be attributed to me not facing the limits placed on individuals facing poverty, loss, psychological trauma or physical disabilities – my life, so far has largely been the outcomes of my decisions, and I count myself lucky to be able to say that.
That’s not to say I haven’t doubted my abilities, suffered ‘impostor syndrome’ and come up against challenges which have tested my resolve. It seems having a ‘growth’ mindset perhaps enables individuals to strive despite what life throws at you, and also despite how others may perceive you.
So, back to my week of waiting patiently and trying not to let anxieties come to the fore. Being able to call myself Dr Atherton and having my own house in the town I also work in is something I am really looking forward to, for obvious reasons. Years of work on the thesis and years of commuting from Birmingham to various parts of the Midlands (I know the M6 far too well) are about to lead to significant rewards. However, it also occurred to me none of this would be happening if I had given up on the PhD, stayed in a job which was not right for me, decided to carry on commuting and not made this decision to buy a house. It also occurred to me perhaps having a fixed mindset would be less stressful – you have to admit, my timing is spot on – but I don’t think that is the case. I chose the PhD and new job path because I was not happy, I chose to buy a house as M6 commuting is just not something I want to do anymore, and I want to feel more settled in my new post. As for the PhD, I knew I needed time away from a full-time job to complete it, and while it was risky to leave a permanent post, it seems my mindset pushed me to strive for something which was a better fit for me. My mindset helped me believe this was all possible, crucially it was down to me to do this and also, support from friends, family, ex and current colleagues have helped get me here. But, my social and economic circumstances also enabled all of this – we cannot just assume that psychological tools can overcome disadvantage, discrimination and a lack of opportunity.
Dweck suggests that these mindsets are a ‘view you adopt for yourself’. Fixed mindsets can impede development and the belief in change, and they also seem to create people whose concerns about others’ perceptions of them can be all-consuming, and no doubt lead to them avoiding situations where they will be judged. Those with the growth mindset see their traits as a starting point, from which anything can happen and they value the unknowable – the opportunities ahead, the hurdles and rewards. The fixed mindset creates a different kind of stress, a constant need for affirmation of beliefs, disregard of the need to adapt to changing circumstances, and god forbid, simply go with the flow. As much as I identify with the growth mindset, I can empathise with those who simply are unable to take risks, accept failure and manage the unknowable – there are times I have wanted to give up, take the easy path and feel more in control.
A day after starting this blog, the clouds parted and the sun shone down as the much-awaited email from the De Montfort University Doctoral College came to confirm my PhD corrections were accepted and I was to be awarded my doctorate. Suddenly after weeks of anxiety, the reward was certainly worth the wait. There will be plenty of days ahead to bask in the glory and enjoy this moment, and just for now, it is making me worry less about the house exchange, it will happen, I will be settled in my new home soon and enjoy a short drive to work for the first time in years. So, I will continue to strive, develop and take risks – not doing this may have meant a less anxious time this week, but they also lead to great rewards, and hopefully, even better things to come.
Dr. Susie Atherton
Senior Lecturer in Criminology