Reversing Censorship


When ‘The Book of Forgotten Authors’ was about to go to paperback, my young editor became worried about the lack of BAME authors featured. The book was mainly about postwar paperback writers, and there had been no populist BAME authors working in this field. The ones who wrote in the UK were university educated and therefore aimed at pretty rarified literature, not pulp.

Eventually we included a new BAME section to the book, but only by bending the rules of inclusion. Looking back, it now feels like virtue signalling on the publisher’s part. Yet I’m very glad we did it. My editor and I read the works of possible authors for a couple of months, and finally settled on William Melvin Kelley, also getting his most famous book, ‘A Different Drummer’, republished.

It was a bit of a cheat. ‘A Different Drummer’ is literature and fell outside of my remit. If the plan was to use wokefulness (now there’s an awkward word) as a method of selling books, it didn’t work. What matters is that it prevented an absence and gave some kind of visibility. Better tokenism than nothing, right?

My motto: Include, include, include until no-one sees difference anymore. During the 1940s a woman alone in a pub would have elicited disapproving stares. After the war thousands of women flooded into pubs and no-one noticed. Ubiquity breeds normality. It horrified me that black Americans should have to hold up a sign saying ‘Black Lives Matter’ when it should be obvious and innate in the human condition. 

Which brings us to the horror and SF movies of directors like Jordan Peele, uniquely American, drawing on an ignominious past to highlight present fears, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the ‘The Skeleton Key’. ‘Us’, ‘Get Out’, ‘Bad Hair’ (which plays like the lower half of a Larry Cohen double bill from the seventies) and ‘Lovecraft Country’ (good so far) are reversing censorship by targeting the sensitive areas in US culture. They’re also a shot in the arm for moribund Hollywood genre films.

We have a different job to do in the polycultural UK; unpicking the class system. Just because a guy has a mobile phone doesn’t mean he has a place to sleep. Slow change filters through leisure pursuits. Entertainment is changing, and while it doesn’t mean our grandads will watch ‘Drag Race’ it’s ultimately all for the better.

The past was what it was; we learn from it and change. What we shouldn’t do is try to pretend it never happened. With that in mind, I may watch ‘Carry On Cleo’ later.

25 comments on “Reversing Censorship”

  1. Paul C says:

    Another fascinating post. The class system is still entrenched here in the North East.

    Would be interested to learn if you work closely with an editor on your novels too. Anthony Burgess and Alan Sillitoe were scathing about editors who they considered completely unnecessary whereas Raymond Carver and Thomas Wolfe had their work rewritten by editors to a large degree.

  2. Liz Thompson says:

    History repeats itself, and will continue to do so, the pendulum swinging from one side to the other and back again, until and unless we learn from history what we did wrong. I don’t like the way that it’s swinging at the moment.

  3. Brooke says:

    Why not Chester Himes…rarely discussed, hard to find even his Digger and Coffin series, closer to era of your other choices, crime novel author as well as the great Yesterday Will Make You Cry, a take on life and love in prison (autobiographical).

  4. John Griffin says:

    You and me both, Liz. The world fights while sea levels and temperatures rise.

  5. Andrew Holme says:

    Serendipitous post, as two days ago, I read ‘A Different Drummer’. Like ‘Stoner’ a couple of years ago, I don’t think it’s a lost classic – for me – as I was aware of the book, I just hadn’t got round to reading it. I now have. Super prose, really makes me want to read the next paragraph. I’ll make the obvious point about why this book is so wonderful, Kelley tells the story, exclusively, from the POV of all the white characters. I cannot comment, really, on BLM because I’m not black .I can only say that I’m ashamed that we are still trying to work this out. Maybe in 200 years time when everyone is the same colour, it won’t be an issue.

  6. kevin says:

    “The past was what it was; we learn from it and change.”

    I only wish it were so. Americas’ racial caste system with ADOS(American Descendants of Slavery) people on the bottom has NEVER moved. And I don’t see any intention to do so now, despite the alleged “reckoning” currently taking place. The fact that we have 2 committed racists vying for the presidency speaks for itself.

    Oh, and, I did not know Melvin Kelley was British. Interesting.

  7. admin says:

    Chester Himes would have been a good one, although my publisher would have no doubt complained that he was too well known, because of the film ‘Cotton Comes to Harlem’, but the truth is I didn’t think of him. I remembered loads of other authors after the book had gone to bed. As it was, the volume was culled to 99 authors from 400, which is why I wrote the essays – to get more in!

  8. Brooke says:

    If you haven’t tried it, Yesterday Will Make…is worth it. Heavy emotionally. Wait til you’re feeling really well and can take a walk of the beach. Get the unexpurgated edition. The origianal underwent numerous revisions by Himes’ editor/publisher to make the work “saleable.” Talk about censorship.

  9. Ian Luck says:

    ‘Drag Race’ was a disappointment – not one Top Fuel drag car visible anywhere.

  10. Peter Dixon says:

    Chester Himes has long been one of my favourite authors.

    Would it be possible to make a BAME or LGBT ‘Carry On’ movie?

    Why do we have so many initials that we’re supposed to know about?

    When I were a lad GMB meant General, Municipal and Boilermakers – a trade union, not some bunch of tossers on a sofa at breakfast time.

    Also Jordan and Gaza were geographic areas where all sorts of questionable horrors went on, whereas (according to the Daily Mirror etc) Jordan and Gazza are two questionabley horrifying people who demonstrate tattoos, gastric bands, broken feet, surgery, alcoholism etc to the nation as a means of selling newspapers.

  11. Andrew Holme says:

    Favourite ‘Carry on Cleo’ bit? For me, when Hengist is showing Horsa his square wheels. Horsa tells him that where he comes from, they have round wheels. Kenneth Connor with one beautiful look, says, ” yes, well, that’s all very modern and innovative, but you have a multitude of problems with round wheels, see. I can instantly think of three off the top of my head.” Fabulous acting from a real stalwart. He also saved ‘The Goon Show’ a few times, when Secombe was otherwise engaged.

  12. Peter T says:

    The first problem with round wheels is the carriage, chariot, office chair, or dining room table rolling away. What a pain!

  13. snowy says:

    The second problem with round wheels is ‘point loading’, wherein the mass of the load is concentrated over a very small area.

    [For modern approaches to solving similar problems, see inflatable de-mining shoes].

  14. Derek J Lewis says:

    Was the ‘Cumberbatch vs Ejiofor duel at the finale of the last ‘Doctor Strange’ film, a fine example of British acting diversity, or just another example of two ex- English public schoolboys getting the breaks?

    As for the 2nd best ‘carry on’ joke ‘the old cock on the left’ gag where Kenneth Williams is being measured for trousers whilst planning an ambush in ‘ Carry on Dick’

  15. snowy says:

    Carry on jokes never rise much higher than Panto level:

    Prof Anna Vrooshka: “Must be finding doctors. Man is injured.”

    Ernie: “But what man?”

    Prof Anna Vrooshka: “Is professor of archaeology. Is bleeding terrible.”

    Fred: “Never mind his qualifications. Is he hurt badly?”

  16. Dawn Andrews says:

    Carry on Cleo and Carry on Screaming are my favorites and yes it’s panto, but ‘”frying tonight!’ and ‘infamy! Infamy! They’ve all got it in for me!’ still make me giggle like a ten year old.

  17. Jan says:

    I saw “Carry on Screaming” when I was a girl on a skool holiday to the I of W. On a very wet day we were all taken to see the “Carry on Screaming” matinee @ the Pictures in Shanklin. I thought the colours in that film were the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I wanted to own + wear one of Fenella Fieldings crushed velvet crimson or purple frocks. I also couldn’t quite work out why Harold from Steptoe and Son was being a detective in a film. Was a wonderful enlightening experience.

    Enjoyed it so much. Always liked “Carry On” films since.

  18. Ian Luck says:

    Fun fact about ‘Carry On Screaming’ (and yes, it is bloody wonderful, but just pipped at the post for wonderfulness, by the tremendously stoic dinner party at the end of ‘Carry On Up The Khyber) – Doctor Watt’s monstrous ‘Oddbod’ was played by Tom Clegg, who went on to write and direct several classic Hammer horror movies.

    The ‘Carry On’ movies were part of my childhood, and I see them as ‘comfort cinema’. In the same sense that, if you are feeling a bit unwell (in a time before C19), a bowl of tomato soup made everything somehow better. The same goes for ‘Carry On’ movies. They still after 50+ years, make me laugh.

  19. Peter Dixon says:

    Carry On Camping – Peter Butterworth, sign saying ‘Gone for a P’.

  20. Dawn Andrews says:

    The colours are amazing in that film Jan, and the rapport between Kenneth Williams and Fenella Fielding while on screen together has such charm. Both camping it up, yet with such style. I think films like that made me an artist, the sheer pleasure of colour and form.

  21. David Ronaldson says:

    Apparently Williams hated Fielding. Barbara Windsor was told this when she joined the Carry On team for Carry On Spying and, when Williams made a cutting remark to Babs while he was wearing a beard, she responded, “Don’t have a go at me, standing there with Fenella Fielding’s Minge Hair round your chops!”. She won Williams over instantly.

  22. Rich says:

    The Carry on Camping sign actually reads “All asses must be shown”, Sid James then asks where the manager (Peter Butterworth) is – guy says “Gone for a p” which is duly presented and fixed to the sign.

  23. Dawn Andrews says:

    I read an article a while back where Fenella Fielding said Williams was furious with her good reviews in a show they were both in. They still work well on screen though. It’s a funny game, acting.

  24. Wayne Mook says:

    For feuds Bette Davis and Joan Crawford is still the bench mark.

    Brooke – I remember reading Chester Himes found it easier to be published in Europe and the UK, even moving to Europe in the end (what is it with authors and Spain.). I remember lending the books to my dad who really enjoyed them as well. They are still fairly easy to find in the UK, Penguin have some nice looking editions.

    Censorship by authors and publishers has always gone on. Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell was even retitled, it was to be John Barton but having a working class hero was a no-no, and other changes happened.

    New editions of books can be constantly changed one way and another, so it never ends.

    History is mutable, even the calendar and years have been corrected because we know people got it wrong in the past.

    To be honest we are learning from the past, I can’t remember a world wide shut down to stop a contagion. There is work on global warming even if it is patchy, but in the past it would have ignored totally. I hope they can get it into full swing before it’s too late and include carbon capture.


  25. Ian Luck says:

    Davis & Crawford. Two classic ‘Old Battleaxes’, of whom Davis had the last laugh. When told of the death of Crawford, Davis was asked to comment. Her reply was along the lines of:
    “I was always brought up to speak good of the dead. So, Joan Crawford is dead… Good.”

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