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Little White Lies in Middleton Park

In the December 2020 issue of Little White Lies, journalist Christina Newland contributes her regular 'Threads' column, devoted to clothes and movies.

In this issue, she goes in deep on.... majorettes.

Newland begins with Beyonce, and her concert film Homecoming (2019), and and traces a history of majorette costumes in American cinema, from Poor Little Rich Girl (1936) and Citizen Kane (1941), up to the 1980s serial killer slasher film The Majorettes (1986) - which I had never heard of before but now 100% have to see -, Drum Line (2002) and then back to Beyonce.

Newland's history is smart, but it's American. There's always another way of looking at things, and as I read, I made different connections.

You see, I was a majorette.

Not only that, I had a perm.

Including, a permed fringe.

Here I am in Middleton Park, South Leeds, at some point in the late 1980s. I'm centre right, in-between Gemma (left) and Joanne (right) and I'm the one doing a weird grimace-smile with no bottom lip (and that is my dad stood right behind me, not some Strange Man Lurking).

I'm clutching a mace (that huge wooden thing) - this is a big deal in the majorettes. I started on pom poms crafted from blue plastic, progressed to batons, and then became baton leader. We did a show at Morley Town Hall where we performed on a big stage and Our Lynn came to see me and I was so weirded out being stood at the front with my family watching that I turned my head left ninety degrees so I couldn't see anyone for the whole performance.

Then I graduated to maces. Try throwing one of them 10 metres in the air, spinning round 360 degrees and then catching it before it brains you on the head. It was terrifying. You can tell the mace is not my friend from the way I'm holding it here.

While Newland illuminates the Black American cultural tradition of hip hop majorettes in America, my majorettes is closer to Clio Barnard's The Arbor (2010), a film about Bradford-born playwright Andrea Dunbar.

In the above photo, I'm in the centre of the shot, mace raised high, completely out of time with Joanne (right, foreground). Joanne was the one who actually knew what she was doing (proof: check out all the medals on her sash. Where are my medals? None? There you go).

But more importantly, this photo could literally be on the playing fields at the back of Brafferton Arbor, Dunbar's street on the Buttershaw estate in Bradford. The houses in the background are so reminiscent of Dunbar's home territory (and indeed, Middleton Park is only a few miles away from Buttershaw). The worn grass poking yellow in patches on the ground, our kid's blonde barnet right in the foreground, the shock of his double crown spiralling off in every direction, the random removal van right in the middle of the park despite the fact there's some kind of event going on... Then there's the women, both dressed in blue, right behind me (in the most delicious 1980s fashions), who could be passing each other a brew, but who look more like they are going to lamp each other, right as our procession passes.

This is one of the joys of film and of film criticism, the way that someone can make connections that spark new associations. I'd not thought about my time as a majorette in decades, but reading Newland's column set me off.

I got these photos off my dad, and understood, for the first time, exactly why The Arbor had such a profound impact upon me.

The Arbor is a film very close to my heart, and I've written an essay on it here. In the essay, I write about Dunbar's daughter Lisa, and how her Bradford dialect becomes more localised and specific as she talks about her family. The first time I heard Lisa speak, I got goosebumps all over; an uncanny sense of being seen, at last. Before The Arbor, I'd never seen a film where anyone talked like my family. But in Lisa, I heard my aunties, my uncles, my cousins, the people I grew up with, the people that I love that I never see represented on screen in a way that I recognise.

I came away from watching The Arbor thinking it was the words spoken that gave the film its profound power. But looking at this last photo, of me in my majorette costume, hefting my mace around Middleton Park, I've come to realise it is more than that. It is the film's evocation of a specific time and a distinctive space that I had forgotten long ago.



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