I was born in Nottingham into a working-class background. I had a very loving family, but we were poor. Not much was expected from girls in that milieu. We lived in Bulwell, a little suburb. I was filled with a great hunger to learn stuff, and when being asked, at the age of 8, what I wanted to be, apparently I said “I want to be an intellectual”! I said that that meant “reading lots of books and writing them.” I recall seeing, from the top of a bus, a young woman who was pregnant, with a child at foot and one in a pram, and wearing an expression of abject misery. It went through me with the speed of an arrow that such a life was not for me, and that if I stayed in Bulwell, I would die.
I went to a Catholic infant and junior school, which made me the extreme atheist I am today. After that I went to a Grammar school. There were few girls there from a mining background (as I was), and I recall being made fun of in class by one of the teachers because my family was “not cultured”. But I didn’t care: the teachers had things that I wanted to learn. So I didn’t answer back. I got a State Scholarship (I was the youngest person ever to get one) and went to University.
I went to Reading to do English and German. I did quite well, and wanted to do postgr aduate research, but was told by the Professor that since I was a woman, had a regional accent and was interested in working-class culture, I didn’t have a chance. But then by accident I went to a lecture by the famous historian E. P. Thompson on “Apostacy and Disenchantment”, about the political background of the Romantic poets. It was an absolute coup de foudre for me. It showed me a way of looking at literature - in its political and social context - that I had needed, and so I went and did an MPhil with Thompson on the political discourse of the Romantic period, specifically on William Hazlitt’s 1819 Political Essays.
After that the scholarship money ran out, and I wanted to get married to Walter Ditmar, a lovely Dutchman who was an electronics engineer. We are still married some 50 years later! I got a job at Portsmouth. They were heady days in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when great intellectual risks could be taken. With others, I inaugurated degrees in Literary Studies and Cultural Studies. But I wanted to teach film, and in order for the subject to have credibility, I felt I had to be academically qualified in it, so I did an MA at Westminster (my dissertation was on Gainsborough) and a PhD on historical feature film.
All my academic writing stems from Westminster. You will see my books on the Home Page of this website. In those, and in the articles I have written, I’ve always been concerned about the less “respectable” aspects of film culture - the unofficial, florid side - and I’ve written about the complexity of working-class taste. Much of my work has been archivally-based, and I’m wary of blanket theoretical models.
I was quite successful, and sat on committees for the British Academy and the Arts and Humanities Research Council. I set up the School of Film, Media and Creative Arts at Portsmouth. But I am not an administrator by nature (I used to have little stickers which I put on the University toilet cisterns, saying “management decisions, file here”) and official roles make me unhappy. I was appointed Professor of Film History at Portsmouth (and am still Emeritus there) , and was given an Outstanding Achievement Award from the British Association of Film,Theatre and Television in 2017. But you can’t (and shouldn’t) live on status. Or believe in it.
When you suddenly stop teaching and writing history, what are you to do with your life? I couldn’t be satisfied by just gardening and dogs, devoted though I am to both. I think you have to explore your creativity and see where it takes you. I’ve always wanted to write fiction, and suddenly it was easy. But these little stories that appeared took me by surprise. They are about the underbelly of the psyche: dark, wrathful, juicy. They are full of the uncanny, the unknown, and the violent. I didn’t expect them. But here they are. I can’t exactly say blithely “enjoy!”. But I hope they’ll make you laugh. And shiver, perhaps.
Sue Harper March 2019