Sunday, 19 October 2014

Review: Terror and wonder: the Gothic Imagination at British Library

This week I was lucky to have work stuff in London, so I had a spare afternoon to visit 'Terror and Wonder: the Gothic Imagination' at the British Library. Bearing in mind that this is a library, not a museum, and the majority of the exhibits are books, you might be forgiven for expecting it to be a bit unchallenging. About four minutes in, I thought so too, then two hours later I was still there, poring over the exhibits.

The exhibition begins with the Castle of Otranto, by Walpole, the original British Gothic Novel written in the 18th Century, and works its way through the Romantics, the influence of Gothic on Jane Austen, the Brontes, Victorian sensationalism, Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson, Dracula and the history of vampires, Hammer Horror and modern gothic, and finishes with an exhibition of photos by Martin Parr, of Goth Weekend in Whitby, 2014.

I was totally blown away by seeing original manuscripts of Frankenstein and Jane Eyre. Seeing them in their handwritten state is akin to looking at the innards of a bomb, as one suddenly realises what a massive effect such a small, fragile-looking thing may have when it explodes into being. Shelley was only 19 when she wrote Frankenstein, and it is chaotic and scribbled, with Percy Shelley's nerdy, pedantic handwriting in the margin, like the annoying boyfriend who thinks he knows better. Frankenstein is a book about technology and about nightmares, and was written when both the horrors and wonders of the industrial revolution were steaming into full gear. Looking at the manuscript, I felt a moment of unease, a lurching sideways like the deck of an unsteady ship, and I thought, what an upending of the old order, what a moment of terror, that nineteen-year-old girls might be let loose to document our fears and dreams, and set down the ghosts of the future, and all the the things that frighten us. I have seen all the usual things and images that anyone in the 21st century has, but I honestly can't remember seeing anything more transgressive than those scribbles by Shelley and the Brontes, scraped away with a quill pen, in candlelight and darkness.

I was less fascinated by Dickens but it is interesting to be reminded that what now seems like cosy old-worldy Victorianism was actually written with the intention of revealing injustices and horrific poverty, and that he faced complaints and lawsuits because of it. Also, as the exhibition points out, how the background of gothic changed from one of rural horror to a very urban one. I was startled to find links between things that I was familiar with, but hadn't connected: that the play or Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde premiered at the theatre at the exact time that the Ripper murders were happening, and that the manager of said theatre was Mr Bram Stoker, author of Dracula. 

Some lovely non-book items from the 20th century included costume and set design from theatre and horror movies, as well as a brief section detailing the rise of modern 'goth'. Martin Parr's photographs give their subjects dignity without concealing any flaws or oddities, and the homemade outfits portrayed are far more interesting than the one underwhelming dress by Alexander McQueen.

There was actually a huge amount to take in and think about, but what I particularly liked was that there was no attempt to dumb down a whistlestop tour of the subject, which nonetheless only touched on half the material it could. The subject is dealt with chronologically, not thematically, so you can see how the genre developed and changed as it went on, but that it keeps being rolled around to deal with the same issues – deep-seated unease around change, cultural identity, sexuality, and social conflict, that it first did right at the start of the industrial revolution. Also how, as a form of art often dismissed as 'trashy' – suitable for impressionable females and excitable poor people – it has consistently dealt with the big questions in society, like gender and sex, technology and colonialism, in the way that 'respectable' literature has not.

I really feel that the British Library should congratulate itself on this exhibition. It's like the kind of public communications that fell out of fashion a few decades ago, when somebody very intelligent and expert just explains something they know a hell of a lot about, with some fabulous and fragile objects, but no CGI. It made my brain hurt, in the best possible way. Also, I now have a reading list as long as my arm.

Finally, to go off at a tangent, if you think all this is only interesting in a historical, literary, intellectual sense, I have to point out you're wrong. Why? I'll tell you a story. Like a proper gothic story, it starts with a country bumpkin (me) who gets lost somewhere alien and terrifying (London underground). At night, obviously. I passed through Westminster, where the bomb blast doors protect the politicians, and up from the Jubilee Line, which looks like something designed for the set of Aliens. I ended up at Blackfriars, under the foot of the shard, where the cranes still worked at ten at night, and a human feels ant-sized, and the City squats like the operating headquarters of some alien invaders, over an older, more human-sized version of London. And then another station, I'd lost track of names by then, brand new and brutally designed in concrete and lit by a violent blue light. Why? Why has someone made these things like this? I am not an especially anxious person in foreign environments, but these places made me afraid. Because somebody made up a nightmare, then built it. These things are not frightening by accident, but because someone designed fear right into it. 

Humans are one big mush of fear and wonder, really, and we don't like to admit to it. But if you are able to recognise the shapes and tropes of it - and give those things names - then you will better see the strings and ropes of it. And remember that monsters always, have a weakness. 


Thursday, 2 October 2014

Review: Dracula, Bristol Old Vic

Like most people I love a good vampire story, preferably one in which no-one sparkles. If you too like vampires I can't recommend anything more than that you leg it down to Bristol Old Vic immediately to see Mark Bruce's dance version of Dracula. It's on in Bristol till Saturday and then at these other venues.

All photos: Farrows Creative

The story of Dracula has been told and retold so many times it's become little but camp and caricature in most versions, but this, which takes place on a half-dark stage filled with a wrought-iron gate, is genuinely scary. Despite the lack of dialogue the story is always easy to follow, and stays fairly true to the Victorian original.

Using ten performers, five male five female, events unfold via a variety of dance styles, all danced with passion and athleticism. There is plenty of darkness, plenty of blood, and plenty of death. Dracula is always awfully sexy, and the fact that he never speaks means his physical presence says more of his powers than any Hammer Horror ever could.

The original Dracula novel was written in 1897 by Bram Stoker, and for the time is startlingly modern in format: there is no writer commenting on the action, as in most Victorian novels, but the reader has to put the story together from fragments of letters and journals. One reason the story has stuck around is that it's about things that still bother us: sex, death, unnerving foreignors, and the eternal battle between civilised respectability and uncivilised passions. Most of these are things that bother us on a sub-verbal level, so there's probably few better ways to represent these conflicts than in an unspoken format.

One of the things I liked most about this production is that it had many contemporary resonances (at the beginning, a blood-crazed Dracula and his black-hooded wolves steal a baby from a screaming, head-scarfed peasant woman, like some awful news story from Iraq or Syria) without losing the quality of the time it was written in. The score used many beautiful (and unusual) pieces of classical music, the costumes were simple and appropriate, and the wrought iron gates, finally, festooned with the bodies of the vampire brides, looked like an Aubrey Beardsley drawing.

I would very happily sit through this production again, as I'm sure there were things I missed. Also, it was just beautiful.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

How to Knit Yourself A Patronising Idiot (pattern not included)

Last night I read that a government minister called Brooks Newmark thinks that 'charities should stick to knitting and stay out of politics.' Now, as someone who has worked for various charities over a number of years and who likes knitting, I have a few things to say about this.

First, Newmark clearly has no idea about about charities. He still thinks it's about little old ladies knitting blankets to send to the poor black children in Africa. He has no idea how large these organisations are, or that anyone working for a charity in Africa is more likely to be a skilled professional like a doctor or a sanitation engineer, than someone dishing out blankets and copies of the bible. And thank God for that, I say.

Charities that work in the UK also employ a wide range of qualified professionals like social workers, nurses, scientists, ecologists, artists and architects, not to mention all the other skilled jobs it takes to run an organisation, such as finance, fundraising, marketing, and planning. People in charities often have the most specialist expertise in their field - why would you want to shut them out of a discussion? Unless, of course, you were an ignorant oaf from Eton who'd rather stew in his own prejudices than listen to the views of a qualified expert.

Secondly, Newmark clearly has no idea about about knitting. He thinks it's something for the simple, the senile and the stupid. He has no idea it's something that requires intelligence and technical skill, that something knitted is a valued item, not a bit of worthless scrap. I'm currently knitting this bit of fair isle. It has a lot in common with the budget spreadsheets I created at work, in that it requires the retention of numerous bits of information; contains a large number of variables; has many things that can go wrong; and if I drop one bit, I'll write off a years' work. I do this for relaxation. I know.

One of the places I work (amongst others, since I freelance) is Labour Behind the Label, an organisation which campaigns for the rights of garment workers. It's not actually a charity, since what it does it classed as 'too political', even though in most respects it runs like one. Apparently ensuring that the people who sew your pants don't get crushed to death while they're doing it is political, while sending your son, who you called after a firm of dry cleaners, to Eton, is very much a charitable activity.

If I thought that Newmark understood what kind of people do knitting, I'd say he'd be a bit justified in despising us. But I don't. I really don't give him the credit. He just thinks we're daft old women. Quite apart from the fact that most of the old women I know have more sense than the average Tory MP, most knitters I know are in their 30s and 40s, the very kind of people that hold communities together. They're extremely sociable: likely to be propping up the committee at the local community centre, running cafés, organising fêtes, and probably setting up their own business while bringing up children. They're kind of people that put life back into high streets, dig allotments, turn up for neighbourhood events, make cake for fundraisers, and notice when the library gets closed down. As I said, he'd hate us, because although this is the kind of activity the Tory Party professes to support, in secret it makes them nervous. They don't like all this interaction, all this interpersonal womanly interconnection stuff. It makes them frankly nervous. What they'd really really like is if we all got up in the dark, drove alone for an hour to work, worked at our corporate desk, then drove home again, to eat a ready meal prepared by a supermarket, before sitting in front of the TV with our arms at our sides. It's all so much more, well, manageable than all you lot with your horrid prams and upcycled dresses and homemade cake in tins and your six stupid sheep in a paddock that you keep ringing the inland revenue about because you can't work the forms they set up with a company of 1 million turnover in mind. But as I said, he doesn't know all that. He'd just hate it if he had to. He is, in effect, pre-despising you in advance.

No, he hasn't a clue. He only knows one thing: which is if you knit, he despises you. If you work for a charity, he despises you. If you're a woman, he despises you too. And you know what, this is really what I came here to say.

Brooks, honey, it's mutual.