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22 December 2014

What's in a name, or How Gothic is Goth?

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From the outset the curators of the Terror and Wonder exhibition were determined to devote a significant amount of space to the goth subculture. In order to make sure we got the story right we turned to Pete Scathe for advice. Pete is the unofficial historian of the early days of Goth and his website is an invaluable source of information. He regularly DJs in the Portsmouth area and you can follow him on Twitter @petescathe. Here Pete explains the relationship between goth and Gothic.

 

Over time, meanings of words can change, shift and expand. With the words 'goths' and 'Gothic', not only have the meanings been expanded by application to what we now call the goth scene, but the scene itself was changed by having the word applied to it.

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An image from Martin Parr's series of Whitby Goth photographs

The early goth scene began as an offshoot from punk, and one early term applied to it was 'positive punk'. This never caught on - it was too much of a mouthful, even when shortened to 'posi-punk'. And the implication that it was superior to punk meant that the old punks would never be happy using it. Fortunately a term then came along that they were happy to use, and they were soon moaning about 'hordes of bloody goths' - not so much an exciting new subculture to them, more of a vexing infestation.

Exactly how the goth/Gothic tag got applied to the emerging subculture is a complicated story (for which see my website) but the term immediately caught on, as it fitted the scene far better than 'positive punk'. The questions are how much 'Gothic' there was in the scene before it acquired the tag, and how the scene changed as a result of acquiring the tag.

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Selection of goth items on display in Terror and Wonder

For most early goth bands, Gothic wasn't necessarily something to be taken seriously, it was something to be occasionally plundered for imagery, fun and maybe the odd song idea (it helped that Gothic imagery looked good in black and white, and black and white record covers were cheaper to print). Certainly the original goth club, the Batcave, used Gothic imagery in a deliberately tongue-in-cheek way – Ollie Wisdom from Specimen, one of the Batcave founders, was a dead ringer for Frank N. Furter from The Rocky Horror Show.

The early goth scene was vibrant, exciting, and based around following a cluster of excellent live bands that fostered a tribal sense of identity. Early goth gigs were lively events, and the usual dancing style was 'chicken dancing', which involved flailing elbows (the decidedly more sedate 'Gothic Two Step', where goths in flowing dresses walked back and forth on the dancefloor amidst billowing clouds of smoke, was a later invention that I first encountered in Leeds in the mid 80s). The look of these early goths was a mix of existing punk/new wave fashion, their own DIY look and styles influenced by bands, notably Siouxsie and the Banshees, Bauhaus and (later) Specimen.

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Siouxsie Sioux

The gothic punk look became a more glamorous (and often androgynous) monochrome style that had its roots in the fetish/bondage side of early punk but may also have owed something to the imagery of black and white films, like Theda Bara in Cleopatra. Indeed, most of the Gothic influences in the early scene seem to have come through the medium of film, TV, imagery and cliché rather than Gothic literature.

There were literary influences in the early scene, but these were rarely directly Gothic. Literary influences tended to be decadent, transgressive and non-mainstream rather than straightforwardly Gothic. The Whip LP, a collaboration between several early goth bands, was inspired by D M Thomas's The White Hotel, a novel about mental disturbance, sexual fantasies and the Holocaust, whereas The Cure referenced Albert Camus and Blood & Roses referenced Aleister Crowley.

Outside literature, their interests were widespread. Bauhaus, probably the most Gothically-inclined of the early bands, also sang about the likes of Nijinsky or Antonin Artaud, whilst Southern Death Cult were obsessed with Native American imagery. The Banshees sang about everything from multiple personality disorder to Dada photocollages.

The Gothic was one of several interweaving strands in the early goth bands, alongside a personal/introspective side, as typified by the early 80s Cure or Danse Society, an arty/dramatic side, as typified by Virgin Prunes or Sex Gang Children, and a sort of glam/camp Gothic as typified by Specimen or Alien Sex Fiend. Of these, the arty/dramatic strand was probably the strongest, and was one of the reasons that so many of the early goth bands were so good live. The downside of this was that the bands could be seen as pretentious, and certainly were by a lot of the media. It didn't help that goth bands were far less likely than punk bands to sing about social issues, and 'goth' became a term of abuse in the music press.

Most bands in the early scene were completely bemused by this goth tag. It was understandable that the likes of Bauhaus and Alien Sex Fiend would be tagged goth, but other bands in the scene (like Danse Society) acquired the tag simply by having a similar look, sound and followers. As goth became a clearly defined scene, it started to acquire 'subcultural rules', as had happened with other scenes, and this is where the 'Gothic' tag started to make a difference. The original bands hadn't been influenced by the Gothic tag, except sometimes in trying to distance themselves from it, but newcomers to the scene often tried to fit in and be accepted by being Gothic. The look changed from the earlier spiky fetish glam look to something decidedly more elegant, and many new goth bands dropped energetic tribal drumming (and often drummers) in favour of something slower, more atmospheric and more Gothic. Members of one later goth band stated that the early goth bands hadn't been that Gothic and that they themselves were determined to be more Gothic, thus illustrating the power of the tag (the early bands hadn't, of course, been trying to be Gothic as they had no idea that they were goth bands!).

This obsession with being Gothic sometimes turned into a game of 'gother than thou' that rendered the scene terribly vulnerable to media satire and gave it an embarrassing reputation, but it also meant that many new goths, in trying to be Gothic, began to show an interest in Gothic films and literature. Some had entered the scene because of an existing inclination towards that sort of thing, but it's likely that the existence of the goth scene both intensified and in some cases created a new interest in the Gothic. 

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The Whitby Goth display in Terror and Wonder

It's hard to say exactly what effect this had, but certainly the goth scene tended to appeal to arty and creative people, many of whom then went to work in the media and creative industries. Whilst for a long time many of them might have denied ever being goths and thus avoided anything overtly Gothic, the influences were certainly there and it's possible that today's media culture is that little bit more aware of the Gothic thanks to the 80s goth scene.

 

Terror and Wonder: the Gothic Imagination is open until January 20th. For more information (including opening times during the festive period) and to book tickets please visit the website

16 December 2014

Jane Austen and the ‘very horrid’ Northanger Abbey

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Jane Austen, whose 239th birthday is today, has another anniversary this month – at the very end of December 1817, after her death, her novel Northanger Abbey was published.

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Northanger Abbey is a joyously playful satire on the gothic novel of the 1790s, and was written in around 1798-9, when Austen was in her early 20s. It was the first of her novels to be submitted for publication, and was bought by a London publisher for the princely sum of £10 in 1803 – but for unknown reasons lay unpublished until 1816, when Austen’s brother bought it back for her. She made a few revisions, changing the heroine’s name from Susan to Catherine Morland, and also the title (which had been ‘Susan’) perhaps to tie it more firmly to the gothic tradition it pastiches.

In the first half of the book, set in fashionable Bath, Catherine meets with a new friend, Isabella Thorp, a flighty young woman. When Catherine opines that she wishes she could spend her whole life in reading Ann Radcliffe’s hugely popular and influential Gothic novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho, Isabella replies that she has “made out a list of ten or twelve more of the same kind for you…  Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, Mysterious Warnings, Necromancer of the Black Forest, Midnight Bell, Orphan of the Rhine, and Horrid Mysteries.”

For some time in the 19th century, it was generally believed that Austen may have made up these titles, so preposterous did they sound to later, non-Gothic readers. However, later scholarship revealed that the novels did all exist, and they are on display together for the first time in Terror and Wonder. You can read more about the seven horrid novels on the British Library European Studies blog here.

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The second half of Northanger Abbey features Catherine’s visit to the Abbey itself, the home of her friend Eleanor Tilney and her brother Henry. On the journey Henry teases Catherine about what she expects the house to be like (as it is called an Abbey, Catherine has of course imagined a full-on Radcliffian dark, brooding, mazelike building stuffed with secrets): "And are you prepared to encounter all the horrors that a building such as 'what one reads about' may produce? Have you a stout heart? Nerves fit for sliding panels and tapestry?" Henry then proceeds to distil various key plotlines from the complete work of Ann Radcliffe into a single, very entertaining narrative at what is to happen at the Abbey during Catherine’s visit. His intention is to entertain, but Catherine is both frightened and immediately expects the worst – or, the most exciting – to happen.

Austen draws the line between the gothic novels of the 1790s (usually set centuries in the past, in continental Europe) and England in the 1790s when Henry reminds Catherine that she should “Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians…. Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them?” By the end of the novel, Catherine has at last learned not to take novels (or herself) so seriously.

Another theme of the novel which, perhaps strangely, links to our exhibition Terror and Wonder, is that of consumerism. Isabella Thorp, when she recommends the seven horrid novels to Catherine, admits that she hasn’t read them herself but has in turn been given the list by Miss Andrews. Isabella’s interest seems to be more that she keeps up with the fashion and is able to make these recommendations than in her own enjoyment of novel-reading. Amongst many other references to the consumer culture of the 1790s (whose lace trimmings are nicer, whether a muslin will wash well) one stands out – the fact that Northanger Abbey itself has a Rumford fireplace. Designed by Count Rumford in the mid- 1790s, this new style of fireplace increased the heat to a room by narrowing the vent.  On display in Terror and Wonder is a parody of an advertisement for a Rumford, in which a young lady reading the scandalous gothic novel The Monk by Matthew Lewis, has a lovely time by her RumPford fire. Scandalous indeed.

Lady reading The Monk by Charles Williams.

Terror and Wonder is on till the 20th January, and you can buy tickets here

Read more about our Jane Austen collections here

Final image courtesy of British Museum Department of Prints and Drawings, 1935,0522.7.12

01 December 2014

‘The Story is the Thing’: Graham Swift on reading his stories out loud

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Graham Swift will be reading from his latest collection, England and Other Stories, on Monday 15 December at the British Library. For tickets, and further information, see What’s On at the British Library. Graham’s archive is held at the British Library (listen to Graham talking with the British Library’s Jamie Andrews about unpacking his archive on the Guardian’s podcast). 

Below, Graham has prepared an exclusive blog in which he talks about reading his stories out loud, and ‘the importance of narrative to our existence’.

At one of the first readings I gave from England and Other Stories I was asked by a member of the audience: ‘Was there anything you learnt about that story by reading it to us that you didn’t know before?’ A sharp question. I gave an obtuse, yes-and-no answer. I always write for an ‘inner ear’, for a silent solitary reader, so when I read aloud I invariably make small changes, I become aware of nuance. But that is minor, superficial stuff. The essence of the thing, the story itself, remains. So do I learn anything new?  

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Graham Swift; Copyright Janus van den Eijnden


I think what I learn, or rather have refreshingly confirmed, is itself something essential, and very big: the importance of narrative to our existence, that the story is indeed the thing. The curse of reading extracts from novels is that you get enmeshed in context-setting. With a short story you can immediately and simply deliver an entirety. What may have taken you months to write suddenly enters its ‘real time’ and, since it takes two, you and an audience, you become aware of being a component in something—your contact with the reader—at which you’re not normally physically present, of truly partaking in the act of sharing that I believe fiction fundamentally is.  

 Of course I’m describing an optimal experience, but at any public event the spirit of sharing is always there. Every story begins with the implicit words, ‘Here is something to be shared.’ We’re not all novelists, but we’re all short story tellers. Who hasn’t told a story to somebody else?  

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Graham Swift's manuscript of The Light of Day from the British Library archive



 

For my part, it’s been a great excitement after several novels to return, in this new book, to the writing of short stories—and to have the extra pleasure of reading some of them aloud. As for audiences, they may well want to listen, too, to what a writer has to say about writing, but I believe they take a principal pleasure—actually a primary human pleasure—in simply hearing a story told.

Text by Graham Swift 2014.