The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral: Gargoyle wrestling

Like the hem-sucking demon crouched beneath the slabs in James’s “An Episode of Cathedral History”, Westall’s gargoyle had one purpose: to destroy with a terror that exploited our primal fear of darkness.

An afternoon play about a gentle, modern-day stonemason (played by Terry Molloy from The Archers) battling a possessed medieval gargoyle was clearly inspired by M R James, the great Victorian writer of supernatural fiction (29 September, 1.30pm). But as it also involved takeaway pizza and the sentence “That’s totally crap, Keith”, it could never be accused of too-blatant plagiarism.

Those familiar with James know that his stories of crosspatch academics visiting forgotten country houses are absolutely set: no sex, no marriage, just the slow setting down of buttered toast before the removal of dread-filled papers long locked in an antiquarian’s briefcase.

Robert Westall’s play ostensibly had this kind of thing in spades: the provincial town, the night-wanderings of the innocent, the bachelor clergyman, the deep suspicion of all things foreign. Here, the cause of all the trouble turned out to be an Italian. I can’t recall if any of James’s characters travel as far as Italy but they certainly venture now and again to the kind of eastern European hostelry happened upon by Peter Cushing in the Hammer movies – “Europe” as a snowcapped, stollen-heavy location with garlic flowers around the door that still manages to feel precisely like Berkshire.

“He’s an ugly fellow right enough!” gasps the stonemason when he first sees the gargoyle, “and he seems to be watching me somehow. I’ll wear my hobnails instead of trainers next time . . . ” From the interior of the cathedral emanates the sound of a choir perpetually rehearsing Allegri’s “Miserere” – the bit when the boy soprano goes for the top C and your fingers start to claw in anxiety for him. There was an uncanny smell of rotting fish among mouse droppings, and stone that mysteriously crumbled into mulch, centuries before its time. Like the hem-sucking demon crouched beneath the slabs in James’s “An Episode of Cathedral History”, Westall’s gargoyle had one purpose: to destroy with a terror that exploited our primal fear of darkness.

It was spooky enough – though lacking the appalling malice I personally always hope for (Westall, who died in 1993, generally wrote for children). But it was strangely consoling in the way of all good horror stories. An alternative world was quietly and sadly acknowledged – a place of phlegmatic rustlings and lowered temperatures, fetid smells (must ghosts always smell?) and violence, mainly voiced by the one-eyed grump who processes the milk up at Grange Farm. A world precisely like our own.

Gargoyles versus stonemasons. Image: Getty

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 07 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Nelson Mandela

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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism