Novel Gothic: George Gilbert Scott's St Pancras Station seen in 1905. Photo: Getty
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Strawberry Hill forever: Two presenters with a distinctly Gothic side

Cruickshank seems unable to speak in anything other than an urgent whisper while Graham-Dixon has the kind of face that looks particularly good rounding the top of a stone spiral staircase on a cold March morning.

Dan Cruickshank and the Family That Built Gothic Britain; The Art of Gothic: Britain’s Midnight Hour 
BBC4

The BBC is having a miniature Gothic season, which is great news if you’re into witches, skulls, mad monks, arched windows, ivy-clad castles . . . and, er, Andrew Graham-Dixon or Dan Cruickshank. Although, now I come to think of it, both of these presenters have their Gothic side, Cruickshank seemingly unable to speak in anything other than an urgent whisper and Graham-Dixon having the kind of face, long and sardonic, that looks particularly good rounding the top of a stone spiral staircase on a cold March morning.

Both, too, are prone to melodrama. Cruickshank’s film about the Gilbert Scotts, creakily styled as The Family That Built Gothic Britain (21 October, 9pm), came with his usual hand-waving, a tic that became more pronounced as he described the descent into madness of George Gilbert Scott Jr. Graham-Dixon’s The Art of Gothic (Mondays, 9pm), meanwhile, was distinctly febrile at times. As he described the three-day orgy with which William Beckford, the author of the naughty 1786 novel Vathek: an Arabian Tale, celebrated his 21st birthday, his voice slowed and softened to such a degree, it was enough to make a girl blush. If his producer had thought to shove a plate of sugar-dusted Turkish delight in front of him, I would have had to leave the room.

The Art of Gothic throbbed with this kind of juicy, if rather familiar, stuff. Here were, in literature, Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis and, in art, Salvator Rosa and Henry Fuseli. Day trips were taken to Strawberry Hill (Walpole’s playful home at Twickenham), to Stowe House in Buckinghamshire (a nice Gothic folly) and to the Tate collection’s basement (to gawp at Fuseli’s super-weird 1783 painting Percival Delivering Belisane from the Enchantment of Urma).

Graham-Dixon is an actorly presenter – always casting sidelong looks to the camera – and well able to hold your attention, especially when you sense he is genuinely interested (he seemed keen on Beckford’s Fonthill Abbey, a construction so ambitious that it eventually collapsed under its own weight; ditto Matthew Lewis’s novel The Monk, in which debauched nuns think nothing of lifting their habit to expose a milky breast). But his films are also rather list-like, just one thing after another. No other expert is called, no other voice heard but his. It’s wearying sometimes.

Cruickshank did bring other witnesses to the stand, notably Gavin Stamp, George Gilbert Scott Jr’s witty, impassioned biographer. Still, this was a dreary film. No one could love St Pancras Station, Gilbert Scott Sr’s greatest creation, more than I do but even I couldn’t help yawning. The problem was that the most intriguing Scott – the Victorian giant’s son George Jr, who died of drink in a room in the Midland Grand Hotel above St Pancras – is so elusive, very little of his work having survived (though I recommend to you the tiny church of St Mary Magdalene, East Moors, Yorkshire, built in a zippy Gothic style that seems to me unique). Gilbert Scott Jr’s son Giles, who gave us the holy cavern that is Liverpool Cathedral, thought his father a genius, a man far more talented than his grandfather. But as he met him only twice, this may have been a product of the wishful thinking that is particular to neglected or abandoned children.

Either way, Cruickshank was unable to bring the personalities of the three men to life. He can stroke a pediment with the best of them but human hearts remain for him a mystery, something I regard as a terrible failing in one who hopes to animate buildings. Architecture has so much to do with feelings – from awe to claustrophobia and back again – and relatively little to do with technicalities. In this ghoulish contest, then, my winner, hands down, is Graham-Dixon with his clanking suits of armour. There seems to be something restless in him to which the Gothic clearly speaks. His theory is that our forebears’ passion for all things Gothic was their means of “re-enchanting” their world in the age of Enlightenment – and on this score he knows whereof he speaks. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why Britain and Germany aren't natural enemies

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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