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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Inside Syria's unending siege, civilians, not soldiers, are the victims

In Aleppo, civilian strife is just another tool of war.

Maria is a young mother who lives in Aleppo. She missed her opportunity to flee when the Syrian-Turkish border was closed to all but the seriously injured in early 2015. With her two children – Fadi, aged five, and Sama, aged nine – she stayed in the city.

Maria’s husband was killed by a barrel bomb that fell on their neighbourhood in 2014. After that, she took the children and moved in with her husband’s family. Her married brother-in-law asked her to be his second wife. She accepted the offer for the sake of security. This year he, too, was killed when a bomb fell on his shop.

Speaking to her on Skype, I referred to Aleppo as a city under siege and she quickly corrected me. “The city is not under siege,” she said. “We are human beings under siege.” Maria clearly felt offended by my words. She moved the conversation on to the images of a young Syrian boy, sitting in an ambulance, which have appeared on newspaper front pages around the world – a symbol of the human suffering in Aleppo. “What can I say? His silence and shock reflected all the pain of Syrians.”

Tearfully, she described her living conditions. “There are two widows, with three children, who live all together with our old mother-in-law. The good people around us try to give us food and clothing.”

She added: “Before, I used to cook a big meal for me and my family-in-law every day. My late husband was well off.” The children don’t go to school but they get some lessons at home – Maria used to work as an Arabic language teacher at a high school in the city.

The household’s other widow, Safaa, joined our conversation. “Since the first day of Eid ul-Fitr [the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, this year on 6 July], the siege began in Aleppo. There was no food or water. Children cried and could not sleep because of hunger.”

Safaa made food from pulses that she had managed to save, particularly lentils. As the area around the city is rich in olives and well known for producing za’atar herbs, the extended family depended on reserves of these for nutrition. “Al-za’atar al-akhdar [a dish of the herb, olive oil and a few other basic ingredients] has saved the reputation of Aleppo and its people,” Safaa joked, and both women laughed.

Then, suddenly, the Skype connection was lost and they both disappeared.

Another Aleppo native to whom I spoke, Ayham, described his desperation as he finished his engineering degree before fleeing Syria. “I am my mother’s only son, so I didn’t want to do military service, and I left, as I felt so insecure,” he told me. He had been living in Shahbaa, a neighbourhood controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while completing one application after another to study abroad. Eventually he was successful and he has now made it to a university in Europe.

Ayham’s parents were pushing him to leave because they knew that he was part of an underground anti-Assad protest movement. “There are two Aleppos,” he explained. “One is free and the other is controlled by Assad’s regime. Both are very unsafe . . . Living hungry was easier than living under threat.”

There are roughly two million people in the city, most of them women and children. Since the second day of the siege, there have been no fruit or vegetables available and only a few bakeries are producing bread. Compounding the starvation, the bombing has been intense, hitting hospitals, ambulances, blood banks and the Syrian Civil Defence base. Assad’s regime is targeting vital resources for civilians.
Even after rebel forces, in co-operation with the Islamist faction Jaish al-Fateh, managed partly to break the siege and open a new road into the south of the city through the Ramoussa area, they could not bring in enough food. The little that made it inside immediately sent prices soaring. Civilians could not use this road to escape – jets were targeting the routes in and out.

The eastern areas of Aleppo, which are still under the opposition’s control, are also still without aid, because of how risky it is to get there. All the talk coming out of the city today is about decisive battles between Assad’s forces and the rebels in the southern quarters. Civilians put the recent air strikes down to these conflicts – it has long been believed that when the regime loses ground, it intensifies its bombing as revenge, and to send a message to those who continue to resist.

People in Aleppo and the north-eastern territories of Syria are suffering and dying. They have no other choice. It seems that both Isis and the Assad regime are trying as hard as they can to destroy Syrian civilians, whether through direct attacks or by gradual starvation.

There is little information available, as both sides attempt to prevent the media from documenting life under siege. Isis accuses journalists of being agents of Assad, while the regime portrays reporters as terrorists. Pro-Assad social media accounts have alleged that Mahmoud Raslan, who took the footage of the boy in the ambulance, has links with terrorism. The same channels have yet to say much about Raslan’s subject – Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old whom he showed, bloodied and stunned, after the boy was pulled from the rubble caused by multiple air strikes. Omran’s ten-year-old brother, Ali, has since died from injuries sustained in another attack.

After four hours, I heard back from Maria. She apologised for losing the connection and asked me not to worry about her. “All of us are fine. We did not die yet,” she said. Her daughter, Sama, has not been to school since last year, she told me, and now studies only Arabic poetry. They have no books, so she depends on the verses that Maria knows by heart. Sama misses her school and her friends, and though she remembers their faces she has forgotten their names.

Maria has made a doll for her out of scraps of fabric and they call it Salwa. Together, they sing Syrian folk songs for the doll, in particular one that goes: “Hey Salwa, why are you crying? I need a friend.” Maria is resigned. As she says, “We are back in the Stone Age.” 

K S is a Syrian journalist, based in Sweden since 2014

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser