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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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

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 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear