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The dead of night: how to write the perfect ghost story

Mark Gatiss tells Robin Ince about his love of MR James.

Christmas feels like the right time for ghost stories. What makes them work?
There are many types of ghost story but people generally agree that the “English” version is the best. It’s something we do very well! And M R James is the undisputed master of the form. Many of his stories were written to be read around Christmas to a select group of friends. He understood the dual nature of the season – the cosiness of sitting round the fire, but at the same time the need to banish the dark.

What makes the English ghost story so distinctive? Perhaps it’s because of our interest in repression: James is a master of this, of letting fear seep through the cracks. The terror he creates is monstrous but because it’s contained within a sort of fusty academic carapace, it feels both authentic and strangely comforting. As the creator of the “antiquarian” ghost story, he insisted on a historical setting – not necessarily hundreds of years old but 30 or 40. It needs to have some distance. A story told to someone told to someone else . . .

Do you think the best ghost-story writers, such as James, were psychologically troubled?
Often in James’s stories, something from the past creeps forward that eventually ensnares the protagonist through his or her own avarice, clumsiness or stupidity, with terrible consequences. We can see the roots of this trope in James’s own life. Born in 1862, he was brought up in parsonages and rectories, educated at Eton and went to King’s College, Cambridge as an undergraduate. He was most comfortable in academia, acting as director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, and returning to his old college as provost in 1905. He stayed there until the last year of the First World War, when he moved back to Eton, again as provost. He was incredibly well-read – he knew the apocrypha of the Bible as well as his own language – but wore it lightly.

James was also a deeply conservative man: he didn’t like change and he increasingly feared the future and technology. That must explain why so many of his stories are set within a cosy environment but also in the past, where he felt at home. He actively campaigned to stop women becoming members of his college, for example. Indeed, his fear of women – and particularly of female genitalia – is a recurring theme in his work. His heroes are fusty academics, like him, middle-aged bachelors living a sheltered life, “pent ‘mid cloisters dim”. Whereas the manifestation of the monster often takes the form of the folklore idea of the vagina dentata – a terrible moment of putting your hand under the pillow and finding something wet and hairy with teeth, say. In “The Diary of Mr Poynter”, there is a figure made of hair:

. . . absolute stillness greeted his touch, made
him look over the arm. What he had been
touching rose to meet him. It was in the
attitude of one that had crept along the floor
on its belly, and it was, so far as could be
collected, a human figure. But of the face . . .
no feature was discernible, only hair.

That idea recurs in “Canon Alberic’s Scrap- Book”, with a haunted picture, showing a terrible creature where “at first you saw only a mass of coarse, matted black hair”. This horrible apparation manifests to haunt the academic Dennistoun after he buys the scrapbook. In the television adaptation of the story, you see bits of it when you reach the climax: there’s a terrible suggestion of a wet, hairy leg. But that’s all.

This fear of human contact, meant that for years I had assumed James to be asexual – a kind of “damn any feeling for anything other than dusty books” attitude. But the new edition of his work makes clear this wasn’t the case. He used to “rag” male students for fun during Christmas parties, wrestling them on the floor and tickling them. He also seems to have been desperately but chastely in love with a fellow academic from whose death he never recovered.

A colleague of James’s once said, perjoratively, that his was a life untroubled – a smooth progression from Eton to Cambridge and then back to Eton. He never experienced real life; it was in every sense academic. Nothing rippled the surface except these things we now know about. So why did he choose to write ghost stories? It’s a fascinating question.

Was the ghost story the form that allowed him to challenge the rational world he inhabited?
I think he would have fought the idea that he was exorcising some sort of demon. In his mind, he was creating these things as entertainment and he also wrote essays on how he performed the tricks. But I keep coming back to the idea that things were smuggled into his ghost stories, consciously or not, that he wasn’t prepared to show to anybody else, in any other way.

Is there a story or an image that particularly haunts you?
When I wrote my own ghost stories for BBC4, I kept returning to the work of M R James to study how he set up moments of shock. But as a writer you have to find what terrifies you – and for me, it tends to be the same things that scared me as a child, whether you find a new version of it or refine it. I was always terrified of faces in the window. Or the idea of being in the back of a car, going down a narrow road where the hedgerows are growing over it, and there is only the glow of the headlights. I was always convinced I’d look out and see a face. My worst fear, though, is even more simple: the idea of waking up with the pressure of someone sitting on the end of the bed, which to this day – I’m going cold now – terrifies me.

Mark Gatiss is co-creator of the BBC TV series “Sherlock”

This article first appeared in the 24 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Brian Cox and Robin Ince guest edit

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.