Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Katie Hopkins and a new year resolution

‘Feed the Goat and he will score!’ That was what Manchester City fans of a certain vintage used to chant/sing of our legendary striker, Shaun Goater, who banged in 84 goals in 184 appearances for the club.

But it occurred to me today that it could equally be said of internet trolls: feed them, and they will score. Starve them, and they will die.

The trigger for this was waking this morning to find that Katie Hopkins was trending on Twitter once more. At which ‘news’ my heart fell, but I admit to also clicking to find out just why.

Now Hopkins is a remarkable specimen who makes a living – and a pretty good one – from being vile.

It is an unfortunate fact of the world we live in that the internet in particular allows trolls not merely to survive, but to thrive.

Imagine for a moment what would have happened today if nobody had retweeted Hopkins’s latest bout of bile; if nobody had commented on it; if no petitions had been started; if nobody had clicked on the relevant links: what would have happened?

The reality is that Hopkins and her ilk feed on our outrage. And I make no apology – I can be as outraged as the next person.

I can read tweets and other things, and react before my brain has chance to render me sensible. I can also thus allow my knee to jerk like the next person – and I’m not proud of it.

Today’s comments were about Scots and Ebola – and they were bang out of order.

But it’s also slightly disturbing to see so many people believing that when someone talks derisively of any group (in this case, Scots) it’s racist.

It’s not – and no, you cannot ‘harass’ an entire people, as someone suggested when I raised this on social media earlier today.

We should be grateful for that. No matter how ‘right on’ we want to be ourselves, we should not welcome or encourage the state to further demonise free speech.

Incitement is illegal: calling the Scottish people ‘sweaty socks’ and pretending that the Scottish NHS is inadequate is not. And nor should it be.

There is a danger that, the more we evolve – or some of us, at least – the more we forget the common sense of knowing that, however unpleasant such terms are, they are not and should never be made illegal.

For goodness sake – under what law?

Can we no longer refer to the Germans as ‘Krauts’ of the French as ‘Frogs’?

Personally, I wouldn’t. But I’d be deeply worried if we actually made such phrases – and more – of themselves illegal.

Just as I’d be damned worried if we made the expression of racism – or homophobia or sexism or any hatred on the basis of religion of ability/disability/size illegal.

Think about that: do you really believe that outlawing words and sentiments, creating – in effect – thought crimes – is actually the basis for a healthy and whole society?

But this isn’t just about Scottish people. Hopkins has long form for targeting many groups, including fat people. Now I’m far from skinny myself: am I calling for her to be indicted on the basis of some imagined law? Absolutely not.

After all, if I did, it would rather stop me calling her a pathetic, ugly (in the spiritual sense) little cunt ... although clearly facts are on my side. But then again, I’m fat by today’s un-Rubenesque standards. And ain’t that the truth.

I have been bullied on the basis for almost half a century. Well, at least until a burst of confidence saw off the trolls before they dared comment.

And there indeed is a lesson.

But in the here and now, I do find myself wondering whether, after packing her children off to bed at night, Hopkins cries into a glass of wine at what her life and work mean. I cannot personally imagine making a living out of being such a vile individual. I cannot imagine having such a lack of personal morals/ethics.

But that’s the world we live in, where such people are magnified my both mass media and social media.

Which is precisely why I say that there’s an easy solution.

Those of you who have read this blog for some time will know that I do not do new year resolutions. But I’m changing tack this time around.

I will, in 2015, try my damnedest not to feed the trolls. I politely suggest that you all try to do the same, no matter how outraged you – and I – are by what they say.

That is the way to get rid of the nasty little fuckers. Not by petitions that give them far greater credence than they should ever have.

At the end of the day, why would you give oxygen to a troll?

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Germany and the complexity of memory

VW Beetle at the British Museum. Ink on A5 paper, A Kendal
It is perhaps one of life’s little tricks that, having grown up in a rabidly anti-German home, I should become a Germanophile.

One of the contributory factors was history. Studying for my O’ level and bored to tears with the Corn Laws (well, who wouldn’t be?) the course that probably gained me a pass was Bismarck and German unification. Because it was the one course that absolutely fascinated me.

Some 20 years later, during a stint at the online version of the Guardian, I was subbing an article by its then Berlin correspondent, John Hooper, about the Lange Kerls, Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia’s extraordinary regiment of particularly tall men.

It was far from being the same period as that which I’d so enjoyed studying in the 1970s, but it reminded me of that. In the next few days, I started hunting in bookshops for books on Prussia; the start if an affair that would grow to encompass an ever-wider area of history.

And even now, I will judge a bookshop on the basis of whether or not its history section contains anything beyond the Nazi era.

So when it was announced that the British Museum was hosting an exhibition on Germany: Memories of a Nation, it was always going to be a must-see.

Neil MacGregor is director of the museum, and his own previous works include A History of the World in 100 Objects. Here, the exhibition itself was built around a substantial new tome by MacGregor, plus an acclaimed BBC Radio 4 series (which I missed), and takes a similar approach.

I’m not sure that I went expecting to be educated as such, but more that I went in anticipation of seeing things, in the flesh, that would provide a visual companion to some of what I’ve read in the past 14 years or so.

Having walked up the steps of the Reading Room, past a VW Beetle and a fragment of the Berlin Wall, the exhibition proper begins with a brief explanation of how Germany has not long been that; that it shares more borders with other countries than any other European nation, that its borders have been more fluid than those of other nations and, indeed, that there was, for most of its history, no such thing as a common and single ‘Germany’.

All this I – and The Other Half – was familiar with. Which made me realise that I’d probably never attended an exhibition with as much base knowledge as I already had in this case.

But to be honest, I don’t think that we were the core target audience.

The exhibition sets out, it seems to me, to convey a wider picture of Germany than that which has been dominant in the UK since 1939.

The Blacksmith of German Unity, print
You cannot, of course, omit the Nazi era, and the exhibition does not, including a range of exhibits from a pre-war anti-semitic poster to a 1935 sheet of a cut-out Hitler and marching brown shirts for children.

Here too is a replica of the gate to the Buchenwald concentration camp: wrought iron; small, like a garden gate, with its motto, ‘Jedem das Seine’ (‘to each what is due to them’) facing inward for the prisoners on the parade ground to see every day; a motto, one could feel, that is even more sinister even than the famous ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (‘work makes you free’) of Auschwitz, Dachau or Sachsenhausen, where it was facing outwards to be seen by those arriving at the camps.

But the designer of the Buchenwald gate, Franz Ehrlich, had learned his art in Bauhaus: the lettering was, unlike that elsewhere, an obvious nod to the modernism that Hitler considered ‘degenerate’.

And that motto could be seen in another way, as meaning that the guards, the torturers and the killers would, one day, get what they were due.

It is a perfect illustration of the complexity of German history.

MacGregor explains in the accompanying book that one of his aims was to examine how Germans see themselves and their own national story, a quarter of a century after it’s latest incarnation came into being with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

There are many things that could be viewed as strange omissions – and all of us with some knowledge would doubtless be able to cite a few.

Personally, I was surprised to see no mention in the exhibition itself of Thomas Mann, although he’s in the pages of Neil MacGregor’s book of the same name. There’s no Günter Grass in either.

Less personally but more surprisingly, there’s no mention that I can recall of music – and Germany provided two of the trio of composers who all singlehandledly changed the course of classical music. Setting aside Mozart as Austrian, that still leaves Beethoven and Wagner, whose absences seem particularly strange if one is attempting to convey that wider picture.

One can only guess that it was assumed that this was a known part of German history and culture, although the different ways in which, post WWII, these two composers have been treated can itself offer an interesting way of exploring MacGregor’s themes.

It is, I think, rather a butterfly of an exhibition: a gentle flit across a period of history that is largely unknown to most Britons.

Yet that lightness is deceptive, and in the selected objects there are plenty of things to fascinate, intrigue and even stun.

Napoleon's hat from Waterloo
You will not often, for instance, see an edition of Martin Luther’s own translation of the Bible into German, with his own handwritten version of Psalm 23 and his signature on the facing page, dated 1542.

That’s the sort of thing I find stunning.

And then there was one of the remaining 48 copies of the Gutenberg Bible from 1455, with its still-immaculate Gothic type.

Both these Bibles serve as a reminder of the linguistic and democratic impact of the Reformation – no matter how much the latter was to shock and appall Luther himself.

Among the other objects that hit one like a hammer is one of Napoleon’s hats, taken as war booty from his abandoned carriage after his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo.

There’s an intriguing iron and terracotta statue of Bismarck, showing the Iron Chancellor as a blacksmith, standing at his anvil, crafting a united Germany.

Next to it is a copy of Marx’s Capital, volume one, presented to the museum by the author himself, who had spent many an hour working in the old reading room.

A Bauhaus cradle by Peter Keler (1922) – a design still being produced – shows how good design is good not simply because it looks good, but because it works well too.

There’s a stage design for the original production of Brecht’s Mother Courage, plus Dürer’s Rhinoceros (1515) and then a vast Meissen porcelain version (1730).

If Isaac Habreacht’s 1589 ‘portable’ Strasbourg clock is incredible, then the astronomical compendium by Johan Anton Linden (1596) is simply astonishing.

But one of my particular personal highlights was the chance to see Tilman Riemenschneider’s Four Evangelists, stunning wood carvings from 1490-92 from an artist/craftsman I’d encountered before only thanks to Andrew Graham Dixon’s The Art of Germany.

Carved from the traditional lime wood, they are quite beautiful – not idealised, as you’d expect with the Renaissance, but with real, human faces. Unbelievably, they were, at one point in their history, painted. Fortunately, that has been very carefully removed.

Riemenschneider's Four Evangelists
But Riemenschneider’s own story – whether historically accurate or not – is entirely in keeping with part of MacGregor’s aim. Legend has it that, in the German Peasants’ War of 1525, as a city councilor of Würzburg, Riemenschneider took the side of the peasants. After their defeat, he was arrested and his hands broken. What is certain is that no work of significance by him exists after that year.

How you see it – what you choose to believe – is all very much about how we construct the wider stories of which we are parts.

That Thomas Mann, for instance, chose to believe the story of an heroic Riemenschneider siding with the peasants tells you something about Mann himself – not about whether it really did happen or not.

On the way out, passing the VW Beetle once again, it occurred that one can see the same duality there too: once hailed by Hitler as ‘the people’s car’, its later links with flower power and hippies effectively made it ‘entartete auto’. Which is really rather pleasing.

If this feels in some ways a very small exhibition, it leaves you with a sense of something far, far larger. On a practical level, you will need at least 90 minutes to really get the most out of this – and on the basis of what I’ve read so far, the book is vital to really extending knowledge and understanding of the exhibits and their context.

In asking about Germans and the construction of national memory, MacGregor opens the door to asking everyone else to do the same.

In England at this time, that would be every bit as pertinent an exercise.  

Sketch like an Egyptian

Amenophis III
Yesterday, The Other Half and I headed into central London to visit the British Museum for the Germany: Memories of a Nation exhibition.

But before our allotted time, I arrived early with a view to doing some sketching in one of the galleries.

Unfortunately, having fallen into a trap of assuming that, on the Monday morning after Christmas, it might be quieter than usual, I found myself in a crush of tour parties.

My sketching mission had been launched with two potential targets in mind: Egyptian stuff – which I have found fascinating (and always slightly scary) since childhood – and the totem poles near one of the cafés in the Great Court.

The latter turned out to be facing away from the seated areas, so having nowhere to sit to sketch, I passed that opportunity over.

And the former was, as mentioned, jam packed.

Getting increasingly frustrated by being shoved aside as people snapped shots of relics, I was wondering whether to head somewhere else, when I suddenly found a bench with a view of a sketchable head, sited high up and therefore above the tourist hordes.

The red granite head of a king, from around 1390BC, is thought to be of Amenophis III (Amenhotep III), and was found at Thebes.

The resulting sketch is not particularly good: trying to work so rapidly, looking up and down from knee to way above my head, in an environment that was making me feel fractious, has made for skewed perspective.

However, it has its point of interest.

All this came as the new Hollywood blockbuster, Exodus, faces ongoing condemnation from some quarters for having a rather caucasian look about it.

“Moses film attacked on Twitter for all-white cast,” tweeted Rupert Murdoch, who owns 20th Century Fox, which is distributing the film.

“Since when are Egyptians not white? All I know are.”

It was about half way through my sketching yesterday that it dawned on me that the face represented in granite had clear African characteristics.

I checked and checked again. No, I wasn’t mistaken. Later, I looked with a new eye at other representations of ancient Egyptian faces. And while they vary, there is no doubt that many have characteristics that would mark them firmly as black.

So to conclude, two things occur to me about this:

 art encourages you to look and, through looking, to learn. Indeed, it pretty much demands it. Which struck me as particularly interesting, when you compare that with the growing trend of snapping exhibits (and selfies) on a phone in museums and galleries.

• Rupert Murdoch is an idiot. Although to be entirely fair, that’s not something that we didn’t know already.

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Christmas fodder – with last year's lessons learned

Pheasant two ways, with sauce, leeks and redcurrants
Last year, Christmas Day proved to be – in culinary terms at least – something of a catalogue of errors.

Over ambition led to The Other Half spending a ludicrously long time sitting on his own at the dining table as I stressed out in the kitchen between every course, trying to produce dishes that, if not beyond my skill level, were far too ambitious in terms of planning.

And of course, needless to say, my own enjoyment of the meal – and of the day as a whole, and of the days, given my frenetic running up to the main day itself – were all affected negatively.

So how did I avoid that, without compromising on quality and taste?

The big thing to learn is planning.

This year, I started from a point of Christmas Day’s main course as being a chicken, roasted for three and a half hours, as per the River Café and as I’ve done many time previously.

Okay, I changed the stuffing from a Mediterranean-style one to pre-cooked chestnuts, masses of sage and a chopped onion, but the method was one I knew well.

The Other Half had been angling for me to try a chocolate fondant as dessert: we’ll return to that later.

For a starter – well, I wasn’t even sure about doing one, until very late in the piece (the Saturday before Christmas) when I happened on some London gin-cured duck charcuterie on Broadway Market from the London Charcutier (find out more via@LDNCharcutier on Twitter).

No, it wasn’t cheap, but it screamed an easy, high-quality starter. I already had a load of pickles in the cupboard and I could instantly envisage serving it on my oblong slates. All it would need besides was bread.

Now for me, Christmas Eve screams game. The weekend before, since they had no breasts, I’d picked up a whole pheasant from the new Broadway Market game stall (glory hallelujah!).

Now it’s a nightmare trying to roast such a bird whole because of the different cooking needs of different parts of the bird – which is why chefs do different bits separately – so I quickly came to the conclusion that I could do the breasts in butter (as I’ve done many times now) and the legs as a confit.

Bt this still left me with the interesting challenge of butchering the bird.

I swotted via the internet: most was simple, but I discovered that one of the reasons the legs can be so difficult is that the muscles in them make them tough.

You can, though, remove the muscles – and I have the Wüsthof cooking tweezers for the job. It was fiddly – yet oddly fascinating: how many of us know what muscles look like?

The upper leg bones were snipped out and they rest was salted for half an hour.

That was then brushed off and the legs were simmered in duck fat for two hours. Easy. To serve, they were simply heated in a medium oven for 20 minutes.

On the side, were leeks, a sprig of redcurrants and a red wine and redcurrant sauce.

But what I also set out to do on Christmas Eve was try fondants.

Duck charcuterie and pickles
I have recipes by Michel Roux Snr and Raymond Blanc.

The former – which demands vast amounts of eggs – gives no help on how to time it in terms of a wider meal.

Blanc, however, does precisely that, providing a method of mixing that allows you to then chill the mixture for up to 24 hours or cook within a couple.

This won out. I made the mix according to Blanc – it requires far fewer eggs, but does need arrowroot – and then divided it between four rings: two for that night and two for Christmas Day itself.

After a required chilling of at least 30 minutes, the first pair were cooked at 190˚C (fan) for five minutes and then cooled and chilled, before being cooked again for eight minutes at 170˚C (fan) when we needed them.

They collapsed slowly when the rings were lifted away after the first cook, and were not actually liquid in the middle, but they were were thoroughly tasty.

Lesson learned though: the initial cooking needed to be at a higher temperature – since there were no notes on the recipe I used (an online version of a slightly more complex one in a book on the shelf) I had assumed that the temperatures for the cooking were for an ordinary oven.

Anyway, the pheasant was good and the fondant, although floppy, was very morish.

Christmas Day itself was the easiest it’s been in years.

Christmas roast – with neatly turned carrots!
We had a proper breakfast this time – I didn’t need to occupy the entire kitchen for the entire day – and having two ovens and a separate grill was also a help.

The bird was the expected doddle. On the side we had spuds roasted in a little duck fat with a few leaves of sage to continue flavour themes.

Sprouts had been done in the morning à la Joël Robuchon: soak for two minutes in water with a glug of malt vinegar; drain and rinse, then blanch for a minute in boiling salted water.

Refresh and stop the cooking by plunging them into iced water, then cook for 20 minutes in fresh boiling, salted water, just allowing the water to bubble.

Plunge once more into iced water and then drain and gently dry. Robuchon says that this method improves the ‘digestibility’ of the sprouts, Or the fart factor, as we might less politely refer to it.

It does – but it’s also a very good cheffy trick for being able to cut down work later on. Come the time, just heat some butter and sauté the little emerald gems – as I did, with some sliced pancetta and more chopped chestnuts.

The only other thing I added was a portion of carrots, which I prepped early, actually managing to turn them, and then cooked very gently, with water to cover, a knob of butter, a pinch of salt and a pinch of sugar, for 30 minutes while we ate our starter and I finished the rest of the main.

Collapsed – but still tasty. The fondant
That starter was easy: slice some bread, put some of the charcuterie on a slate with some pickled beetroot, cornichons, tiny onions and some very nice fig, apple and Balsamic chutney, and it was done.

Before doing the roast potatoes, I’d given the fondants their first cook, which then allowed them the minimum chill between sojourns in the oven.

They still collapsed when I was actually trying to serve them, but did have a liquid centre. More arrowroot may be required. We had cape gooseberries, redcurrants and a small amount of top-quality vanilla ice cream on the side.

And on Boxing Day, the usual boiled ham with a sour brown shallot sauce, which was hardly onerous, and which was served this year with plain boiled spuds and sauerkraut on the side.

So, that was the Christmas food: lessons learned, ambitions tempered – and results just as good (if not better) and certainly more enjoyable for all.

It can be done!

Friday, 19 December 2014

The apotheosis of the idiocracy?

Is it just possible that we live in an age that is seeing the apotheosis of the idiocracy?

The last few weeks seem to have provided ample evidence of such a state of being.

First (for the sake of this post) there was the sheer obscenity of ‘Black Friday’.

People falling over themselves, fighting, screaming and altogether behaving like total cretins in order to get goods that they probably have no need for, which in many cases were being marketed as ‘cheap’ when the price before this sale madness had been hiked to enable that.

And don’t pretend that it was just the lumpen poor either, simply because TV cameras went to the shops where some of them would be congregated. The likes of John Lewis was advertising ‘Black Friday’ nonsense too.

But setting even that aside, let’s remember that this is not (yet) the US and we do not (yet) celebrate Thanksgiving.

So why the hell have this obscene nonsense?

Not that that is likely to stop anyone, as we increasingly see an Americanised Halloween merchandised and sold to the credulous as a major event, while an increasing number of schools have ‘proms’.

What was wrong with signing each other’s school blouses/shirts and, if you were so inclined, chucking some flour and a few eggs around?

Now, we have a situation where stupid parents are encouraged to behave ever more stupidly; encouraged to try to ensure that their brat has the most expensive outfit and arrives in the most stretched limo of any of their peers.

I absolutely shudder at the thought of being forced to go through all that. Thank god I grew up in saner times. Now, there’s even a rise in proms for ‘graduation’ from nursery school, as well as from primary school.

Only a generation and a half ago, most people would have seen through the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses cult for precisely that – and laughed at those who played that game.

Now, we’ve turned it something that’s so important that it’s central to the economic calculations (I use the word loosely) of the Chancellor, who is basing his predictions on households going ever deeper into debt.

Moving on, this Christmas – even before we had reached Advent – decorations were going up (and not just in the big stores), while stalls had set up selling Christmas trees. Who is stupid enough to buy one so early? It’ll be dried up before Christmas itself!

Indeed, why the creep of the start of Christmas ever earlier and earlier?

I know that, historically speaking, the long Christmas shopping season started in WWI when families in the US were sending presents and cards to their loved ones in the trenches.

But it has lengthened further for entirely commercial reasons in more recent years, and now Christmas seems to start as soon as the Halloween sales opportunity is done for another year.

Of course, it’ll only be a week or so before we see the first adverts for Easter eggs.

Like Christmas tree sales, decorations were going up at hotels and businesses, as well as in homes, before the start of December this time around.

Generally speaking, most people only decorated their homes a fortnight before Christmas Day itself, and the time to take them down is 5 January, the 12th Day of Christmas.

And what’s with the ‘buy a sweater for one day a year’ thing – never mind that being followed by: ‘pay £2 to wear it to work and that will go to charity’?

Instead of spending £15 on a sweater (probably made of crap acrylic, in a sweatshop somewhere), and then £2 on your charity giving, put a tenner in the collection box.

Still, if you live to shop, then it just gives you another excuse to … well, shop.

Not that this is just about Christmas and commercialism in general.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not against having fun, but when I see adults scooting past me on over-sized scooters of the sort that were designed with small children in mind, wearing wooly hats with animal ears on them, I wonder if we are also in an age of increasing infantilisation.

And then there’s the total logic deficit that we are increasingly witnessing in other walks of life.

Take the case of Russell Brand. Now I’m far from being a fan (and I think his opinions on voting are misguided at best and downright dangerous at worst), but in the present instance, with his involvement in the campaign to try to stop the tenants of the New Era estate in Hackney being evicted by a US business that will then hike the rents through the roof, he is most definitely on the side of the angels.

But what does he get accused of? Hypocrisy.

Now admittedly, this was from the Sun, with the Mail in hot pursuit, but the story seems to be that he rents – and not cheaply – and that his ultimate landlord is not the most ethical.

Now if Brand was calling on everyone to check the ethics of every individual or company that they do business with, while not doing the same himself, that would be hypocrisy.

But this really seems to come down to a view I’ve heard espoused from right-wing cretins more than once: that, if you are doing okay yourself, it is hypocritical to care about anyone who is not doing as well as you are.

Further, I’ve seen it suggested that, if you are in the above situation and you dare to think that people should be paid a living wage, for instance, then you should somehow use your wage to achieve that.

And then there’s the guff about how ‘socialists’ should not earn £X, because they should only ever be on low incomes.

‘Socialists’ has become a word used by the terminally (if only) imbecilic to damn anything they simply don’t like. Few have any concept of the actual economic philosophy behind it.

It’s reminiscent of the woman filmed calling Obama a ‘communist’ during the last US presidential election. When asked what she thought a communist was, she had to admit that she hadn’t a clue.

Of course it also means that we’ve moved so far to the right in UK politics that when someone says that people should be paid a living wage, it’s considered not as ‘fairness’, but as something to be slagged off, either bizarrely as ‘envy’ or as ‘socialism’!

To the dolts out there: if people cannot afford to live, how do you think that will impact on recruitment, retention, sickness rates and productivity?

And why do you think that the tax take has gone down even as the number of people in work has risen? That’s right: because we’re in the middle of a drive by business to a low-wage economy, with hundreds of thousands (about 1.4 million, to be accurate) on zero-hours contracts, many more in insecure jobs and yet more forced into ‘self-employment’ that gets them off the books, but can see them earning well below what is needed to live.

Mind, all this sees us looking at a media that is increasingly dumbed down, even in the supposed quality press, with increasing amounts of bias too and far less good-quality reportage.

What’s so depressing is the sheer number of people who appear to believe at face value anything they read in print.

You can bet that the same papers that are railing against Brand are not railing against the new owners of the New Era estate wanting to throw the residents onto the street.

And if this all sounds like a rant, that’s because it is. But honestly, look around you and at the things I’ve mentioned above and tell me that it doesn’t make you want to do a combination of ~head > desk~ and ~face palm~.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

A taste of the Gothic

'In Mr Stoker's Hand' A Kendal (2014)
If you happen to be in London over the holidays and are wondering what to do, then why not pop along to the British Library to catch it’s exhibition, Terror and Wonder: The Gothic imagination?

We took it in last week, as part of my post-work birthday celebrations – and a damned good option it was too.

It begins in 1764 – a crucial date, as this was when Horace Walpole published The Castle of Otranto, generally accepted as the first Gothic novel.

Indeed, by it’s second edition, it bore the words ‘A Gothic Story’ on the title page.

Walpole, who lived in Twickenham in a house called Strawberry Hill, was such a fan of all things Gothic that he converted his home to reflect that obsession, with thousands of people visiting to see the results.

This is not to say that the Gothic novel emerged from nowhere: its roots can be found in a variety of works from the likes of Shakespeare (think Tempest and even Hamlet) to Edmund Spencer’s The Faerie Queene.

Mind, the minute I started seeing these connections, I started thinking of Gilbert and Sullivan's Iolanthe as having Gothic elements.

Gothic may sound like a small niche market, but when looked at through the prism of this exhibition, you realise just how far-reaching its tendrils are.

The exhibition, though, takes us from these beginnings right up to the present day, with a series of photographs from the twice-yearly gathering of Goths in Whitby.

These, incidentally, were commissioned by the library for this exhibition and are well worth paying attention to – don't just rush past.

In between, there’s plenty to see and learn, including on Bram Stoker and Dracula, and we can see that the populist fears of our own times are not new: immigration/foreigners, disease, sexuality, science/technology and change can all be found in the Gothic literature of the past, although new themes have emerged in recent years, including the impact of humanity on the environment.

There are the pulp novels, and the satires as well as the literature; filmed versions of classic tales such as Hollywood versions of Frankenstein are represented, plus our own The Whicker Man and there is even, in a stand-alone glass case, the eponymous bunny from Wallace and Gromit’s The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

There’s a particularly interesting section on Edgar Allen Poe, who I have now been inspired to start reading.

And the section on Poe was not the only area where the power of a good book illustration could be seen too.

Boris Karloff as an iconic Frankenstein's monster
Showing an overlap of issues, one exhibit was a letter to police from 'The Boss’ who claimed to be Jack the Ripper and goaded police by saying he’d lop the ear off his next victim. When the next victim had a damaged ear, the police were slightly less skeptical.

But with this is displayed the front page from a sensation paper of the time, with its illustrations, including ghoulish – and clumsy – sketches of the face of the second victim, Annie Chapman, “before and after death”.

It’s a reminder of how the sensationalistic press – and the concomitant voyeuristic and vicarious public – has been with us for a far longer time than we might think.

But from a personal perspective, the highlights include two pages of Mary Shelley’s manuscript for Frankenstein, complete with notes in the margin from Percy.

If you have any fascination for old documents and original handwriting by famous writers, then this has the sort of jaw-dropping impact that’s worth the exhibition price alone.

This exhibition requires time: we had 90 minutes, but were still rushing a tad by the end.
It is, however, well worth the effort.

In an entirely coincidental manner, my birthday continued in Gothic vein, with dinner a few steps further along Euston Road in the Gilbert Scott, which is housed in the restored Midland Grand Hotel (now the St Pancras Renaissance) and originally designed by George Gilbert Scott.

Watch out for the Were-Rabbit!
Since we were in good time, we had cocktails – and a brief glance at the cocktail menu told me that I could manage to find a perfectly Gothic-sounding cocktail to sip.

The Herbalist is a mix of Tanqueray 10 gin, green Chartreuse, elderflower, lemon and an absinthe rinse. Pale green, and served with a garnish of mint and thyme, it looks the business, but is far more subtle than one might expect – although packing a powerful punch. But how Gothic an you get?

The food was as good as ever: foie gras to start, with a delicate garnish of cranberries, followed by haddock with a crust of crumbs and toasted almond, and served on a bed of charred broccoli with a gremolata, and with new potatoes on the side, with a garnish of seaweed (treated like chives).

For dessert, I couldn’t resist having a special Marcus Wareing confection: Kendal mint cake choc ice, which gave a rather green tinge to a dinner that had started with a pale Gothic green cocktail.

So often I struggle with portion size, but I swear, every single one of those three plates was absolutely scraped clean.

All in all, a most enjoyable evening.

And as you can see from the illustration at the top of this piece, the inspiration continued well into the weekend.

For far fuller reviews of the Gilbert Scott, see if you think food is food, think again and Comfort and joy.

Plus: Dracula: The Gothic classic with a sexy bite