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

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