It Lurks Around You: Gothic London

Westminster Abbey and The Houses of Parliament have been ceremoniously, and unceremoniously, thrust into the public eye of late. 

We might know these buildings off by heart as the brick-and-mortar expression of British rulers, and by turns the symbols for a nation in grief, in upheaval and in political turmoil. Yet there is a deeper symbolism poised atop every turret, spying from every crenellation, and peeking from the dark reach of every pointed arch. This symbolism has remained largely unspoken.

The Gothic. What does that really mean? Most people, including my recent self, would have conjured up images of black leather boots, black clothes, a bit more black, and a few bottles of vodka being necked in the park to the relentless soundtrack of Bauhaus. But I come to you now a freshly cultured man. A man who in the course of researching this article has learnt that The Gothic is something quite different. 

The word ‘Gothic’ made its way into the literary, and subsequently the wider, world after Horace Walpole (grandad of neo-Gothic) affixed the word to a subtitle for the second edition of his novel The Castle of Otranto in 1764. He labelled it ‘A Gothic Story’ due to its medieval themes and foreboding sense of terror. This book sparked a style of writing that was later developed in tales such as Frankenstein and the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. But Gothic is much, much older than Walpole.

Horace Walpole

In Chapter One of The Gothic by Nick Groom he chronicles the emergence of The Goths. They were a barbarian people – ‘barbarian’ at the time meaning those outside the Roman Empire or Christian faith – though the word Goth applied more specifically to the barbaric tribes who entered the Roman Empire around 238 AD from territories we now identify as Hungary, Romania and Slovakia. 

Gothic is much, much older than Walpole.

The Latin names for these tribes were Tervingi and Greutingi, before evolving to Visigoths (forest dwelling Goths) and Ostrogoths (shore dwelling Goths). Much further down the line we would see the mutated emergence of the 20th century Goths, what we might call: Bevygoths (dingy pub dwelling Goths), Melancholygoths (depressed, graveyard dwelling Goths), and Greasygoths (angsty teenage bedroom dwelling Goths)… but we’re getting ahead of ourselves here.

Visigoth King Alaric

Goths had, throughout the early ages, existed as a kind of nebula, with a scattered energy and a hard to define criteria. That is until Westminster Abbey, built in the 13th century, became the fixed axis around which all the gothic identities of England sprung. Today it is still one of the finest examples of what Gothic means. The Victorians, centuries later, amidst a revival of Gothic mythologies and aesthetics, couldn’t get enough of it.

The Victorians began to believe that there was, lost somewhere in the mist of medieval barbarism, a beauty, an aesthetic, a way of life that needed to be revived. The Gothic revival was well underway before the 19th century, with Horace Walpole already famous for constructing his mini Gothic masterpiece, Strawberry Hill, in the mid 1700s. But it was Victorian projects like The Houses of Parliament and Tower Bridge that cemented London as a neo-Gothic nirvana.

Strawberry Hill

Sauntering throughout the city, drinking in this glory of Goth, was John Ruskin. On the barbarian, the savage nature of The Gothic he mused: ‘It is true, greatly and deeply true, that the architecture of the North is rude and wild; but it is not true, that, for this reason, we are to condemn it or despise it. Far otherwise: I believe it is in this very character that it deserves our profoundest reverence.’ 

Barbarity is at the heart of The Gothic and all it has produced. But Ruskin argues that in this barbarity, rudeness, and savagery, exists a harmony, a pleasantry. But why then does The Gothic still maintain such a power to terrify? It’s not the wild heart of London’s darker architecture that turns us away. Deep down, The Gothic is rooted – entangled – in a feeling we all shy away from: fear. 

Deep down, The Gothic is rooted – entangled – in a feeling we all shy away from: fear. 

All things Goth evoke in us the terror of the barbarian in the woods. It’s why, despite all knowing Westminster Abbey and The Houses Parliament, most of us have never taken a long hard look at them. Which, with the status and power they also represent, may have been intentional all along, as their Gothic shadow turns the average onlooker uncomfortably away if they spend too much time gazing.

What Ruskin implores us to do is look: look the beast in the eye. Look at the proverbial barbarian hiding in the woods; to take it all in before our fear swallows us whole. ‘Go forth again to gaze upon the old cathedral front… examine once more those ugly goblins, and formless monsters, and stern statues, anatomiless and rigid; but do not mock at them, for they are signs of the life and liberty of every workman who struck the stone…’ 

What Ruskin also encourages us to do is meet with The Gothic and its archaic human nature. To wholeheartedly observe the motifs carved into the slowly eroding stone that eternalise a mason’s hand, who is himself now no more than dust and earth, an evergreen ghost whispering from the past. He knows too well that the greatest trick The Gothic ever pulled was to make us too scared to look. Take the time to go out and greet it.

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