21st Century Britain and Gothic Inevitability

London sunset

In which I indulge in some rambling reflections on 21st century Britain, and some overblown gothic imagery.

I’ve becoming obsessed with capturing a particular kind of gothic sensibility of late. It’s a fragmentary and amorphous sort of obsession, the components of which I find difficult to pin down. But here, with the aid of shameless rambling, I’m going to try.

I know decay is one of my creative obsessions in part because I grew up surrounded by a decaying city, and I’ve written about that here before. I wonder if it’s also a product of living in Europe at this particular time. At least, I guess it’s a Europe-wide thing, though I’ve only lived in Britain. But other European countries are surely also subject to this particular post-colonial state of increasing irrelevance. A sort of cultural and literal rubble, post 19th century hubris.

Living in Britain feels like a luxury product I can’t afford, an idea that’s shifting away from me. London is now a property playground for wealthy investors. The cost of living rises. But the financial and cultural life of the country is more and more concentrated in London. London swells and grows in an organic, aggressive fashion, like a hungry insect, predatory, vampiric. Is it a situation that can hold forever? The regions, like broken revenants, grasp for succour from the great beast. But London itself, in a global sense, is small fry—just another tasty little morsel on the menu.

A while ago, I watched a documentary about gothic by art critic, Andrew Graham Dixon. I bounced up and down, as one by one, many of my favourite things appeared: Marx, with his gothic imagery; Morris, and his socialist curtain prints; Conrad, and his journey into the dark and brutal heart of humanity; Eliot, and his spiritual crisis, wrapped around with urban horror. Even Joy Division played, to finish. Some of my major influences. It’s a strange mixture of alienation, existential and material horror, economic dissatisfaction, and spiritual malaise. But it’s only in the 20th century that the decay and irrelevance begins, overlaying the 19th century’s gothic with something else. The fresh horror of war that coloured and defined the 20th century perhaps masked that other horror. The psychic and spiritual shadow of war still hangs over us—that knowledge of evil that sits in the back of our minds. It is a different kind of horror from the slow decay that infects us now. The horror of efficiency and the brutality of mechanisation, of life fed into a machine. Meaninglessness and evil, sat side by side. But now, there’s enough distance to notice the the aftermath, not of those wars, but of the period that came before them.

Talking to a friend from the US, I referred to Britain as Ancient Greece to their Rome, but it’s only a language barrier, I guess, that cushions the rest of Europe from the full impact of being the sort of cultural, historical and philosophical pick-and-mix that Britain is to America, whilst at the same time serving as the eternal symbol of the great colonial evil (in this case, usually only England, of course, though Britain as a whole is still fresh pickings). It’s a strange trick, a discursive sleight of hand. We will be there, faithfully, to man Death Stars, as the leftovers of any colonial reality are picked clean from the national corpse. I’m not pining for that colonial time. Each century brings its own kind of horror. This century, Britain’s horror seems to be made from this slide into irrelevance, casting Britain under a permanent gothic shadow.

I worry I’m flitting round the edge of too many big ideas, without doing any of them justice, but it’s not really here I want to explore them, but in my work. These are the pieces that make up my obsession. There is a feeling of inevitability to it, though I don’t believe in such things. Perhaps inexorability is a better word. It is a fate we can’t currently escape, either way.

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