Twilight of the Goths

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

There’s nothing like a good dose of Matthew Arnold to cheer you up on a Monday morning, especially on the religion beat. (I am employing irony here.) But I do find it a shame that the treatment of religion-related stories is so often marked by ignorance of the subject matter and a lack of intellectual or moral awareness. For many reporters the Sea of Faith has dried up. They do not hear the resonant roar of belief behind the facts in a story.

I admit that this is not always a fair criticism. I have had stories edited for space where the back end is chopped off, leaving the final piece unbalanced and shoddy. And few stories are given a life of more than 400 words. But there are times when reading an article in one of the ‘quality’ papers I experience a melancholy with what might have been.

A recent piece in the Daily Telegraph entitled “Goths banned from Dracula graveyard” managed to mangle what could have been a fun story. It misfires — quite an accomplishment in the age of Twilight.

It is October and editors are on the lookout for Halloween themed pieces. A natural for this time of year is an item from the North of England. The vicar of St Mary’s Church in Whitby has banned photography in the graveyard. The town hosts a Goth rock festival and devotees of this musical genre have taken to frequenting the cemetery and having their pictures taken while they are draped over its tombstones. The attraction for Goths is that the St Mary’s churchyard figured prominently in Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula.

Are you clear about the setting? Now there are several ways to knock this one out. For an American paper, I would have taken a lighthearted approach — an English Gothic version of an Elvis Presley film with a Twilight twist. ‘Gee, wiz grandpa, the kids just want to have fun!’ If I were doing this for the Daily Mail, I would focus on the young layabouts overrunning the churchyard with their strange music and clothing. ‘Why don’t they have jobs?’

The Sun would want it to be a photo story, with a scantily clad Goth girl on page 3. For the Guardian I would focus on the vicar’s unsympathetic approach to the Goths, with a counter current on the need to preserve England’s heritage from being despoiled by Goths. However, it might not have made the cut as it falls outside the radar of its readers as the Guardian is a:

a loathsome newspaper; a local north London morning daily for Stalinist metro libtards, perpetually arrogant, snobbish, self-righteous, humourless, dull, relentlessly middle class, cowardly and cheap … which loathes the country and the people who inhabit it beyond the rim of the north circular.

(There, I’ve had my fun quoting Rod Liddle in the Spectator — always a good read) However, what all the articles would have had, save for the Sun, is some mention of the Disneyfication of England.

Let’s turn to the Telegraph and see what they did. It begins thus:

Gothic rock fans flock to Whitby’s historic St Mary’s Church in North Yorkshire during Whitby Goth Weekend to be snapped by photographers in the graveyard.

The cemetary is the place Dracula takes his victim Lucy Westernra during the night in Bram Stoker’s classic novel, overlooked by the imposing abbey.

But now photoraphy is being banned around graves at St Mary’s Church because they say is disrespectful to the dead who are buried there.

Signs have appeared since the last Goth Weekend prohibiting photography on and near gravestones.

John Hemson, the church’s warden said: “The reason the rector did it was I had become unbearable. I sat there one day and in half an hour nine photographers walked past me.

“The Goths stand, sit or even lie on the table graves. there are people in Whitby who had families there even though it closed in 1861 and they object to it very much.”

Editor, where is thy pencil? ‘Cemetery’ is misspelled in the second sentence, as is ‘photography’ in the third. Dracula’s victim was Lucy ‘Westenra’, only one ‘r’. The title of Stoker’s classic novel was ‘Dracula’, not ‘overlooked by the imposing abbey.’

I laughed out loud at the church warden’s explanation that the vicar had kicked the Goths out as “I had become unbearable.” I imagine “it had become unbearable” was what the author had intended to say.

The article offers comments from two voices opposed to the vicar’s ukase.  A photographer warns that banning photography might cause the Goth festival to move to another site, and offers the philosophical observation “What’s wrong with the church being used for two days? Everyone is enjoying themselves.”

A second voice from a local resident develops these points, and the article closes with a historical note that “thousands of Goths and punks congregate in the fishing town for the weekend, which began in 1994,” and the date of the next festival.

I realize that my critique is akin to taking a shovel to a souffle and that I have expended more words in comment than are found in the story. However, the God shaped hole in this story I see is the place of Christian edifices in a non-Christian land. The photographer’s quote, “What’s wrong with the church being used for two days?” offers an opportunity for an astute journalist to develop the theme of the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar of the ebbing tide of Christian belief in England. Cue Matthew Arnold once more:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland, Westminster Abbey and other religious sites  have as little religious resonance for Britain as the Temple at Luxor has for Egypt. Both are memories from the past. The photographer’s question was a good one. What purpose should these buildings serve now that their religious significance is shared by a minority? How do you quantify relevance? Here was an opportunity to traverse the darkling plain of British life and set up a story that allowed the ignorant armies to clash by night.

However, we have what you see. Am I being too harsh? Criticizing the story for what it is not, rather than what it does wrong? What say you readers?

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About geoconger
  • R9

    Would have been a good launching point for an exploration of goth culture, and the Whitby festival. And we could ask, do the churches have any spiritual signficance to them, or is it just the imagery that is attractive.

    and ok I lolled slightly at Liddle’s tirade about the Guardian.

  • Will

    Wow! A novel overlooked by an imposing abbey! Call Thursday Next right away.

  • Bill

    What is the status of churches in England? Are they Crown property or private property? What are the laws governing use of church property? What is the legal authority of the vicar? And perhaps more important, is nothing sacred anymore?

  • Martha

    Mmm – I think the explanation is actually in the story. The graveyard (not the church itself) is the place being “overrun” (though that’s probably a bit over-the-top) and although it’s been closed since 1861 (and older graveyards, when they fill up, do get closed down over here), there are still families who have relations buried there and don’t much like the notion of those graves being turned into props.

    It is a real clash between getting money into the town via this festival and local people feeling they’re being shoved aside for the sake of visitors who flit in and flit out, and that’s the angle I’d expect to see expanded on. I’m sure it has resonance for more than Goths in graveyards; locals versus people who come down to their holiday homes for the weekend, or the summer visitors, is a perennial topic.

  • sari

    The article addresses the degree of respect to which the dead are due and the tension between maintaining that respect and the necessity of commerce. I don’t see this as a reflection on the relevance of religion (C.o.E.) in the English countryside. Once full, cemeteries stop taking new customers, but that’s more a function of space, time and population than it is religious observance. The last burial in Prague’s Old Jewish Cemetery was held in 1787, a second closed in 1890 and a third is still “open”. Visitors who stray off the paths are warned and then removed.

    One could add a religion angle, but this sounds more like the usual tension between tourists and year-round residents (the Miami native recalls the snowbirds of her youth) than it does about religious observance.

  • Jason Pitzl-Waters

    As a longtime Goth, some points:

    1. No need for the scare quotes around Goth (…The town hosts a ‘Goth’ rock festival…), the Whitby festival is proudly Goth in description and orientation.

    2. Three references to “Twilight,” really? You do know that those books have little weight within the subculture, and are often mercilessly mocked for what they’ve done to the vampire mythos, right?

    3. No reporter should assume the Goths using the graveyard are doing so for secular purposes. There is a small but quantifiable subset of Christian Goths. There’s also lots of scholarly literature out there on the intersections of religion and the Goth subculture, with some calling the movement itself “parareligious” in its orientation. Yes, many may simply want cool-looking photos, but not all. Many Goths enjoy spending time in graveyards, and are usually quite respectful of the law/wishes of the owners.

    4. Re: “…banning photography might cause the Goth festival to move to another site…”. That needed a lot more context to make sense. The Whitby event split into two not long ago, making the sustainability of the event an open question. Removing another selling point (access to the famous graveyard) could decrease attendance, and thus, further endanger the event(s).

    Finally, let me respond to something you’ve written in your opening:

    “But I do find it a shame that the treatment of religion-related stories is so often marked by ignorance of the subject matter and a lack of intellectual or moral awareness.”

    I find it an equal shame that treatment of anything involving the Goth subculture, which has endured for over 30 years now, is often marked by ignorance of the subject matter. I share your frustration that the opportunity for a good article was missed here.

  • Norman

    “Editor, where is thy pencil? ‘Cemetery’ is misspelled in the second sentence, as is ‘photography’ in the third. Dracula’s victim was Lucy ‘Westenra’, only one r.’ The title of Stoker’s classic novel was ‘Dracula’, not ‘overlooked by the imposing abbey.’”

    What next, will the Torygraph misspell its own name in an ad? Oh wait, already been done. Which paper was that, can you help me out Mr. Conger ? ;-)

    I kid, and somebody might even get it. But your serious point is seriously well-taken, there is a big gaping hole in this story. Some quarters of British society are so secularized that they don’t even know what is absent, they are completely cut off from their own history.

    I read a beautifully written essay in the Grauniad a few years ago about, oddly enough, Britain’s great cemeteries that made this exact point. It described how in the past people visited them regularly and were closer to nature and to their forebears. In beautiful prose he mourned our contemporary rootlessness, that rupture,again, with all that has preceded us. He went on to say that the inscriptions themselves revealed a more vibrant and rich past than we moderns appreciate. These were so many hieroglyphs to us now. He told of a visit he had made to an ancient cemetery, reading these headstones: they were often irreverent; one even mentioned in doggerel verse that the departed was now in the arms of the Bridegroom! The writer thought this an an open declaration of homosexuality, and thus proved his own point, quite accidentally.

  • geoconger

    Correction noted and the quotes removed from the first mention of Goth.

  • Norman

    The writer had a much lighter touch than I remembered. He only implied that the inscription was ribald:

    Though icons were destroyed in the Reformation, family tombs rarely were. They were immediate and precious, and sometimes humorous. Cwmyoy’s memorial to Thomas Price, who died in 1682, states baldly: “Thomas Price he takes his nap In our Common Mother’s lap, Waiting to hear the Bridegroom say, ‘Wake, my dear, and come away.’ “

    It is, really, a gorgeous article.

  • Joel

    I’m surprised at the religion ghost in this one. The Goths are historically Arian, a position which I’m fairly sure is still at odds with the Church of England’s Christology. Not a single mention of that controversy.

    Then again, I’ll bet these kids don’t even speak Gothic in the home anymore. (If they did, would they be considered an ethnic minority?)

  • Julia

    If the COE doesn’t want it – give the ancient St Mary’s back to the Catholics whose ancestors are buried there.

  • bob

    The churches in England are becoming what they are in places of the Christian East that were long ago overrun by Muslims like Armenia or Cappadocia. Attractive ruins (sometimes helped along in that process by Henry VIII) that amount to pyramids. Relics of an old religion that used to be practiced in the area, little impact on the current natives. They attract teenagers in whiteface who need a hobby. It isn’t a religious story, just a comment on the fact there isn’t any.