Tuesday, 22 May 2012

The Goths-Eye View

As I write this, it’s World Goth Day (it’s also Biological Diversity Day which, as you'll see, is kind-of appropriate) and, all over the UK, pasty youths are cringing into darkened corners seeking penumbral sanctuary from what is, ironically, the brightest and sunniest day of a pretty crappy year so far. Or, at least, that’s the public perception of Goths. It’s certainly the basis of almost every Goth-related comment on Twitter this morning. But how true is it? Are they really all death-obsessed vampire wannabes? Or are they just misunderstood leather-clad teddy bears with body piercings? On this, their special day, I’ve decided to try to put the record straight.

My first taste of the Gothic was dating a young woman called Sarah-Jane in the early 1980s. I guess you should call her a proto-Goth as the whole sub-culture was fairly embryonic, having arrived in the wake of post-Punk bands like Bauhaus, Joy Division and Siouxsie and the Banshees. Sarah-Jane wore heavily-applied kohl around her eyes and a red lipstick so dark it was nearly achromatic. Her hair was back-combed into a frothy bat’s nest and her sombre clothes were figure-hugging and equipped with enough catches, buckles and chains to secure the most athletic loon. I, sadly, don’t have a photo of her but knock 20 years off Helena Bonham-Carter in Sweeney Todd and you’re cock on. Anyway, for our first 'date' we met, somewhat incongruously, in the anodyne blandness of a McDonalds in Uxbridge. She looked into my eyes and said ‘Tell me about the dead bodies you’ve seen. Did they look … peaceful?’

Now, I should explain that, at the time, I was a spanky new police officer fresh out of Hendon and I’d met Sarah-Jane at a nurses’ disco the week before. I’d immediately taken a shine to her because she was very different from girls I’d met before. I’d grown up in West Cornwall and I was still somewhat bewildered by London’s diversity. My teenage peers had dressed in a way best described as ‘young farmer’ or ‘child of hippies’. Sarah-Jane was something new and exciting. I was never quite sure what she saw in me; I suspect my USP was that I’d seen a lot of death – it goes with the job, sadly. She worked in Accident and Emergency but I got the impression that she was aiming at a career in Intensive Care or, with luck, Post-mortem Pathology. She was fascinated by death. She also came pre-packed with a love of magick (always spelled with an additional K), ghost stories and Victoriana. She persuaded me to read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and I’m glad she did; it made me re-evaluate the entire story. Up until that moment, my knowledge extended no further than Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, some rather dire old Hammer Horrors and Carry on Screaming. I now know what an extraordinary book it is.

She also took me to The Batcave in Soho where my mode of dress and blonde hair made me stand out like a polar bear in the Parthenon. But they were a great crowd there, really friendly and welcoming. They took me in – even though I was a ‘Normal’ - and they accepted me. And, boy, did they love my stories about people jumping off buildings or being mangled in various horrible ways.

Sarah-Jane and I weren’t together for very long but she taught me one of the most valuable lessons I’ve ever learned; not to judge people by appearance alone. Remember, I was only 20. I’d come from a small Cornish town in the furthest nethers of the UK where Punk hadn’t really happened. Despite being the poorest county in the UK – my careers teacher’s advice to me was ‘Get out of Cornwall’ – it didn’t produce gangs of disaffected youths etching ‘No Future’ into their arms with safety pins. My teenage years were much more Pink Floyd than Poly Styrene. More surfing than gobbing. So I’d come to London as a blank slate; I had no prejudices other than a natural in-built fear of the unknown. And, almost immediately, I was faced with people who looked, when compared to my na├»ve paradigm, scary as fuck. But the Punks and the Goths were some of the most welcoming people I met. And their music was exciting and new and broadened my tastes considerably. I’m 51 this year but I still have an occasional urge for a bit of Alien Sex Fiend.




And yet, there is a wholly-undeserved belief that Goths are in some way dangerous. It’s hard to identify exactly why and how this happened but my money is on 20th April 1999 and Jefferson County, Colorado. The Columbine High School Massacre was one of the truly gut-wrenching real-life horror stories of the 20th century. And, in the immediate aftermath, it was wrongly reported that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were part of the Goth sub-culture. In the weeks and months that followed, what Marilyn Manson would call ‘the news media's irresponsible finger-pointing’ whipped up a storm of intolerance, fear, mistrust and suspicion of anyone who looked a little ‘dark’. All this despite the fact that the killers held Goth music and culture in utter contempt. But shit sticks and, to this day, the link between Goths and murder remains.

Just recently I’ve been watching the re-runs of the 2011 TV series American Horror Story. The High School massacre storyline involves a Cobain-style grunge kid called Tate Langdon. He commits the atrocities in a trench-coat and yet, when he re-lives the event in his mind, he sees it quite differently. In his fantasies he is seen swaggering through the school corridors dressed in black and carrying a shotgun. His face is pinted like a Gothic skull – almost as if he’s being the person that the media expects him to be. Twelve years on and the old prejudices remain. And they are so underserved.

I live near High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire and, every year, it’s home to the Alternative Wycombe (Alt Wycombe) Festival where people with ‘alternative’ lifestyles (Don’t we all have alternative lifestyles?) come together for a couple of days of music, fashion, socialising and having fun. Yes, Punks and Steampunks and New Romantics and Emos and even Goths all having fun. I’ve been to the last couple and had a great time despite being the obvious pigeon among the peacocks. Dressed in T shirt, jeans and a suit jacket, I’m the odd one out. But that doesn’t matter – no one judges me or anyone else. It's as if, by positioning themselves slightly outside of conventional society, they get a clearer view of it; the Goth’s-Eye View. All petty bitchery about labels and brands is gone – much of the clobber is hand-made or sourced from charity shops. There isn’t a fake tan in sight.

Actually, there’s no tan at all.

Proceeds from the festival are passed on to charities including the Sophie Lancaster Foundation, named in honour of a 21 year old Lancastrian woman who was kicked to death in 2007 simply for being a Goth. The charity works to tackle prejudice, hatred and intolerance. Sophie’s murder didn’t result in a change in the law but lobbying the then Justice Minister, Jack Straw, did result in new sentencing guidelines whereby judges should now treat an attack on a member of a subculture with the same seriousness as a racially-motivated or homophobic assault. It’s a good start.

At the last Alt Wycombe event I saw, tattooed on the small of a young woman’s back, the words: ‘Judge not by what you see’. It’s a popular phrase among the Alt community and, although I can’t directly attribute it to anyone, it does smack of the Biblical ‘Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgement’ and the more familiar ‘Judge not that ye be judged.’ Throughout my life, I’ve learned to look a little deeper before forming any kind of opinion about what a person is like. An end to prejudice, hatred and intolerance ... now there's a lovely idea. You won't see it espoused on Eastenders or The Only Way Is Essex but it is the Goth creed.

And so I ask you, as you wander around in the sunshine today, spare a thought for the misunderstood, often-mocked and wholly misrepresented Goths in your community. Chances are, they hold the secret to making where you live a better place. The Golden Rule of Reciprocity – ‘Treat others as you would like to be treated yourself’ exists in every religion, faith and philosophy. If we all held to that, the world would be a happier place for Normals and Goths alike.

I feel some Sisters of Mercy beckoning me.

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