Tuesday, 4 November 2008

My Whitby Gothic Experience

I am sure on blogs all across the UK this week you will see people recounting their experiences of the October 2008 Whitby Gothic Weekend (WGW) and I was a little hesitant at including mine. This was partly that my experiences were quite limited and I lack the photographic evidence that I am sure other bloggers can use to illustrate their blog postings. However, I reminded myself that this is my blog, for me to cast thoughts, ideas, frustrations, even the occasional happiness into the ether, so felt I should capture my angle on the experience.

As you will know the WGW has been running since 1995 and is a twice per year event held in April and October with Goths gathering at Whitby on the North Yorkshire coast. Despite being on the East coast of England, due to the way the coastline runs, the town actually faces northwards into the North Sea. The next landmass if you head straight out from Whitby is the Arctic. For this reason Whitby's main industry was whaling and some fishing. People also made artefacts from jet, a glossy black stone. Whitby is very isolated. It is at the mouth of the River Esk, but inland from it are the North Yorkshire Moors (a National Park which means its natural habitat is preserved) which are very like moors anywhere being bleak and exposed to the elements and not highly populated. The nearest towns to Whitby are on the coast with Middlesbrough to the North and Scarborough to the South, about 16 miles away. Surprisingly Whitby and Scarborough do have a tourist trade for hardy tourists. They have unspoilt beaches and wonderful inland scenery plus a historic setting. Whitby does have modern shops and in the suburbs houses from the past twenty years but its core is Victorian and even older. Around this are 1930s-50s suburbs. Overlooking the town are the ruins of a medieval abbey and there are numerous alleyways. The town is very steep, rising up from a harbour in the estuary to the clifftops very quickly. You need to be fit to walk around Whitby. Despite my efforts to attend the WGW in previous recent years, I have not actually got to the town since 1979 when I visited as a child and a great deal is the same as it was back then. You can get excellent fish and chips and you can buy fudge. There are more boat rides available, you can sea fish and walk around the 'Grand Turk', a moored 19th century sailing ship.

I had always intended to go to WGW for many years, but it is about 270 miles from London. You can reach it by train, but of course train fares are incredibly expensive. The other issue is accommodation. It is not a large town though it does have numerous bed and breakfast places and hotels, but for the WGW weekends these are often constantly booked and you need to secure a place at least 12 months in advance if not longer. Some brave souls come in caravans, there was actually a rally of the Caravanning Club there at the same time, but you need to be tough for that. There was heavy hail on the first day we arrived this year and very strong winds, well, not that unexpected for a town in the situation it is. In 2007 the woman in my house tried to book accommodation but found that those with rooms still available were unwilling to have Goths staying. The bulk of the town realises how much money Goths bring to the town and are very welcoming, though there are odd pockets of unease. The fascinating thing, which if you are a Goth who has not been, is that if you walk the streets, especially down Skinner Street and Flowergate with the main Goth pubs and shops, or down around the harbour is that you feel part of the norm, it is the others, the 'muggles', the 'mundanes', i.e. the non-Goths who seem to stick out in their pale blue jeans or grey anoraks. It is an incredibly liberating experience if you are used to being scowled at as you make your way around your local shopping centre.

Anyway, this year we were fortunate that a new Goth-friendly guesthouse had been established and so we were able to book the last spaces there before they were locked in for the next decade. The key caveat that I will put in now is that I went to Whitby as a Goth, but not for entertainment; I went as the driver and shop assistant to a trader. Consequently, driving over 300 miles (480 Km), partly staffing a stall for eight-and-a-half hours per day for three days, bringing food, loading and unloading, left me exhausted and just in the mood for an early night rather than indulging in the Gothic nightlife of Whitby. The woman from my house did attend the Sophie Lancaster memorial event, but otherwise we missed out on all the goings on. However, to a great extent, just walking around seeing Goths everywhere, chatting with them, that in itself is fun.

I did hear that the events were very good. There was comedy and bands and burlesque performances, and health and safety issues of a man balancing a lawnmower on his chin and having lettuce thrown at it, let alone the bullet catcher. The pubs like 'The Resolution', 'Little Angel' and 'Elsinore' which are the key Goth haunts were so busy people were queuing to get in. Despite the weather which was hail on Friday, dry and dull Saturday, windy and rainy Sunday, the numbers attending apparently reached record levels. The number of stalls also increased over previous years with the Rifle Club and Royal Hotel as well as the Leisure Centre, the Spa Centre (which is a music and event complex below the clifftop) and Metropole Hotel.

I obviously saw a lot of the trading and went on a bit of business intelligence to check out rivals to the stall run by the woman from my house. Even Camden Market does not come close to the range of items on sale. You can buy things from a pound to hundreds of pounds and kit yourself out in a full suit of leather armour, a huge range of jewellery and masks, any kind of boot you might want, a full Victorian ladies' outfit with full bustle and fascinator hat or alternatively the perfect medieval maiden or a lady of Jane Austen time or earlier, with the fine tricorn hat or in a steampunk leather coat with brass goggles and a full steampunk cyber arm or a techno-Goth outfit all flourescent and furry. You could also equip your child or your baby in similar equipment and outfits, the diversity was incredible. The quantity made it feel like it was the 'norm' which again added to that sense of feeling free.

Just sitting and watching the incredible range of outfits that people were wearing was wonderful. I felt as if I had gone to one of those cities that feature in Michael Moorcock novels, that connect between different times and was looking at people drawn from over a period of close to two millenia, something like 800-2500 CE, with particular emphasis on 1780-1860 and 2100-2200. There was also a lot of black clothing and women in long skirts and men in long leather coats, the usual Goth uniform. In fact there were quite a few people in uniform with late 19th/early 20th century British and mid-20th century German uniforms being favoured. When you are in a dark street on the East side of the bridge and an SS officer steps out from a restaurant you can feel you have slipped into a counter-factual.

The range of ages of people attending was very wide. I had read about coach parties of elderly people coming over from Leeds and the number of people over the age of 60 was large. Many had dressed in full Victorian garb of suits and top hats and waistcoats (and loads of canes) or full bustled dresses, fascinators and veils, and I am sure many of the men and women resembled their ancestors from Leeds of 150 years ago. To a great extent it shows that people love dressing up and that Gothic culture is a broad grouping in which a lot of different people can have fun. There were also a higher than average percentage of people with disabilities, and I imagine this stems from the fact that as a Goth you often get stared at, something people with a disability often face anyway. The organisers need to bear in mind the need for wheelchair access, this also goes for pushchair access too as there were numerous toddlers there too. I could see it was fine in the Leisure Centre but far more challenging in the Spa and the Rifle Club.

Coming back home, you really feel a buzz. I can see why people go back year after year. You feel recharged in your Gothness, you feel that you are part of an exciting culture that is vibrant, tolerant and fascinating. You also feel that even if you live on an estate full of chavs that there are people out there who are like you. The atmosphere is great, it is so easy to find people to chat to. You get ideas for things to do and how to dress and are exposed to items that you would not otherwise see. I thoroughly enjoyed myself and encourage anyone who is hesitant about going, to go and try it out, even if just once. It may be challenging to get there and stay there, but you will not regret it. I am already thinking about what I will wear next year, looking forward to meeting up with the people I met this year and again get a thorough three days of Gothness.

No comments: