Food Banks and Libraries – better together?

books

The recent all-party inquiry into food poverty in Britain is a calm, compassionate and eminently sensible document, and in his forward the Bishop of Truro, Tim Thornton, puts his finger on precisely the reason why so many people in our society are falling into desperate straits. It is more than a matter of falling incomes and rising prices for housing and utilities, though certainly these are a huge factor. It is a problem with the changing structure and values of our social landscape:

We live at a time when many of the givens by way of family life, social networks, friendship groups, and self-help infrastructure are simply not there. This means that the issues people face relating to hunger and food poverty are exacerbated and heightened because there are hardly any of the ways and means that once did exist for people to support each other. We believe that the rise in the use of food banks is a sign of the breakdown of this core value in our society. We see it as evidence that many people are living individualistic and isolated lives, and the natural and vital relationships between people do not exist as once they did. To use shorthand, the glue that once held us together and gave life to our communities has gone.

Without wanting to fall in to the trap of talking of a golden age when we all lived in cosy terraced streets with our auntie around the corner and everyone knowing each other’s business, these words are so true. Rampant, uncontrolled capitalism has made us into the iSociety, where people have to navigate a shifting, complicated, ever-changing landscape of temporary casual jobs, short-term privately rented housing and volatile family relationships.

Like most middle-class people, I suspect, I’ve read case studies of poverty and thought sourly, “They can always afford a mobile phone.” One thing I appreciated fully for the first time as I read this report was how difficult it is to navigate modern society, and particularly to search for employment, if you don’t have regular, reliable access to the Internet. Jobseekers are told to apply for a minimum of 15 vacancies a week or lose their benefits. They may have travelled long distances to the Job Centre, paying bus fares they can ill afford, but the tools they need to fulfil these demands aren’t necessarily under the same roof. Internet cafes and local libraries are disappearing – when you do get to one, you may well face lengthy queues for computers, slashed opening hours and a printer that nobody knows how to fix. None of this is trivial when your income depends on it.

The Report recommends that food banks become the centre of a network of social services; this makes a lot of sense to me. Libraries are the ideal local vehicle for delivering this model and, far from closing them down, we should be opening more and giving them more to do. Imagine, for a moment, a library, a Job Centre, a Sure Start centre and a food bank, all under the same roof and open for sensible hours with somewhere safe and warm to leave the kids while you get the help you need. Instead of grumbling that poor people don’t know how to cook, or fill in forms, or speak English properly, open a place where they can access classes in all these things. People who are preoccupied with their day-to-day survival don’t have the time and energy to trail across town to parenting workshops or healthy cooking courses, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t enjoy such activities or benefit from them if they were provided in a way that speaks to their needs and acknowledges their dignity.

The people who staff food banks already have a proven track record in delivering services that offer people hope, compassion and dignity. We should be building on this, and local libraries are the ideal place to do it. We should be turning the boarded-up retail units in run-down high streets into centres where people in need can get help that starts with food parcels, but moves on quickly to practical, long-term solutions. If you are poor and unemployed, so much of your life is spent trailing around to desperately needed sources of help, possibly with miserable small children in tow, and queuing up when you get there. That doesn’t need to be the way it is. There’s no reason, other than a society-wide lack of vision and compassion, why the local library can’t be expanded to offer everything from welfare rights advice to a community allotment, and somewhere safe to leave your kids while you help out on it and grow healthy food to take home.

The purists may protest, “But libraries are about books!” That’s true, but not entirely correct. Libraries are about knowledge, hope and opportunity. There are many ways to present these things. And certainly a library without books, including ones that entertain and inspire as well as inform and educate, would be a sad place. However, the best way to improve literacy is to get children reading, as widely and as early as possible. Small children are, given half a chance, promiscuous consumers of books, and that’s exactly how it should be, but books do cost money. They need libraries, and they need to be able to associate books with fun, adventure, warmth and safety. Many children live in homes that are cold, dark and miserable, even dangerous. In a perfect world, that wouldn’t happen. But at least if there was a place they could go called a library, where Mum stopped crying and occasionally smiled, where you could get something to eat and sit in a corner reading stories with her, those kids are going to start their school life feeling that books have something to offer them. That’s the first step on the road to a future free of poverty and filled by hope and aspiration.

The Scottish Referendum – Heart says yes, head says no

Scottish independence rally on the Royal Mile, Edinburgh (Picture by BBC)

I don’t like bullies, whether they are having a go at the kid in the playground or whole countries. And that’s why I find myself torn between a head that says “No” and a heart that says “Yes” when it comes to the #indyref

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

In theory it’s none of my business. I”m English and I won’t be able to vote. But in fact, whatever the outcome, every person living in England, Wales and Northern Ireland will wake up in a different world on Friday morning. We’ve seen all the major party leaders of Westminster wheedling, threatening and emoting like a violent husband sobbing at the front door as his wife gets in the car and puts her foot down. I still love you. I’ll give you anything. You’re just having a little tantrum, darling. And it’s not a pretty sight.

I know that if the Yes vote prevails my first reaction will be euphoria, closely followed by fear and dismay. Euphoria because at last we’ve seen that progressive politics can galvanise a whole country into saying, “There’s got to be another way.” Anyone who’s left a violent, controlling partner will know that sometimes an insecure and frightening future is preferable to a life where your soul and spirit is crushed, where you are continually infantalized. Some of the rhetoric of the anti-independence campaign this week has been deeply offensive. Normally liberal papers who would shrink from making sweeping generalisations about other enthnic or cultural groups have branded Scotland spoilt and bratty, a cosseted baby that needs to grow up. Look at the real problems in the world, they say – migrants drowning in the Mediterranean, IS on a killing rampage.

I don’t buy it. Every bully presents the victim as someone incapable of making mature decisions. It’s part of the psychology of control. You could just as well argue that Scotland has seen the great neoliberal, don’t give a damn for anybody, money is everything, society in action, and said a resounding, “No thanks. There has to be a better way.” It’s outrageous that a resourceful and dignified people who have contributed so much to the United Kingdom and the British Empire in their time, whose capital was the cradle of Enlightenment philosophy and who gave us many of the most important medical and scientific advances that have shaped the modern world, should be dismissed because they’ve become too uppity to toe the line. Nobody is perfect, and there are venial, dishonest and self-seeking characters on both sides, but who the hell are we to lecture them about that? Take the mote out of your own eye first, Westminster.

Devo-max will solve nothing. If money follows rhetoric, which is by no means certain, it will send a message to the other regions of the UK that shout loud enough and you’ll magically get enough money to keep your poor from dying in the streets, let your sick die with dignity and give your young people hope. What’s not to like about that? Can anyone seriously imagine the North East, one of the most deprived regions of England, meekly accepting austerity when they see money being showered on communities just a few miles further north?

So where does that leave us all? Thinking outside the box, whether we like it or not. The old ways of doing things aren’t going to cut it any more. “The best lack all conviction, the worst are full of passionate intensity.” As the major parties squabble over the shrinking middle ground, disillusioned voters will vote for somebody – even UKIP – that offers the hope of fresh thinking. For all our sakes, I pray that the fresh thinking comes from a progressive, socially responsible and outward looking place before it’s too late and the Galloways and Farages have inherited the earth.

The best idea I’ve heard all week comes from Graham Stringer – while the crumbling Palace of Westminster is being renovated, a project that cannot be put off much longer – move the whole rabble of them up here to Manchester. Why does the legislature have to be in London anyway – hundreds of miles away from these Scots that Cameron professes to love so much? Let them come up here, out of their gilded bubble, for a while. See how they like having to do a responsible job after a three-hour daily commute. At least they’ll have the BBC on their doorstep.

You can’t have it both ways. Either we’re all in this together, or we ain’t. If we’re together, then the North of England is as good a place as anywhere to base the corridors of power. And if we aren’t, then away you go, Scotland, and good luck to you.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

W B Yeats – The Second Coming (1919)

 

Time’s Arrow – The Doctor and Robin Hood.

 

Not this shit again

Not this shit again

 

I nearly didn’t bother watching Robot of Sherwood, having found Mark Gatiss’s DW writing very uneven in the past. But that would have been a pity, because it was a delight. I don’t think I’ve been so consistently entertained by a light-hearted episode since The Shakespeare Code, which it resembled, probably intentionally. I loved the arrow moment (whatever the Doctor uses to heal the TARDIS, I wish I could get hold of some for pruning my fruit trees), revelled in the scatter-shot anachronisms and punched the air like a vindicated academic at Jenna Colman’s “You can take the girl out of Blackpool…” since I was raised on the Fylde Coast and my husband, a Londoner, has baited me with those very words for years.

I think I may look back on the reigns of Tennant, Smith and Capaldi as a Gallifreyan version of the Three Bears – Tennant was too full on, Matt left me with little to hang any emotional response on (though many disagree). Capaldi is just right. It’s as if the events of Day of The Doctor has allowed the Doctor to assert his identity as a Time Lord, instead of pretending to be human or capering around it. I am going to quietly ignore the ridiculous notion that he hung around on Trenzalore for over a thousand years; for me, this series has followed on directly from the last scene of the Special, as the Doctor comes home not only to Gallifrey, but also to himself. To use a Celtic term, he has come home to his house of belonging.

I can totally buy the Doctor as technological Luddite, using blackboard and chalk and real books to occupy his mind. Interestingly, only a few days ago I read an interview with David Mitchell, the Booker-nominated novelist, pointing out that humanity’s dependence on fossil fuels extends to the curation and transmission of culture, which is increasingly digitised and therefore reliant on electricity, and very poorly future-proofed. The Doctor has seen so many civilisations come and go, and what seems like the white-hot technological frontier to us is just another ripple on the sine wave to him.

The things I like best of all about Capaldi’s Doctor are his intelligence and his lack of manufactured charm. I love it that he can be petulant, irascible and fresh out of ideas. After a long walk around a very big block, we seem to be back to the grandfather/grandchild relationship. He’s a private person, modest about trumpeting his virtues and stating his needs, but not pathologically so. The penultimate scene, when he is able to hear Clara call him the Time Lord of Gallifrey without flinching, and the tacit acknowledgement that he was wrong about Robin Hood, with its unspoken subtext that the universe is no doubt full of people being similarly wrong about him, his postulated existence and his reputation, was a breath of fresh air after some of the fevered posturing of previous incarnations.

One of my favourite Matt Smith moments (yes, there were a few) couldn’t help but come to mind as Clara told the Doctor that he, too was the subject of myth. At his best, Eleven had a gentle, quiet and even humble acceptance of the power of stories, and his own place in them:

We’re all stories, in the end. Just make it a good one, eh? Because it was, you know, it was the best: a daft old man, who stole a magic box and ran away….

(The Big Bang)

Or, to put it another way, “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

Yesterday I was lucky enough to be in Edinburgh and have brunch at The Elephant House. Not only is it a great coffee shop with a view of Edinburgh Castle to die for, it has become a shrine to Harry Potter because it’s where JK Rowling worked on the first book of the series. If you ever need confirmation of the power of stories to shape lives, go for a pee at the Elephant House. It’s the only graffiti-covered toilet where I’d want to linger; every surface is covered with wonderful, heartfelt tributes to the creator of Harry Potter. Stories matter. They shape our reality. They give us confidence, and hope. They make us the people that we are, and help us to become the ones that we want to be.

toilets

 

I Got Soul But I’m Not A Soldier – Violence and Morality in Doctor Who

The Tenth Doctor grandstands like crazy in The Doctor's Daughter

The Tenth Doctor grandstands like crazy in The Doctor’s Daughter

Many years ago (well, it wasn’t really, but it feels that way) I toyed with the idea of writing a Doctor Who fanfic called The Moral High Ground, centred around the Doctor’s discomfort when a reformed Dalek rocks up and asks for asylum in the TARDIS. It never get written, which is rather a shame.

Primarily it would have been a response to a theme that was clumsily raised and inadequately explored in David Tennant’s last (2008) series – his extreme repudiation of all kinds of violence, accompanied by a visceral disgust towards anyone in military clothing, when in fact he was steeped in sufficient blood to make Macbeth look like a dolls’ tea party. Beginning with his self-promotion as “the man who never would” in The Doctor’s Daughter, it reached a typically RTD melodramatic full expression in Journey’s End, when Davros taunted him with a roll-call of the many people who had sacrificed their lives while he maintained his illusion of moral purity:

Davros: The man who abhors violence. Never carrying a gun. But this is the truth, Doctor. You take ordinary people and you fashion them into weapons. Behold your Children of Time transformed into murderers. I made the Daleks, Doctor. You made this.

It’s always the people from way back who know how to deliver the killer blow. It’s a melodramatic and simplistic moment, and it generates a simplistic solution; the Doctor transfers all his shadow self onto his doppelgänger and locks him away in a parallel world. Even before what happened with Donna, that was the moment I started despising Ten, and I don’t think I was alone.

Daleks are a constant of Doctor Who, the stuff of a whole generation’s childhood memories, which they (we?) transfer onto their own children. Daleks are a nostalgic throwback to the binary moral judgements of our early years. If the Daleks go, then with them goes the charming illusion that Doctor Who is a kids’ show, the stuff of playground battles (it’s a truth beautifully realised in Mark Gatiss’s Adventure in Space and Time, when Verity Lambert is overjoyed to hear kids yelling “Exterminate!” on a bus). But it’s more complicated than simply recalling the certainties of childhood. There’s a part of every adult, even the most liberal, that craves an unredeemable, totally merciless enemy that deserves nothing short of our guiltless annihilation. Because life is so bloody complicated, and sometimes we just want a break from reading The Guardian and agonising over the least worst solution.

So the Daleks persist in the DW universe, while the Doctor develops, matures and nudges towards moral accountability. The Time War, originally conceived as remaining entirely offscreen and unimaginable, pushes its way up the agenda and is eventually realised, at least in part, in the 50th Anniversary special. Moffatt openly articulates his uneasiness at the Doctor committing genocide and, being Moffatt, retcons it – because he can. The Doctor is reborn, with a second set of regenerations, grey hairs, a frowny face and the ability to confront at least some of his past.

"Am I a good man?"

“Am I a good man?”

Can anyone seriously imagine the Tenth, or even the Eleventh, Doctor, looking his companion in the eye and asking her to tell him, honestly, if he is a good man? Heck, Ten spent an entire series not looking Rose in the eye, and she was meant to be the love of his life. He turned lack of meaningful eye contact into an art form. But Twelve is made of sterner stuff. Clara’s final rejoinder that he is a man that tries to be good – or at least one that recognises the necessity of trying, and can accept the need to up his game, is a sign of Doctor Who‘s new moral sensibility. Morality is too important to be presented as melodrama, which is what RTD’s Who largely was, even if Tennant had the skill to spin it into Shakespearian tragedy. The shades of grey are not only visible in Capaldi’s curly hair; they are the foundation of a grown-up moral consciousness. And very welcome they are.

The moral sucker-punch delivered by Into The Dalek – that the Doctor is capable of mindless, prejudiced and irrational hatred –  is familiar enough to followers of the show. But what is refreshing is that it is restrained and low-key, and nevertheless powerful. It makes a welcome contrast, perhaps even a kind of companion piece, to The Waters of Mars, the last Phil Ford-authored DW episode, which showed the Doctor at his most dangerous, deluded and narcissistic. And there are intriguing signs that we’re building up to a meaningful interrogation of the Doctor’s inconsistent posturing on the subject of violence. Danny Pink is presented to us as a soldier, bruised by his experience in battle but still prepared to drill the school cadet force (just as the Tenth Doctor was as John Smith, in a story that revealed him at his cruellest and most vengeful). It seems more than likely that there will be some grown-up discussion of the ethics of putting boots on ground within the TARDIS before too long. More than that, it seems that some malign intelligence is plucking the Doctor’s victims (or collateral damage) from their deaths and saving them to put the Timelord on Trial at some future date – the taunts of Davros made flesh.

And I, for one, welcome our new morally nuanced overlords. It’s about time.

The Lives of Others, by Neel Muckherjee

Ten days ago I received a surprise email from a review digest called The Omnivore – I had won the entire 2014 Booker Prize long list. My plan is to read through the lot of them, including the ones that don’t immediately appeal, and report back with my impressions.

134.Neel Mukherjee-The Lives Of Others  cover

“Boro-babu, the world does not change, you destroy yourself trying to change it, but it remains as it is. The world is very big and we are very small. Why cause people who love you to go through such misery because of it?”

An idealistic young man deserts his wealthy family to join an extreme political movement intent on direct action. In the process, he breaks his mother’s heart. The scene is West Bengal in the 1960s, but the situation has a contemporary resonance in these days of much-feared British Jihadists. To his credit, Neel Muckherjee gives us both sides of the divide. His narrative, for the first 80% of this sprawling, colourful novel, is divided between the Marxist guerilla’s diary and the slow but steady implosion of the complex, upper middle-class family he leaves behind.

Towards the end of the book, two very different people challenge the young man’s simple idealism. The first, quoted above, is the much-loved, yet separately existing servant who has lived with the family for decades and virtually raised their children. The second is a police interrogator, who asks with genuine interest what motivates these privileged, well-educated boys to join the terrorists, and contrasts their readiness to sacrifice the individual to their perceived needs of the masses. In both cases, the question is valid and unsettling.

Muckherjee’s narrative is rescued from theoretical sloganeering by his ability to immerse the reader in a richly peopled and sensually detailed world. This is a book with the expansiveness and sweep of a Victorian “Condition of England” novel, such as Gaskell’s “Mary Barton” and “North and South.” The setting is exotic to Western readers, yet the themes seem universally familiar. How can we live well in a corrupt society? Does paternalism have its place? Do those who have sacrificed everything to build a business deserve our sympathy when their mistakes deprive workers of their livelihood and they protest?

The gilded cage of the Ghosh family, a multi-storied house where they live together, not always amicably, is surrounded by the most abject human misery. Yet their existence is far from straightforward; as their certainties crumble, eroded by a mixture of political and social change post-independence and their own numerous character flaws, we feel their pain as they turn to various crutches to help them navigate a frightening new social landscape. There’s enough rivalry, back-stabbing and drama to fill a whole series of Dallas, and the internal landscape of every character is thoroughly explored.

I didn’t expect to find so much that was familiar in a family saga set in modern India. The contrast of societies is fascinating, but perhaps what stays in the mind longest are the difficult questions and elusive solutions that are the same the world over.

Another review

Gutenburg’s Apprentice, by Alex Christie

Publicity material

Publicity material

Four hundred and fifty years ago, a dishevelled entrepreneur called Johann Gensfleisch arrived at the huge Frankfurt trade fair to launch a project he had been working on with a team of skilled craftsmen for four years. Some thought it blasphemous; many marvelled and a lucky few put down a deposit for their own copy. The exhibit was the monumental Gutenburg Bible, the first to be set in moveable type. For once, it is no exaggeration to say that the world would never be the same again.

The basic technique Gutenburg developed, that of making castings of each individual letter in metal, arranging them in rows, then in frames, inking them and pressing the letters against vellum or paper, remained in use with various technical modifications until the 1960s. Even now, well into the digital age, we use terms derived from the process. We talk about upper case and lower case letters, referring to the way that the hundreds of metal casts were stored; we talk about going to press, print runs and inking contracts. It is hard for us to imagine, as we tap away at our keyboards, how filthy, noisy, exhausting and technically demanding printing used to be. Many years ago, I joined a tour of a newspaper works and still recall the excitement as midnight approached, the enormous presses roared into life and the first edition was pulled from the rollers, little knowing that I was witnessing the end of an era.

Gutenburg would have known all about ending an era. Both the Catholic Church and the powerful trade guilds in his native city of Mainz were prepared to play dirty to get their hands on his revolutionary printing press; secrecy and subterfuge gave way to hard bargaining and deals on the side; the Catholic Church, as the world’s largest bureaucracy, knew that their power rested on the mass production of indulgences as much as illuminated religious texts. At first, the fledgeling enterprise bought off the local trade associations to prevent rumours circulating. The end of the world as we know it is always going to upset somebody. And this technology was definitely in that league. Within 50 years of the Bible being shown, a mass of small printers had sprung up throughout Germany and the authority of Catholicism was being challenged. Information revolutions, and the debates they lead to, are not confined to the digital age.

How apt it seems, therefore, that the writer of the wonderful novel I’ve just finished, Gutenberg’s Apprentice, was born in Silicon Valley. She has worked as a journalist and as a printer, on her own 1910 letterpress. Her account of Gutenberg’s Bible, seen through the eyes of the three real people at the eye of the storm, is masterly. At its heart is Peter Schoeffer, plucked from his promising career as a scribe by his hard-nosed adoptive father, Johann Fust, and ordered to join Gutenberg’s workshop.

At first Peter hates it and plots his escape by sneaking out to beg work from his old contacts in the scriptorium. No wonder – he has gone from a highly skilled and refined job to a Stygian hellhole of filth and fire where his boss’s idea of discipline is to lose his temper and burn his arm with boiling metal. Gradually, however, Peter forms bonds with his fellow workers and a grudging, if guarded, respect for his near-impossible boss. Ultimately he sees the production of the Bible as his life’s calling, and part of the tragedy of the novel is that eventually betrayal and disagreement break the fellowship of labourers, even as their finished project ignites the Western world.

One of the best things about Alex Christie’s book, and this sets it apart from most historical novels, is that at its heart it’s about the joy and brotherhood connected with finding truly meaningful work. Not that it lacks in drama, romance and political manoeuvring; it has all those spades, but the beating heart of the story, and of Peter’s life, is the crucible of innovation and the bond forged by the intensity of work on a project that pushes them to the limit in every imaginable way. Nothing is romanticised; this is emphatically not the glib story of some lone genius having a lightbulb moment. We see this revolution through the eyes of Peter, whose skill and commitment see it through against almost impossible odds and Fust, the financial backer whose wheeling and dealing make everything happen, rather than Gutenburg himself. Far from being presented as a hero, Gutenburg comes over as a medieval Steve Jobs whose abrasive personality threatens the success of the great Bible as much as facilitates it, and Peter’s developing role as his fixer and executive director becomes utterly draining as the challenges escalate. Christie’s marvellous story will transport you to medieval Europe, and a characteristically German story of craftsmanship, engineering brilliance, and innovation. It joins Hilary Mantel’s prizewinning Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies as part of a new wave of realistic historical fiction, casting great figures of the past in a refreshingly modern mould.

A Tale of Two Monsters – Dracula and Frankenstein compared

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Do women write better horror stories than men? Any conclusion based on a sample of two is hardly scientific, but a comparison of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with Bram Stoker’s Dracula is very revealing.

I never intended to read Dracula. Then we spent a weekend in a holiday cottage near Whitby, and I happened to find a copy on the bookshelf. The first few chapters were gripping and atmospheric, describing the terrifying few weeks spent by the young solicitor, Jonathan Harker, as a prisoner in the Count’s Transylvanian stronghold. Particularly unexpected and intriguing was the blatant eroticism of the scene where he is approached by three female vampires, having disregarded Dracula’s instruction not to go wandering about (The Doctor would have understood the Count’s frustration very well).

Then the action moves to contemporary England. The word “contemporary” is not used lightly, because if ever a novel abounded in descriptions of the wonders of technology, it is this one. Characters constantly record their journals on phonographs, send telegrams and discuss the latest developments in science and technology. Yet Stoker seems curiously ambivalent, or perhaps just inconsistent, in his views. His famous Dutch vampire hunter, Van Helsing, constantly asserts the importance of maintaining a belief in the apparently irrational, whether it be the existence of vampires or the efficacy of Christian symbolism. The text articulates a deep anxiety that the speed of scientific progress will lead to a pervasive rationalism that will leave us vulnerable against the things that go bump in the night.

Anxiety is the defining feature of Stoker’s narrative. That’s not unreasonable in a book that is, after all, intended to scare us stiff. But the particular anxieties implied in Stoker’s account are clustered around the vexed question of gender politics and sexuality. His world-view is a patriarchal as the Book of Genesis. Women have only one acceptable aspiration – to exist as icons of purity. The world is repeated constantly. They are vessels to be filled or emptied by others – quite literally in the case of the passive Lucy Westera, whose very name embodies Stoker’s racial prejudice. In a frantic and ultimately futile attempt to save her life, she undergoes no fewer than four blood transfusions (all from different men!) in four consecutive days, all without her awareness or consent, and done in the name of their devotion to her. It is significant that, while the blood-letting of a vampire is the underlying cause of Lucy’s malaise, we are told that such a creature can only enter a house by the victim’s invitation. Inviting the vampire into her bedroom is Lucy’s only really autonomous action in the whole narrative, and all her sufferings flow from it.

Female independence was a cause of considerable anxiety in the late 19th century, with its defining feature of the rise of the “New Woman” demanding access to university education and suffrage. Closely linked to this concern was a reductive and conventional understanding of masculinity. In Julian Barnes’ novel, Arthur and George, set in the Edwardian era, an innocent Indian man is suspected of murder, partly because he hasn’t learned to play “our great manly games.” It is possibly coincidental that Dracula, with his nocturnal habits, his shameful addiction, sunken eyes and feminine features, superficially resembles Oscar Wilde, but some commentators think otherwise. The vampire can only be defeated by a united fraternity of men, whose virility is frequently and glowingly praised. They lock themselves away in smoke-filled rooms, excluding the clearly intelligent and capable Mina on the grounds that the fairer sex could not bear the horrors that they are discussing.

Blind faith has its dark side – irrational prejudice.  Dracula abounds in what we would now call “Isms” – sexism, racism, even class-ism. Stoker’s attempt to produce Cockney or Yorkshire dialect, combined with frequent veiled demands for beer money, make it clear that in his universe the lower classes exist primarily to be patronised by their betters and provide comic relief.

Does Dracula still have the power to terrify? In a well-directed movie, perhaps, but the original is by turns infuriating and hilarious. It says far more about the sexual anxieties of late Victorian males than the habits of the undead. There is no attempt to explain, empathise with or pity the Count. And in this respect, particularly, it differs markedly from Shelly’s Frankenstein, which in my view has lost none of its haunting power.

Shelley, too, had concerns about the growing power of technology. Frankenstein is rooted in the Romantic sensibility, and its reaction to the prospect that mankind might be on the brink of using electricity to reanimate the dead, and create new life. Should humanity have such a power? How could male vanity – such a feature of Stoker’s narrative – be limited by ethics and responsibility?

These issues have, if anything, become more significant rather than less. That is partly why Frankenstein has retained its appeal. But Mary Shelley was also a parent, one who had stoically dragged a growing brood of toddlers around Europe in thrall to her husband’s grand ideas (only one of their five children survived the experience). Frankenstein is filled with this sensibility, with her conviction that humanity owes a debt of moral responsibility to any sentient being it has created. Her Creature does not fit easily into the good/evil binary. He is the innocent victim of his creator’s revulsion and neglect; it is this that looses horror upon the world, and leads to the death of everyone that Frankenstein holds dear.

The Creature is a complex character – we are privy to his aspirations, his anguish and his growing desperation. Much of the story is told from his viewpoint. Through his account of his social isolation, he comes to represent the social and political prejudices that divide us, and that the Shelley’s would have clearly witnessed in their travel around a war-scarred Europe. We can’t condone his behaviour, but we understand why he feels he has no alternative. He is human, and seeks only the connection and acceptance that all human beings are entitled to. Ultimately, we pity him, probably more than we pity his hubristic creator, who spills so much ink bemoaning his own fate and so little on that of his creation.

In Shelley’s moral universe, the monsters are more than simple projections of society’s repressed anxieties. They are like us; in a sense, they are us. They exist on the fringes of society, feared, shunned but ultimately no more evil than those who brought them into being. We make our own monsters, and the way forward is not to band together in vigilante groups intent on their destruction, but by extending a hand of mercy and acknowledgement to the apparently hideous and unknown.

Dracula is a melodrama. Frankenstein, though every bit as much of its time as Stoker’s classic, remains contemporary, haunting and disturbing. It terrifies because we know, in our hearts, that we are capable of creating our own monsters, and sealing our fate as well as theirs by our reluctance to acknowledge the monstrous in ourselves.

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Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller in Danny Boyle’s “Frankenstein” (National Theatre)