By Abi Lillicrap
As part of Manchester Gothic week, ‘The Memento Moriatas’ – Kate Mayfield, Lloyd Shepherd and Kirsten Morrison performed a selection of literature and music within the glorious setting of the International Anthony Burgess Foundation.
The aspect of landscape certainly has a strong connection within Gothic culture and both Kate Mayfield and Lloyd Shepherd were full of interesting insights into how the role of landscape shaped their own stories.
The evening started with Kate Mayfield speaking about the setting of her memoir, The Undertaker’s Daughter. Kate grew up in a southern town in Kentucky, where her father was an undertaker, and this is where her book is placed. She told the audience,
“It is not normal to grow up in a funeral home but I had no say in the matter, called upon as I was to live out my childhood amongst the dead in my father’s funeral home in a small town in Kentucky.”
Kate gave a thorough insight into the Gothic that surrounded her as a child growing up in southern America saying, “Southern Gothic is absolutely unique in time and place and in sentiment.”
One of the things that Kate highlighted was that “the sense of isolation and imprisonment never abates from its literature.”
“To grow up in the South is to be feed a steady diet of fried chicken, grits and ghost stories and being haunted is a permanent condition that defines the region. But there is a world of southern gothic that has little to do with vampires, mad scientists or the supernatural; instead it is a world of religious hysteria. It is a world of dark family secrets, and unfretted violence in the sweltering heat of Bible belt America. “
Kate then read an extract from her book, which described powerfully a moment where a school friend had died and ended up being brought back to her house to her father. The setting, added to the evocative pictures being shared upon the screen behind Kate, only further added to the emotion, that this was a true experience of a innocent little girl.
Kate explained that the innocence was a challenging thing to remember whilst writing, and it remains important as “a major southern Gothic theme hinges on innocence and the innocence place in the world where they are called upon often to bear witness.”
Kirsten Morrison, a singer and composer then framed Kate’s reading by performing a selection of songs based on poems by Edgar Allan Poe, Lord Byron, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Lizzie Siddal and Kubla Khan. She started with ‘A Dream Within A Dream’ by Poe and strummed on strings before releasing her most powerful and enchanting voice. It was a unique and creative way of combining classic literature with music.
‘The monsters I write about are more day-to-day. Rich men, mostly, doing horrible things in the early 19th century – to slaves, to foreigners, and in my most recent book, to women. So when I think of Gothic landscapes, I tend to think of London. I tend to think of the stories that lie within London’s buildings and streets.”
Lloyd explained the image of London in the 19th century and how he came across ‘Cross Bones’, a burial site for the poor and prostitutes. He explained how themes such as disease and poverty contributed as themes of the London Gothic.
“The part of Cross Bones behind the gate was excavated in 1992 when they were building the London Underground Jubilee Line extension. The archaeologists were only able to dig where the redevelopments allowed them to dig. Only the bodies in this area were disturbed. The rest are still there – as many as 15,000 of them still slumbering beneath Southwark’s streets.”
“As for the overall high percentage of young bodies in Cross Bones – there is a grim explanation. London burial grounds were either large pits kept open until they were full, or a series of stacks kept open in the same way.”
Another element of the London Gothic that Lloyd explored was the women of Covent Garden and how they had been placed and described in a book called Harris’s list created by a man known as Jack Harris, who owned the Bedford Tavern.
London had become a city of prostitution, with one in five women were forced to turn to it, in order to provide for their families. The exploitation of these girls and women, Lloyd believes introduces a different element to the London Gothic, the fear of the woman, who previously were unvoiced and ignored. The Bedford Head Tavern where Harris’s list was created is used as a setting in Lloyds most recent book ‘ Savage Magic’.
Kirsten then performed another selection of her music based on poems by William Blake, Arthur Rimbaud as well as some written by herself. She finished with ‘Double Double” by William Shakespeare which echoed sharply around the Anthony Burgess foundation.
Lloyd told me that his favourite place to perform in so far had been a brewery in Windsor, but all three performers are especially excited for their upcoming performance on Halloween night in Guy’s hospital’s old theatre room.
If you get the chance to go and see The Memento Moriatas in future, please take the opportunity to go, as they are full of Gothic insights and, paired with music, it is sure to leave as lasting a chilling effect on you as it did the members of this audience. You can find out more info on The Memento Moriatas here.