I have seen the future - and it's goth
We mocked their make-up and giggled over their gloom. But the goths are taking over the country. Dave Simpson reports
Tuesday March 21, 2006 - The Guardian
It's every parent's nightmare. Their apparently well-adjusted child suddenly comes home with hair the colour of a coalface, a face whiter than anything made by Dulux, and announces, "Mummy, I'm a goth." However, according to a new study, parents of goths will probably end up boasting about their son/daughter the doctor, lawyer or bank manager.
That is the surprising finding of Sussex University's Dunja Brill, whose doctorate in media and cultural studies looked at people with funny hair and eyeliner in London, Brighton and Cologne, and who is herself a former goth.
"Most youth subcultures encourage people to drop out of school and do illegal things," she says. "Most goths are well educated, however. They hardly ever drop out and are often the best pupils. The subculture encourages interest in classical education, especially the arts. I'd say goths are more likely to make careers in web design, computer programming ... even journalism."
Perhaps she has a point. Long before finding gainful employment at the Guardian, I too was a goth. For at least six months in the 80s, I reached for the hair crimpers, painted my bedroom black and scrawled the name of gothy band the Birthday Party on the door so it looked like blood. Hours were spent adopting the requisite air of mysterious gloom, reading (um) the spines of Dostoevsky novels, and gazing forlornly at spots. However, similar experiences can be found among people in much more respectable professions.
Visitors to the Archangel dental surgery in west London are confronted by a goth dentist, Didier Goalard, who says: "I've got goth friends who are doing quite well. There's a dentist in Lyon, a couple of solicitors, a Church of England priest."
"Goths are like masons," I have been told. "They're everywhere." But rather than blaming some sinister conspiracy, let us look at the reasons people become goths in the first place. According to Choque Hosein, formerly of goth band Salvation but now running a record label, "Goths tend to be the weirdo intellectual kids who have started to view the world differently." Cathi Unsworth is now a successful author, but she remembers that her own dark gothic past gave her an outlet for alienation. "I loved the bands, especially Siouxsie and the Banshees, but it wasn't a pose - I felt authentically depressed," she says. Unsworth was a teenager in Great Yarmouth, where she felt that "people didn't like me. It got to a point where I wanted to stop fighting against being different and embrace it."
Gillian Porter is now a successful PR but remembers a misspent youth of "electric-blue hair extensions, big boots with great big skulls, more crimped hair than Pete Burns. Totally and utterly ridiculous." Porter wasn't depressed, although she concedes that, "Listening to a lot of Sisters of Mercy doesn't exactly cheer you up."
Unsworth favoured a "black polo neck jumper and full-length skirt, for which she would be "spat on by the beer boys".
It could be tough, but being a goth can open up a world where art, current affairs and literature are embraced and openly discussed, perhaps paving the way for future networking. Unsworth remembers debates about "current affairs, Oscar Wilde, decadence, hairspray ..." "There was a lot of Edgar Allan Poe and Bram Stoker," remembers Porter. "It was better than the Sun." For Hosein, it was Quentin Crisp and "The Day of the Triffids. Anything involving horror and death."
Some took the whole thing very far. Hosein once lived in Headingley, Leeds; he remembers that students would enrol at Leeds university specifically because the town housed gothic kingpins (and his neighbours) the Sisters of Mercy. One night, Hosein saw a fog descending over the area and commented that lead singer Andrew Eldritch was around - then looked up to see him entering his doorway.
Indeed, there is a certain dry humour about goth that is often overlooked amid tales of black-clad youths worshipping Satan and, in one case, carrying out the Columbine massacre. "That wasn't goths," insists Brill. "The guys who did it always wore black trench coats but they listened to Marilyn Manson. There's an academic article: Why Marilyn Manson Isn't Goth." Brill insists that goth is a non-violent subculture. "They're like hippies. I don't know any goths who are into graveyard destruction or cat slaughtering. They like their graveyards and they love their cats."
Nor do drugs seem to be much of a problem. "Speed is a goth drug because the ideal is to be skinny," says Unsworth. "But for most of us it was Blue Nun wine because Wayne Hussey from the Mission drank it."
So perhaps parents shouldn't be too worried that a new generation of goths is cropping up again. There's a goth couple on Coronation Street. Hosein's bands include Black Wire, who wear black eyeliner, winklepickers and sound a lot like the Sisters of Mercy, although they had never heard them until they started rifling through his record collection. For some goths - who run T-shirt businesses or enterprises such as Whitby's biannual Gothic festival - goth can become a livelihood as well as a way of life. But most simply drop back into the mainstream.
Louise (she prefers not to give her surname) works in credit risk in Leeds. Aged 34, she got into goth music 17 years ago and now has tickets for the upcoming Sisters of Mercy tour. She reckons about "four or five people" at her workplace are former goths. "There's a kind of gaydar that lets you spot them." Goalard the dentist is now 39 but refuses to wear the white smock, preferring to top his boots with a black uniform. Faithful to the last, he plays Nine Inch Nails and Killing Joke songs as he drills.
"It never entirely leaves you," says Unsworth. "I still look at the world of beer boys and Tories and feel a beating heart of darkness."
As for Porter, she's just undergone "flashbacks" visiting Gothic Nightmares, Tate Britain's study of the supernatural themes in the work of Henry Fuseli and William Blake. However, this goth-turned-PR-woman is adamant that as goths grow up, they are advised to modify the look.
"I see them now in Camden where I live and think 'Fine in your twenties. But when you're 30? Sorry - you look like a twat"
Is your boss a goth? 10 telltale signs
1 Drinks snakebite
Former or closet goths still display a lingering thirst for snakebite - half a pint of lager with half a pint of cider, sometimes with blackcurrant. Snakebite is the worst thing the goths ever did after their invasion of the Roman Empire in 267.
2 Penchant for eyeliner
It seems everybody's wearing eyeliner these days, but a goth's make-up is a smidgen more extreme: the skin is powdered white, and black eyeliner is used on eyes, brows, lips and sometimes - to draw cobwebs, probably - the skin. NB: goths do not use bronzer, rouge, or St Tropez self-tan.
Capes have been fashionable this winter, but don't let that confuse you. A goth wears a cape so long it grazes the floor. Looks a little incongruous over a business suit.
4 Went to Leeds university
Strangely, Leeds has a nigh-on magnetic attraction for goths, and there are more cape shops per capita in the city than anywhere else in Europe.
5 Whistles Fields of the Nephilim/ Sisters of Mercy/ March Violets/ Subway to Sally songs
This is why no goth ever had a successful career as a milkman.
6 Strange hobbies
Many of your colleagues will spend the weekend at B&Q, drinking Lambrusco and playing five-a-side. Not goths. They read preposterous fantasy books, do a spot of Wicca and anything "a bit medieval".
7 Black clothing
Though both wore a lot of black, it is easy to differentiate between the goth and the 80s throwback by asking this simple question: can you imagine this outfit in a Robert Palmer video? The goth's predilection for black clothing is a reflection of the Black Aesthetic - taking those things society regards as evil or wrong and making them beautiful. Many items in the longtime goth's wardrobe may now have faded to a sort of charcoal shade.
8 Disturbing dancing at Christmas party
The goth sticks rigidly to the routine of two and a half steps to the front and back again, while gazing at the floor in an affected fashion and waving hands around mysteriously.
9 Disarmingly pointy boots
It is a little-known fact that inside their shoes, goths' feet are just as pointy as their winklepickers.
10 Drives a hearse to work And doesn't work at a funeral parlour.