By Martine Jansen
Michael Newton, a Brit stranded on the European continent, ticks all the boxes of what we continentals like so much about the English: polite, clever, and full of self-deprecation. But the British in turn, seem to have lost a bit of their appetite for us Europeans. In Britain, a concern for European culture and connections hardly exists anymore. According to Newton, gothic stories (romantic horror stories) reflect this ambivalent view of Europe by the British.
He left England for love. His then-girlfriend, now wife, was German and so, he followed her to Berlin. Now, he wouldn’t be able to afford moving back. “I left London just as the property boom began. Like a frog jumping out of the boiling water. And now the water is too hot to even dip a toe back in,” he laughs. Not that he is considering it. His life is here now, in the Netherlands.
It is a bit after 10 am in Lebkov Café at Rotterdam Central Station and it is a coming and going of people. Newton is taking another sip of his latté. Judging from the empty cup on the table, not his first this morning.
Are you working from here now?
“Yes, this is where I write. In the mornings. The good thing about this café is that you have to do a little thing to get Wi-Fi. And I just refuse to do it. So, I deliberately disenable my Wi-Fi, so I can get some work done. There is a coffee machine grinding, they are playing Marvin Gaye and people are talking next to me. All that is less distracting than the internet.”
Is that also why you don’t have email on your phone?
“I am the last person without a smartphone. I have got what they call in Britain a drug dealer phone: a ‘burner’. People my age are more addicted to their phone than anyone else. But I try to resist it because I have to finish the book.”
What book is that?
“It is called Blithe Spirits and Demon Lovers. It is about how we people imagine creatures who are other than human: angels, demons, fairies, ghosts, zombies, vampires, and so on. It is mostly about portrayals in films and literature but also about people’s ideas in real life. For instance, I had a flatmate in London years ago. One night he took me aside and said: ‘Michael, you know, there really are vampires in London’. So, I changed flats very quickly. But there are people out there who believe in those things; who think they have encountered such creatures. According to an American poll conducted back in 1991, several million Americans believe they might have been abducted by aliens. Though the conclusions of the poll are disputed, it is fascinating!”
Where does the fascination for the ‘fantastic’ come from?
“It has just always been there. My PhD was originally going to be about ghost stories, but I had a psychological block when it came to working on it. I just could not bring myself to read any ghost stories. But the subject has always stayed with me. I find the borderline between the real and the fantastic interesting. How the two interact and mingle. Although ‘the fantastic’ is largely fictional, I am curious, for example, about people who believe in encounters with ghosts.”
This fascination with ghost stories is a bit of a British and American thing, no?
“I do think fewer people believe in ghosts in the Netherlands than anywhere else in the world.
But although we live in rational times, we also live in times where people are prepared to believe quite unusual things. There is an ex-sports presenter in Britain, David Icke, who had a vision. He now apparently believes the world is being run by lizards who impersonate people. And what is even stranger, he has found people ready to agree with him.”
Gothic entering the realm of psychology?
“Yes, exactly. That is the figure in the carpet. I realize now, that I have probably spent the last 25-30 years thinking about what it means to be human. And I think that our fascination with Gothic creatures, says something about how we think about what makes a human being. The more I research this topic, the more it seems that there is an anxiety about being besieged as human beings: stories about possession, zombies, vampire bites, sf-brainwashing. Every culture needs myths. You need something that expresses your unconscious fears about what is actually going on in everyday life. Gothic stories express people’s anxieties.”
In the book Haunted Europe, you mention that British and Irish authors of gothic stories contributed to the UK’s view of mainland Europe. How is that?
“Gothic stories portray continental Europe as ‘different’. Continental Europe is where Dracula and Frankenstein come from. Many British gothic stories are about weird European people coming over from the mainland. They are often about fears of invasion. Something alien from outside coming in. Dracula, continental Europe’s boogieman, is suddenly walking down Piccadilly Circus in London. Or, he is landing in a small place like Whitby, Yorkshire. In the case of Britain, these stories appeal to a desire to return to a Britain, closed-off from the outside world. But at the same time, the fact that these stories exist shows that we British are quite fascinated by it as well.”
So, the British are afraid of continental Europe?
“It is a love-hate thing. Gothic stories are evidence of an interest, a desire. The Britain I grew up in was really in love with the idea of Europe. Europe was exotic: travelling around the continent, French films, German music, Italy, Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam. Somehow that got lost. I think now, there is nothing in British culture that celebrates the idea of Europe. And it is one reason why Brexit happened. That pull, that yearning towards something European, has just petered out. Britain is turning inwards. For many British, London is already quite remote. Brussels is even more remote. Brussels is an alien.”
Will we ever be okay again?
I did not think Brexit was going to happen but now it is. I had to apply for residency. We are all in limbo. The ultimate British fantasy is that we can get to a position where we are separate. But that is not going to happen. I think Britain has done best when it has engaged with other places and it has done least well when it shut itself off. Being geographically where it is, it will have to engage with the rest of Europe. It will want to engage. But Brexit might lead to a revival of that romantic interest of continental Europe. The more alien Europe becomes, the more interesting it becomes. Who knows. Let’s hope for that.”
Who is Michael Newton?
Michael Newton studied in the English Department at University College London (UCL), wherein 1996, he was awarded a PhD for The Child of Nature: The Feral Child and the State of Nature. He taught at UCL, Roehampton University, Central Saint Martins College, and Princeton University. He has been teaching English literature and film at Leiden University since 2006. In addition to his academic work, he has written articles and reviews for The Guardian, London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement, to name just a few. He has written numerous books and won several prizes. He is now writing his new book Blithe Spirits and Demon Lovers and is working on an anthology of early science-fiction stories.
As of nine years, Newton lives in Rotterdam with his wife Lena and their two daughters.