Selling at Whitby Gothic Weekend

This past weekend I had a stall at the Whitby Gothic Weekend.  Whitby is one of my favourite places on earth, and for the past seven years I have attended the Gothic Festival there.  So it was with a great deal of excitement I prepared to sell at the event. I am grateful to all the friends and shop supporters who came by and said hello– you kept me sane!

Sadly, selling at Whitby was a disappointment. I found myself displaying all my lovingly hand made, beautiful things in a fluorescent-lit gymnasium which stank of stale sweat and childhood trauma, trading next to people who were flogging 5 pound lingerie and Vivienne Westwood knock-offs.  Whatever I was doing was drowned out by cheap tat displayed as if we were at a car boot or swap meet.

One thing I learned this weekend– the context of a market defines you.  I had a difficult time explaining that I was a local Yorkshire artist, and that everything was handmade and carefully sourced.  My prices didn’t make sense to people, who were seeing bins of things for a pound, all imported sweat-shop type goods.

There was no security and though traders were encouraged to leave their stalls up overnight, the doors were not locked at 5 and people came and went, rummaging through the stalls of traders who were no longer there.  I ended up taking all my stock home every night because of this.

As the weekend wore on and sales in general seemed low, other traders became territorial.  The woman selling cheap imported jewelry behind me blocked the aisle leading to my stall from the entrance insuring everyone would have to walk the entire perimeter of stalls just to reach mine.  Yet, there was no one to deal with this besides a single volunteer who was a stall holder herself.  One evening she broke down in tears because she had so much work to do and so many demands put on her.

Yet, traders pay a premium to sell at this event–where is the money going?  I split the cost with my stall neighbor, the wonderful Paula from Deadly Desires. We are both new businesswomen and booking Whitby was a big experiment and risk for both of us.

What surprised me was the complete lack of any feeling of community amongst the traders or shoppers, many of whom were not goths at all but people who had come to photograph “freaks” or people in fancy dress– WGW has a lot of people who have no relation to the gothic sub-culture but like to dress up in Victorian costumes and promenade.

I learned that as a trader I need to find markets where the other sellers are also artists and makers, and where we are supported as such. Unless there are major changes to the way things are run at Whitby Gothic Weekend, I will not be selling there again.

The gathering of the Elder Goths

Right over the town is the ruin of Whitby Abbey, which was sacked by the Danes…It is a most noble ruin, of immense size, and full of beautiful and romantic bits; there is a legend that a white lady is seen in one of the windows.  Between it and the town there is another church, the parish one, round which is a big graveyard all full of tombstones. This, to my mind, is the nicest spot in Whitby…

— Mina Harker in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Whitby, cliff-side graves with Abbey in the distance.
Whitby, cliff-side graves with Abbey in the distance.

When I said I don’t go on literary pilgrimages, I lied.  Since moving to the UK I have gone to Whitby almost every year, and have read Stoker’s Dracula numerous times.  It loses none of its uncanny terror and strangeness in multiple readings, despite the countless films and derivative fictions which threaten to steal its undead soul.  Part of this fortitude must be due to the novel’s structural rigor and the Stoker’s wonder at the clash of new technology and superstition or folklore which remains fresh and relevant over a hundred years later.

I have yet to find Lucy and Mina’s favourite “seat”– the grave of a suicide– though this is what I would most like to discover.  I have avoided any of the touristy “Dracula” tours and “Experiences”, hoping one day the “real thing” or some suitably fictional inspiration will make itself known to me.

I go every year for the Gothic Festival, where the pubs in town welcome the goths with Halloween decorations and pints of cider & black.  All the charity shops do up their window mannequins in tarty stretch velvet and fishnets, and put out special rails of black clothing.

The goth weekend has little to do with any literary pilgrimage.  Goths have gathered en masse here twice a year for a decade and a half now.  It’s more fancy dress than rock and roll, which is curious coming from the West Coast of the US, where the worst thing ever is to appear costumed or pretentious in any way.  Many goths that show up will claim to have been coming since the good old days when it was just a pub meet at the Elsinore, shortened to “The Elsi,” the facade of which is festooned with a banner that reads “Home of the Goths.”

In many ways Whitby does feel like home, this place where Dracula arrives on a ghost ship with a corpse tied to its helm.  It must be that the town owns a great deal of its notoriety to an infamous immigrant– Count Dracula.  All the locals are quite welcoming to the goths who often challenge modest rural norms with their sartorial choices. Everyone wants to know how far you have come to visit, as a point of pride.

The winding streets and cobbled alleyways are especially captivating at night.  Unlike Dracula‘s London locales, Whitby almost feels pristine. One can climb the countless steps up to the abbey, just as Mina might have, to witness the graves all blankly staring out to sea, the only sound the wind hissing through the grass.  The star-pricked sky above merges with the black sea in one great, silent mystery… full of the somnambulists and changelings of an aging sub-culture.