Dr Sarah Lawson Welsh: Reflection on Black History Month and the Ones We Leave Out, Part 2

A display of books by Afro Caribbean writers with a picture and a Rasta Mouse toy
Caribbean Writing #BlackHistoryMonth Image (c) Dr Sarah Lawson Welsh

In the second of two blog posts looking back at Black History Month, Dr. Sarah Lawson Welsh discusses the importance of the representation of Caribbean writers and artists. She is an Associate Professor and Reader in English and Postcolonial Literature in the School of Humanities, and has written widely on this topic. You can read her first blog post here.

I think it is fair to say that the nationalist agendas of Caribbean writing and the role of black writers and thinkers in mid-twentieth century independence movements are much less well known than the American civil rights movement of the same era, even though there are some parallels between the two. Even such intellectual giants of the Anglophone Caribbean tradition, writers and thinkers such as Guyanese Wilson Harris (1921-2018) and Trinidadian C.L.R. James (1901-1989), are little known outside of specialist academic circles. Yet Harris, a former land surveyor who had worked in the Amazonian rainforest was writing about environmental issues and conceptualizing new ways of thinking about space, time and memory in relation to pre- and post-Columbian contexts as early as the 1960s. Even earlier in the century, in the 1930s Continue reading “Dr Sarah Lawson Welsh: Reflection on Black History Month and the Ones We Leave Out, Part 2”

Dr Sarah Lawson Welsh: Reflection on Black History Month and the Ones We Leave Out, Part 1

a white woman with long blonde hair smiles at the camera
Dr Sarah Lawson Welsh

In the first of two blog posts looking back at Black History Month, Dr. Sarah Lawson Welsh introduces her choices for the display in the York St John library foyer. She is an Associate Professor & Reader in English and Postcolonial Literature in the School of Humanities, and has written widely on this topic. Read her second blog post here.

Every year the Library and the Learning services team put on a black history month (BHM) display with a new topic every week. This year, Marcia Sanderson, a former BA English and MA in Contemporary Literature student who works in the library, contacted me to ask if I had any black British and Caribbean book or film suggestions, based on my teaching and research specialisms in these areas. The topics the library and learning services had chosen were: hidden black historical figures, black authors speaking back to literature and film, staff picks – our favourite texts by black authors and black people in cinema and horror films. Continue reading “Dr Sarah Lawson Welsh: Reflection on Black History Month and the Ones We Leave Out, Part 1”

Words Matter Prize Winner 2022 Announced

This year’s Words Matter Prize has been awarded to BA English Literature &a student's hands flicking through papers and books Film Student Liam Durbin. The prize recognises outstanding academic achievement by students completing the first year of their degree.

Level Four co-ordinator Dr Fraser Mann says that:

“Liam’s dedication to his studies and his participation in university life are admirable. He has made rapid and remarkable progress in his studies and deserves real recognition for this success.”

On receiving news of the award, Liam said:

“Receiving the Words Matter Prize genuinely means the world to me. A few years ago, just being able to study at university was something that felt beyond me entirely, so to receive this now is simply incredible. I feel endlessly grateful to every lecturer, tutor, friend and family member that have helped get me through university so far. Thank you so much.”

Liam will receive his award during this year’s Words Matter Lecture. We would like to congratulate him on his success and wish him all the best for the rest of his degree

Words Matter 2022: “Literature and Its Uses” with Dr Adam J. Smith

Join us for the fifth annual Words Matter Lecture on Thursday 10th November, at 5pm.

Book here for a free ticket. The event is open to all, and includes a drinks reception.

The Lecture

 

Drawing on his research exploring the role played by print in mediating the relationship between citizens and the state throughout the long eighteenth century, Dr Adam James Smith (Associate Professor, English Literature) will consider the “uses” of literature. Adam will introduce a series of case-studies in which literature was “used” for the purposes of propaganda, protest and satire during the eighteenth century, before examining the ways in which this same literature was used (and perhaps also abused) by readers and critics. Tracing a brief history of reading, misreading, deliberate misrepresentation and the active avoidance of reading, Adam will argue that most valuable “uses” of Literature arise from a deep, careful and sincere engagement with the form and substance of texts. Finally, the lecture will investigate recent advocations for the “use” of Literature as a means of promoting citizenship, empathy and social justice.


Dr Adam J Smith

Adam James Smith is an Associate Professor of English Literature, specialising in eighteenth-century print culture. Adam has a PhD from the University of Sheffield, where he also completed an AHRC-funded post-doctoral project before joining York St John University full-time in 2016. He has published on the works of Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, Eliza Haywood, James Montgomery and Virginia Woolf, amongst others. He has co-edited three volumes – Poetry Conspiracy and Radicalism in Sheffield (Spirit Duplicator, 2016), Print Culture, Agency and Regionality in the Handpress Era (Palgrave, 2022) and Impolite Periodicals (Bucknell, forthcoming). He is also currently a series editor for People of Print (Cambridge University Press), a multi-volume collection of printer biographies documenting the lives of individuals who were integral to the print industry but who have been, historically, less well represented.

Adam is also co-director of the York Research Unit for the Study of Satire, co-host of the ongoing monthly podcast Smith & Waugh Talk About Satire, he sits on the executive committee for the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (BSECS) and is chief editor of Criticks, the online reviews site for BSECS. His recent writing examines the relationship between politeness and satire and the character of the satirist across the long eighteenth century.

 

10 First-Year Texts That Shook Me, by Michaela Bosman

I’ll be honest: I chose to study literature to learn more about culture. Yes, that’s a broad statement. But, thanks to my religious and censored upbringing, I didn’t know much about anything other than Bible stories and virtuous allegories when I applied for the course.

To give you an idea of my ignorance, I wasn’t allowed to read or watch Lord of the Rings, and certainly not Harry Potter. At this point, references to either of those texts are hackneyed and eyeroll-inducing. Now my opportunity to partake in those conversations is over. It’s all because my religious bubble said that the magic wielded isn’t God’s, so it must be Satan’s. But it isn’t just magic that the church folks scorn. Any comment on society, say from Joyce, Dickens, or Orwell, means that these authors have an active interest in the ways of sinners. 

So, the texts I encountered during my first year at YSJU really did shake me (as I suggest in the title). It wasn’t because the contents shocked me, but because the texts entered me into new labyrinths of thought and meaning. Each text we study carries, not just the story it tells, but also a story of the time and place of its birth. It captures a moment in time, and echoes the voices of that period. As Dr Anne-Marie Evans says, all texts are intertextual. The texts we covered last year, and the discussions we had about them, made me want to read to infinity – but I’ll stick to ten. So, here are my top ten first-year texts, ordered by the level of impact they have on me, because favourites are for Buzz Feed.

1. Hanif Kureishi’s Buddha of Suburbia

Irreverent, colourful, and multifaceted, to tell you just one thing this novel does would be to do it a disservice. It says a lot about a lot – without telling you those things directly (because it’s quality writing). With a flippant and humorous tone, it critiques depths of society that many are too cautious to tread. In my essay about it, I focussed on its attack on a Marxist account of ideology – specifically, the ideology that whiteness is a constituent of Englishness. But this text does more than just promote diversity in England. It comments on different people’s approaches to racism. It points to individuality in a way that illuminates the humanity in each character. It highlights the infinite variations of the intersections of classes and races. And more.

But I’ve only got so much space for this blog post. The text’s multifarious critique of society is submerged in the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll of the seventies – it’s alive. Kureishi’s commentary is driven by the distinctiveness of each character, each of whom creates (by their peculiar life-choices) their unique modes of living. The problem I have with this novel, from an academic standpoint, is having to focus on just one aspect of it. It just has so much to say, in such a stylish way.

2. Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro’s Bitch Planet

This comic doesn’t hold back. It’s loud. It’s satirical. It’s feminist. Using the blueprint of exploitation cinema, it has at least three satirical targets, all of which are connected to feminism. It satirizes the insularity of the patriarchal hegemony, the women who follow the patriarchy’s prescription of femininity, and the comic book form which circulates mostly among boys, and encourages sexual objectification and voyeurism.

Its impact on me stems from the overt nature of its witty satire. The satire is in-your-face, but it’s intellectually stimulating too. Page after page, the text makes an adroit critique of the patriarchy that’s coded into the material structure of society and the way we think about our identities.

I’ll be honest, when it comes to visual satire, I’m used to seeing memes on Twitter. The bulk of Twitter memes have nothing on the wit of Bitch Planet, which makes it a compelling read. Yet, its attack is so acute that it boils my blood. I find myself disgusted by the depth from which women need to rise before we can reach true equality. Sure, Bitch Planet exaggerates, but I don’t think it’s inaccurate – and that’s the problem with (by which I mean success of) this text.

3. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart

This novel is powerful. Its force lies in the imagery of the single communal spirit that captures whole crowds (different from groupthink), but also in its layered meaning. Its complex and nuanced message is gestured at by its simplistic style, devoid of any literary pomp. I read it as the reconciliation of two narratives – those of the Nigerian Igbo clan and the colonial missionaries. Achebe says himself, in his essay collection, Morning Yet on Creation Day, that he aims to

“teach [his] readers that their past – with all its imperfections – is not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God’s behalf delivered them” (45).

 Achebe is writing in English while his intended readers are – judging by the above quotation – Nigerian, so he doesn’t dismiss all European practices. While he defends the Igbo culture against colonial notions of barbarism, found in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, he also employs his antihero to problematize traditionalism in the Igbo clan. With a feminist slant, his narrativity (which sometimes even his narrator is explicitly unaware of) urges us to dissect traditions and reconstruct them into more progressive structures – on either side of the cultural divide.

The narrative’s aim is to merge two people’s traditions, but it doesn’t reach that aim, alluding to the further work society needs to do. Things Fall Apart was published in 1958, and we’ve had sixty-four years to work out a way forward together. Yet circumstances in our current socio-political climate – from traditionalism to racism – are disappointingly similar to the ones in the novel.

4. John Fowles’s The Collector

I’d never understood the idea of a haunting text, because I’d never experienced a text that haunts me. That is, until I read The Collector. The text creates the feeling that there’s a supernatural presence hovering over me. It seems to live through all the characters, yet none of them. It certainly doesn’t die when I close the book. Perhaps this presence is the spectre of existentialism in excess. The text opens many doors of enquiry, without shutting them. I’d say this technique alludes to the unanswered questions of life’s meaning and purpose.

Miranda’s quest to define and become a real artist ends empty-handedly. Her hours of self-reflection that she writes in a diary, get buried in a chest and locked in an cellar by someone who’ll never read or understand them. But that’s a sub-plot which deals with individuals’ searches for meaning and purpose. There’s also a macro comment on the meaninglessness of classism. Fowles problematizes various ideological alliances as engendering hypocrisy and self-ignorance. Having sketched the problem with classist ideologies, The Collector also poses the question of whether it’s possible to become completely free of the identity we form as result of the class we are born into. It does all this, but I only realized that much later, because it still haunts me. The ghost takes shape over time as it hovers in the corner, insisting that it’s alive.

5. Poetry of Jonathan Swift and Lady Mary Montagu

Both of these figures are prominent satirists from the eighteenth century, and the poetry we looked at is a specific satirical exchange. It’s like today’s rap battles. Penning the scatological, as in earwax, snot, and excrement, Swift suggests that women are disgusting under their makeup and perfume, as if he’d got up close to a woman for the first time. In response, Montagu writes that the reason Swift wrote that poem is because he couldn’t get it up when he visited a prostitute and realized that she’s human. Montagu ends with a bang by having her character say, “I’m glad you’ll write. / You’ll furnish paper when I shite”. In other words, she says: yes, I do indeed defecate, and I’ll wipe my buttocks with your work. Well! that severed my ignorant assumption that all poetry is concerned with Romantic notions of elevated sensibility, nature, or sentiment.

So, is it any wonder that these poems take the fifth spot on my list by order of impact? I saw an eighteenth-century rap battle about poop and prostitution. It was so impactful that it spurred me to take the eighteenth-century module in second-year. In coming across these poems, I learned that – thanks to cheap print in the eighteenth-century which engendered wider public reading – this era was the birth of popular culture as we think of it today. Of course I wanted to learn the origin story of popular culture.

6. James Joyce’s, “The Dead”

This short story also haunts me. Not because it creates the feeling of a supernatural presence, but because the representation of the protagonist is imbedded in his every gesture and interaction with other characters – even the most minor ones. There are so many layers of meaning in each moment of the narrative, that unravelling it takes days. The discovery of its meaning is what haunts me. The fact that meaning lies in every action, every image, and every word choice, is what led me to see the formal mechanics of modernism. It draws attention to the wordy membrane through which meaning is expressed.

The wordy membrane in ‘The Dead’ also employs free indirect discourse that absorbs the voices of the characters while staying an objective narrator. This bolsters its status as a modernist text, because the free indirect discourse highlights the narrativity. Of course, the content of ‘The Dead’ critiques various socio-political issues, which is a feature of modernism. I’m more interested in its formal properties though. I suspect it’s because, thinking about the function of the diction opened me up to a way of reading that I’d never done before. Thinking about word choices isn’t just about thinking, ‘Ah, good word.’ It’s about looking at them in their context and considering the purpose they serve. Now, having seen modernism at work makes me think that I’m in on a little jargon. So, perhaps this short story haunts me because of the days’ worth of meaning it carries, or perhaps it haunts me because I’ll never forget my first.

7. Ursula Le Guin’s “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction”

Just to be clear, everything on this list is a strong contender. It saddens me that this essay is only number seven. Le Guin makes a compelling argument in a deliciously satirical tone. The target of her hyperbolic portrayals is the patriarchal ideology that believes a battle to be the strongest metaphor for a novel. Instead, she suggests that a feminist and more inclusive metaphor for the novel is the carrier bag. Stay with me…

To do this, she starts by referencing the famous jump cut from Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The scene in reference depicts the first murder by Sapiens being committed using a bone. In this instance, the narrative told by men is that humankind’s first tool was a bone, with which they hunted and murdered. But Le Guin points out that this narrative ignores the mothers who stayed at home to nurse the baby. Instead of hunting, these women were gathering. Of course, they needed something to store their wild oats, so they invented the carrier bag, basket, or some sort of container. So, the battle and container being metaphors for novels, do two different things. The former is a story of conquering, which is typically a man’s story; while the latter is a bag full of human experiences that can belong to anyone, including a woman.

Being a woman myself, this essay is (for want of a less hackneyed word) empowering. Manly metaphors are so entrenched in our language, that I must often assume the identity of a man, to apply the metaphor (or another literary device) to myself. Le Guin’s essay reminds me that we can critique problematic metaphors and propose more inclusive ones, to achieve more harmonious modes of existing.

8. Charles Dickens’s Hard Times

Dickens’s caricatures of people who try to enforce utilitarianism animate this novel. While his exaggerated renderings of them foreground his critique (and are rather amusing), he drives his argument with the ironic logic of their rules. Almost every time they try to apply their utilitarian philosophy (which is constantly), they contradict themselves. It’s pitifully funny.

I say pitiful because these characters are victims of a societal structure – they’re just being good citizens. But their contradictions problematize the utilitarian need to quantify human nature and human problems. You just can’t. There are too many variables to any given human circumstance to accurately measure them.

Moreover, the variables in question can be drastically different: when each is approached from a different angle, the precedence one takes over the other changes. For instance, you might say that a straightforward way to quantify a human life is by its monetary contribution to society. How then, can you say that a fifty-five-year-old successful entrepreneur is more valuable to society than a jobless pregnant woman? Perhaps that unborn child will be a genius who finds the cure for cancer. Or not. But we won’t know if we discard her based on her job status, which might be a logical outcome of a utilitarian ideology.

These are my thoughts when reading Hard Times (and participating in the lecture and seminar accompanying it – which are great for guiding my thinking and expanding my perspective). And thinking about my thoughts, I’m starting to notice a trend in this list. These texts are impactful when they’re compelling to read, and the theory or history attached to them chugs a train of thought. I do like to think, which makes studying literature a pleasure.

9. John Gardner’s Grendel

The reception of this novel is a fascinating feat of irony. Critics praise its masterful existentialism, which is actually what Gardner tries to present as monstrous. Well, I’m on the critics’ side when I read this.

Grendel’s (the monster’s) absurdist visions persuade me of the poetic slant of an existential outlook. I get it when he says that the bard’s embellished tales of the king’s war victories are lies. The bard presents these wars as virtuous achievements, but what are wars really for? Greed and pride, is my answer. So it’s refreshing to find my sympathies with a monster. See, I didn’t know Gardner’s argument when I first read it. But when I found it out in the lecture, Grendel assumed an extra layer of meaning. Not to mention the meaning Gardner already gives it by giving a voice to the monster in Beowulf.

Gardner’s reimagining the aggrandized Anglo-Saxon poem with a warlike tone, in an existential novel from the viewpoint of Beowulf’s monster, is poetic in itself. For someone who, by force of habit, associates poetry with Romanticism, I sure see a lot of poetry in Grendel. Perhaps it’s because, when the Romantics wrote about nature, they often highlighted its sublime power, which diminishes the perceiver’s own sense of purpose. When confronted with the majesty of a gigantic waterfall, you begin to question what your life’s pursuits are really for.

This is the effect that Grendel has on me, which, funnily enough, is the opposite of what Gardner wanted (he says so himself).

10. Emma Rice’s production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night

This lively production is, by The Globe’s standards, irreverent. I wouldn’t call it irreverent because I believe that it’s much closer to the style of productions that Shakespeare put on in his day, than the serious ‘comedies’ The Globe usually produces. Remember, Shakespeare was popular culture. His work is fraught with sexual innuendoes, when you look closely enough.

Emma Rice reimagines today’s equivalent of this Shakespeare comedy, with queer readings of characters, a racially diverse cast, and a narrator in drag. Of course, her actors also enacted the subtext – which is an ocean of sexual innuendoes. With this production, Emma Rice brings me to see the comedy in Shakespeare’s comedy. I’ll be honest, reading them, and trying to decipher them, draws the fun out of them.

So, this production – still in the original script – enlivens Twelfth Night and crams it with energy. Unfortunately, the board removed Emma Rice from The Globe theatre, on account of her tone, but luckily, she left us with this gold nugget.

There you have it: the cultural rollercoaster that YSJU put me on last year. I read and watched the widest array of texts I could have imagined.

Some notable texts that didn’t make it onto this list are the Medieval alliterative poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the Early Modern poetry of Lady Mary Wroth. While they’re rich with substance, I suspect the reason they didn’t make the cut because their perspectives are too insular for my taste. Before cheap print became available in the eighteenth century, literature was written by and for nobility and priests, who have a limited view of society. Self-interest in isolation (which includes love affairs and chivalrous knights’ quests to prove themselves honourable) just isn’t my game.

As you might have deduced from my list, I engage more with texts that critique socio-political issues in interesting ways. On that note, I hope these reviews gave you something to think about, even if it’s just to ponder the reason for having such an eclectic mix of literary taste.

The Tempest completes the York Shakespeare Project with YSJ student as Miranda

3 white people dressed in white, one young, one middle-aged and one older person hold a bush of rosemary corresponding with their age.
Publicity image for The Tempest by the York Shakespeare Project.

York Shakespeare Project’s The Tempest is touring around North and East Yorkshire between Sept 23rd and Oct 1st 2022, culminating with a special performance at The York Theatre Royal. Book your tickets here.

20 years after YSP began its mission to put on all of Shakespeare’s plays “within the boundaries of the City of York”  it marks the end of this ambitious project with its final production, The Tempest. Directed by Philip Parr, who is also artistic director of the York International Shakespeare Festival, it draws on the talents of “local amateur actors, stage managers, technicians, costume and prop makers”, including our very own Effie Warboys in a leading role as Miranda, Prospero’s daughter. Effie, a third year Creative Writing student, took our Shakespeare: Perspectives module last year. Now she is about to make her stage debut on the mainstage of the York Theatre Royal.

“Taking part in the York Shakespeare Project has been beyond a dream,” she said.  “Playing

a white girl looks up at an old white man. She is seated, he is standing. Actors sit on chairs behind them holding scripts
In rehearsal: Effie warboys (right) and Paul French (left

Miranda, Prospero’s daughter, has meant more to me than I could have ever imagined it would, especially with such a strong and talented cast around me.” 

Philip Parr explains how important it had been to get the casting of Miranda right: “The York Shakespeare Project had a desire for the actor who plays Miranda to be younger than the project – so, like Effie, to be born after the year 2000.”

I asked Effie what The Tempest was about for her.

 She explained that “The Tempest as a show is one about mystery and about family, both loving and dysfunctional, and really about community as a whole – which is what the York Shakespeare Project has also always been about.”

The director, Philip, has a long relationship with community theatre, both in the UK and in continental Europe, which was why he was the ideal choice to direct this “last play”.

“Inclusivity is really important to me and to the York Shakespeare Project,” he said. “Anyone who has previously been in a YSP project was able to be in this final project”. There are many familiar faces for local people, but also new talent, on stage and behind the scenes.
“This production of The Tempest  is celebratory,” he continued “It asks important political questions such as who has the right to own land, but it also explores themes of reconciliation and our own self-awareness which is at the heart of Shakespeare’s work.”
 

The production will be going on tour across North and East Yorkshire prior to a final performance at York Theatre Royal on Saturday 1st October. 

Friday 23rd September – Thorganby Village Hall – Tickets on sale now

Saturday 24th September (matinee) – Strensall and Towthorpe Village Hall – Tickets on sale now

Saturday 24th September (evening) – Strensall and Towthorpe Village Hall – Tickets on sale now

Tuesday 27th September – Helmsley Arts Centre – Tickets on sale now

Wednesday 28th September – Selby Town Hall  – Tickets on sale now

Thursday 29th September – The Junction, Goole – Tickets on sale now

Friday 30th September – Acomb Parish Church Hall – Tickets on sale now

Saturday 1st October – York Theatre Royal – Tickets on sale now

Cast and crew

David Denbigh, Sonia Di Lorenzo, Henry Fairnington, Jodie Fletcher, Nell Frampton, Paul French, Tony Froud, Emily Hansen, David Harrison, Bronte Hobson, Judith Ireland, Andrew Isherwood, Helen Jarvis, Nick Jones, Stuart Lindsay, Aran Macrae, Michael Maybridge, Sally Maybridge, Sally Mitcham, Andrea Mitchell, Fiona Mozley, Harold Mozley, Janice Newton, Megan Ollerhead, Tracy Rea, Eleanor Royse, Emma Scott, Phyl Smith, Sadie Sorensen, Julie Speedie, Lara Stafford, Harry Summers, Lisa Valentine, Sam Valentine, Effie Warboys, Jacob Ward

Director: Philip Parr   Associate Director: Terry Ram

Stage Managers: Janice Newton, David Harrison

Musical Director: Nick Jones

 

MA in Contemporary Literature at YSJU

Our MA

Have you been considering postgraduate study in English Literature? If so, places are still available on York St John’s MA in Contemporary Literature – one of only a small number of specialist courses in the UK to focus exclusively on literature of the very recent past (2000-present). The course can be completed part-time over one year or full-time over two, and is taught exclusively through evening seminars that allow you maximum flexibility to study while you work.

Help With Fees

Generous incentives are available to York St John graduates to continue their studies on the course. If you completed your studies in 2022 with a 1st-class degree from YSJU, you can receive a progression scholarship equating to a 50% reduction in your fee; if you received a 2.1, a 35% reduction applies; and if you received a 2.2 you can receive a 25% reduction. This means that you can complete a cutting-edge degree in a highly topical subject area, taught by familiar course tutors, for as little as £3500.

The Degree

The course focuses on twenty-first century literature, placing very recent texts in their social, political, cultural and formal contexts and emphasising how they speak to us about ‘the now’. Topics include:

  • The aesthetics and politics of global warming;
  • Literature, equality and justice;
  • Embodiment and speculative fiction.

How To Apply

We are accepting students onto the course until 7th October and York St John graduates enjoy a simplified application process which allows them to continue their studies seamlessly without a need for formal references. Please note that progression scholarships are only available for continuing students, so to take advantage of the reduction in fees detailed above, you will need to apply to enter the course this year.

Apply now for full-time or part-time study or, for more information, email MA coordinator Alex Beaumont. If you would like to hear more, Alex will be holding an online Q&A session next Thursday 22nd September at 17:00. To register for this session, just complete the form here.

The Ghosts of York in “Slow Down Arthur, Stick to Thirty”

 

Image of Harland Miller

Over the past few months Level 6 student (and soon to be graduate!) Leah Figiel has been working as a Student Research with Drs Zoe Enstone and Adam J Smith on their ‘Reading York in Literature’ Project. In this post, Leah discusses a novel she found particularly interesting, Harland Miller’s Slow Down Arthur, Stick to Thirty, and reflects on the experience of reading a novel about York after studying for three years at YSJU.


I recall the first time that I visited York. It was for an open day at York St. John University. As I stepped into the city centre, I knew that I had to live here. I felt like I was entering a time capsule, surrounded by history. It was the perfect place to capture my imagination, where the dead are revived and the past smashes into the present. With visual cues of its Viking and Roman past, Jorvik and Eboracum respectively, it is no wonder that York seemed to be the perfect place to write freely.

Three years later, and I still sit next to the ruins of St. Mary’s Abbey in the sun, as I time travel into the past. Many other people share this sentiment too, with the city becoming the setting for historical fiction such as Susanna Gregory’s Mystery in the Minster, as well as the popular TV series Gentleman Jack.

Slow Down Arthur, Stick to Thirty

After being immersed in the ancient history of York for some time, it felt different to read York in modern history, fictionalised by the novel Slow Down Arthur, Stick to Thirty by local artist Harland Miller. Set in the 80s, the novel describes how Kid Glover returns to his home city, after the death of his uncle, who he was working for in Scotland. Interestingly, Miller uses York’s ancient Roman name, Eboracum, throughout the text. This adds a surreal element to the novel, emphasising how the city is a step apart from concrete reality, instead founded on myths and stories. Amidst the backdrop of the miners’ strikes and the Yorkshire Ripper, Kid befriends charming David Bowie impersonator, Ziggy Hero.

Infused with the myths and legends that surround the Roman city, Kid forges his own relationship with Eboracum. 

Re-Reading York/Eboracum

After reading Slow Down Arthur, I walk through York with a new perspective, listening to the wailing of ghosts in cramped pubs with crooked floors. Graves litter the city randomly, letters faintly inscribed on the eroding limestone. I can just about make out what they say. Around the corner, I can grab a pasty from Greggs, and watch carefully to see if any skeletal hands break out of the ground. The headstones lie propped up against the wall, like a near-empty glass bottle on a Sunday morning. Everywhere you walk, traces of the bodies that once populated York remain, as bizarre memento mori.

Similarly to these graves, death follows Kid wherever he goes, the residual energy of Eboracum’s residents refusing to leave. Just from a mention of a street in York, Kid’s dad uncovers York’s gory past, as he explains how: 

Blossom Street, the main approach of the city, was, in Roman times, lined with the mutilated bodies of criminals and traitors, their heads displayed on long spikes between the trees. The heavy scent of blossom contended with but couldn’t prevail over the stench of rotting flesh, and the gutters would be awash with traitor’s blood (68). 

         

 I see the street where I went to the Everyman to watch The Green Knight differently now, the pink blossom leaves sinking to the bottom of puddles of blood. The dual context within this book is even more harrowing. York in the 80s, as it stands today, is haunted by its Roman remains. However, there was also the horror of the Yorkshire Ripper, which changed the atmosphere within York, as Kid observes: 

I saw myself as I must have appeared to her, a shadowy male figure lighting a cigarette, with perhaps a slightly sinister tilt to the head, half-hidden behind cupped hands (51). 

 For many women, their home in York was a site of terror instead of safety. Not too long before the year in which this novel was set, Reclaim the Night marches began in Leeds and spread through the country, in protest against curfews imposed on women following the Yorkshire Ripper cases. Kid realises that he appears monster-like to the woman, his male body a sign of terror. For women during the era of the Yorkshire Ripper, death tainted the streets, in tandem with the ghostly presence that lingers in York. 

York As Archive

The double bind of Roman Eboracum and 80s York when we read Slow Down Arthur… shows just how much of an archive York really is. A bit like Dr. John Kirk’s house, York is a collection of knick-knacks, all criss-crossing in time, coexisting in one space. This aligns well with Professor Michael Sheringham and renowned artist Richard Wentworth’s vision of the city as an archive, envisioning this as a ‘dynamic process, restless motion, [and has] multiple chronologies and levels of meaning’ (519).

Contrary to the belief of Kid’s friend, Baz, Eboracum is not ‘old’. Like a palimpsest manuscript which has been scrubbed clean and written over, Eboracum is ever shifting, with layers of chronology intersecting with one another.

This chimes well with how  Michel Foucault believed the archive to be ‘at once close to us, and different from our present existence, it is the border of time that surrounds our presence, which overhangs it, and which indicates it in its otherness; it is that which, outside ourselves, delimits us’ (130). I believe that this definition best describes the essence of what York is. The Roman walls of York visually surround us. It is fascinating because it has stood the test of time –  it shouldn’t exist but has done so nonetheless.

On one hand York is the archive– is it a space where the history as a linear concept crumbles, and history is less a line, and more a mosaic. But within Slow Down Arthur, Miller looks deeper into how York presents a narrative of its history. Albeit in a non-linear way, the environment of York is a representation of its myths and legends collated through history. A great example of this is when Kid Glover observes the capitalisation on figures such as Dick Turpin, when he describes:

the replica of Dick Turpin gallows, on the very spot where Turpin had been hanged for horse rustling. The rest of the drag was dominated by the hanging theme: an off-license called Dick’s Offy, the Black Bess pub, Turpin Taxis, the Stand-and-Deliver take-away (51).

       These comically named services all provide a narrative written about York, and re-package myths that are brought into relevance within the 1980s, and again to the early 2000s, and again as I read this now. The ‘Stand-and-Deliver take-away’ not only creates images of Dick Turpin’s presence in York, but also recalls the 1981 hit ‘Stand and Deliver’ by Adam and the Ants, written about Dick Turpin (brilliant song, by the way). Even now, I can see the commercialisation of historical narratives within York. You can have a pint at the Guy Fawkes Inn, take a ride through the replica of Jorvik’s Viking village, or go on a walking Ghost Tour after the sun has set. York functions as historical fiction itself, if we use Professor Jerome de Groot’s idea that ‘[f]undamental to the encounter with the historical text is the desire for a wholeness of representation that understands that the text is fundamentally a representation’ (8). The replicas that exist within York contribute to developing a mythological narrative, embodied further by Miller’s novel. 

What I realised through reading this novel, was that York undoes the idea of history as a linear narrative. I look on to the musket holes fired within the Civil War which leaves traces upon the Roman City Walls. St. Mary’s Abbey stands in ruins after the dissolution of the monasteries, its charred walls remain. Each place cites a catastrophe, which has left bodies who haunt these sites today.

York captures the imagination of historical fiction because of its archival relevance. It precedes boundaries and breaks linearity, which makes it all the more captivating to write about. After visiting York Art Gallery a few months ago, I purchased a postcard print of Harland Miller’s “York, So Good They Named It Once”. The humorous title says it all: Jorvik, Eboracum, York. These titles all fold within one another, documenting the same place. 

MY FAVOURITE PLACES IN YORK…

  • St. Mary’s Abbey/ Museum Gardens: Easily my favourite place in York – you would not expect this to be situated near the train station. It is incredible to think about the scale of the Abbey, before Henry VIII burned most of it down and ransacked it for gold.
  • York Castle Museum: Although the prisons are very chilling, the York Castle Museum exhibits all sorts, from an entire Victorian Street (Kirkgate), to dresses from the 60s and Dick Turpin’s prison cell, which is (surprisingly) quite spacious.
  • Homestead Park: I only discovered this recently, when I decided to wander further down the River Ouse than I usually do. The park was opened by Seebohm Rowntree, who was a pivotal social reformer throughout the late 19th and mid 20th century. Like the Museum Gardens, this seems set apart from the city centre, with vibrant flowers blooming throughout the year.

Find out more about the ‘Reading York in Literature Project’ here.

WORKS CITED:

Foucault, Michel. “The historical a priori and the archive: Part III: The Statement and the Archive”. The Archaeology of Knowledge, translated by A.M. Sheridan Smith, Sixth Edition, Routledge, 1994, pp. 126-134. 

Groot, Jerome de. “Introduction: Perverting history”. Remaking History: The past in contemporary historical fictions, First edition, Routledge, 2016, pp. 1-10.

Miller, Harland. Slow Down Arthur, Stick to Thirty, Second edition, Fourth Estate, 2001.

Sheringham, Michael, and Richard Wentworth. “City as Archive: A Dialogue between Theory and Practice.” Cultural Geographies, vol. 23, no. 3, 2016, pp. 517–23. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/26168749. Accessed 5 Jun. 2022.

#YSJBigSummerRead VOTING NOW OPEN!

VOTE HERE!

Every year “Words Matter” (the Literature Blog at York St John University) hosts the #YSJBigSummerRead, in which anyone who wants can join us in reading the same book! 

This year #YSJBigSummerRead will take place between  25 July – 5 September. Everyone is welcome to get involved. All you need to do is get the book and share your thoughts and experiences reading it on social media using #YSJBigSummerRead (and please do feel free to tag us directly using @YSJLIT). 

The texts below have been nominated by our followers, and now you are invited to vote for which one you’d most like to read this summer! This year’s #YSJBigSummerRead will then be announced on 21 July, giving you just enough time to grab a copy before the Read begins on 25 July. 

Taylor Jenkins Reid, Daisy Jones and The Six (2019)

Robert Adams, Plague Dogs (1977)

Alison Rumfitt, Tell Me I’m Worthless (2021)

Kiley Reid, Such a Fun Age (2019)

Yaa Gyasi, Homecoming (2016)

Kirsty Capes, Careless (2022)

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (1963)

Hannah Bourne-Taylor, Fledgling (2022)

 

Northern Broadsides’ As You Like It: A Depiction of Trans-Queer Feminism Through the Casting of Rosalind, by Blythe Roberts

In March this year, students on the Shakespeare: Perspectives module went to see The Northern Broadsides production of As You Like It, directed by Laurie Sansom.  Second year student Blythe Roberts reflects on how this production speaks to 21st century ideas of gender and sexuality.

York Theatre Royal, 24th March 2022, Main Stage.

Two women embrace, one dressed in a feminine fasion, one in a masculine fashion
Image 1: Rosalind’s enforced female identity as a form of oppression (Billington, “Rosalind and Celia”)

Through casting a non-binary actor, E M Williams, to play Rosalind, Laurie Sansom’s As You Like It rejects patriarchal constructions of gender and sexuality. A trans-queer interpretation of the play is depicted through Rosalind’s journey of self-discovery, exploring possibilities beyond the female identity enforced upon them, concluding the play with Rosalind’s identification as non-binary. This interpretation creates a radical opposition to the patriarchy, as Rosalind’s rejection of gender constructs creates a liberating queer space where they are no longer confined within patriarchal structures.

Sansom, together with trans-disciplinary artist and designer E M Parry, conveys this trans-queer interpretation through costumes and performance of gender, depicting Rosalind’s trans-journey. In the rigid patriarchal structures of the court, Rosalind’s identity as a woman is presented as a form of oppression (see Image 1). Once Rosalind is alone with Celia, they abruptly conclude their performance of ‘femininity’, using the act of disrobing as a rejection of the identity of an oppressed woman. Sansom uses this refusal to become oppressed within a patriarchal society as the incentive behind Rosalind’s fleeing into the woods and disguising as a man. Continue reading “Northern Broadsides’ As You Like It: A Depiction of Trans-Queer Feminism Through the Casting of Rosalind, by Blythe Roberts”

“Returning” by Andrea Woodward

A white woman with long blond hair smiles at the camera
(c) Andrea Woodward

Andrea Woodward is a York St John English Literature PhD candidate. Andrea, who started her HE journey at 30, could have taken a very different path in life. Here she reflects on her experiences as a returning student, recalling the day as an undergraduate when she thought she would give it all up – and why she didn’t!

I first came to York St John as an undergraduate student in English Literature in 2006. I was 30 years old.

As a mature student who’d spent 15 years out of full-time education, I quickly felt overwhelmed and more than a bit out of place. Those classmates who’d arrived fresh out of college seemed to radiate knowledge in seminars, knowledge that my first essay results suggested to me I didn’t have. After several weeks into the first semester, I felt it would be for the best if I withdrew from the course, believing that I’d never succeed. Continue reading ““Returning” by Andrea Woodward”

New Event: research seminar on Speculative Worldbuilding & Hope

Please join us in person for a special lunchtime research seminar at 1pm on 8 June 2022 in QS/111.

 

Futuristic Worldbuilding: Speculation and Hope in Contemporary Turkey

Assoc Prof Dr Emrah Atasoy, Visiting Postdoctoral Researcher at University of Oxford.

This talk will introduce scholarship on speculative fiction in Turkey and give a contextual survey of the tradition of entangled futurities and speculative worldbuilding in contemporary Turkey. Discussion of the selected primary text will reveal the portrayal of hope, environmental breakdown, and speculation in the Anthropocene.

This interdisciplinary event will be of interest across the humanities and social sciences, including sociology, history, geography, and politics/IR.

Hope to see you all there!

Making Time to Take Time For Yourself by Lily Baldanza

Lily Baldanza is a final year undergraduate student who was writing on Daphne Du Maurier’s Revolutionary Women for her dissertation (now submitted). She took a break from her research to tell us about the importance of taking time to focus on wellbeing. These are self-care tips. If you feel that you need wellbeing or mental health support, please contact our lovely Wellbeing team here

Pink water lilies and green lily pads on a po

Lily Days.

With my dissertation date in very short sight and my last two undergraduate assessments in a month’s time, it is more important than ever to give myself time off. Time off from my laptop, time off from my set texts and time off from the stress and worry of being a university student. However, with deadlines approaching and having commitments to part time work, finding the time can seem daunting. It’s why one day every week I give myself a ‘me’ day: a ‘lily’ day. I get ready to have a day doing whatever I want to do, and whatever my body needs. This is a day where I take pleasure in doing things that I enjoy. Continue reading “Making Time to Take Time For Yourself by Lily Baldanza”