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.
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.
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.