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.

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”

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”

Reading and Re-Reading Jane Eyre, by third-year literature student Megan Sales

I bought my copy of Jane Eyre nearly twelve years ago. I distinctly remember buying the book from a charity shop. The cover intrigued me, and the raised eyebrows of the cashier followed with the comment it “may not be appropriate” for my age made me eager to read it.

A Passionate Heroine

The one thing I will forever love about this novel is Jane’s passion, her refusal to bow down to values she disagrees with. Throughout my studies I have continuously returned to this novel, The first time I was exploring the Gothic in the Brontë’s work, The second time I was considering Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea and their relationship to the literary canon. Continue reading “Reading and Re-Reading Jane Eyre, by third-year literature student Megan Sales”

YSJU Literature Research Showcase: What Are Our Tutors Up To in 2022? By Michaela Bosman

 

People talkingIn mid-March, YSJU’s Literature department holds its annual research showcase, in celebration of the scholars’ love of learning, reading, discovery, analysis and collaboration. While it might be disconcerting to share research when the world is literally on fire and families cross borders in desperation and in hope, Dr Anne-Marie Evans points us to the important work of literature to help us understand the world. And we can only improve the world if we understand it. Literature’s illumination of the state of society and the environment is one of the myriad ways that art is lifesaving. Let’s have a look at the understandings YSJU’s literary scholars are forging.    Continue reading “YSJU Literature Research Showcase: What Are Our Tutors Up To in 2022? By Michaela Bosman”

YSJ Lit Interview: Words Matter Prize Winner Katie Godfrey

Adam Kirkbride interviews Katie Godfrey the 2021 York St John Literature Words Matter Prize Winner. The Words Matter prize is given annually to the first year student with the highest marks across all modules. The prize represents our programme motto Words Matter, as a way of centring our philosophy that books and literature play a hugely important role in the world we all live in.

Book about studying literature at university on a table with a cup of teaKatie, what does this award mean to you?

As somebody who entered university after a large gap in education, and with very little confidence, this award has made the world of difference to me in terms of boosting my self-confidence and self-belief and reassuring me that my efforts are not wasted! 

 

What was it like completing your first year of study during the Pandemic? 

While this is probably not the anticipated response, I actually feel that the remote study during the pandemic enabled me to be more productive. I had already been working from home due to lockdown restrictions, so it was a pretty smooth transition for me. I also commute to university, so having the lectures and seminars online enabled me to save over three hours per day of travel, freeing up my time for reading and studying. Continue reading “YSJ Lit Interview: Words Matter Prize Winner Katie Godfrey”

Level 5 Research Refresher Event with Dr Adam J Smith and Katherine Hughes

 
Online Event, 2.30-3.30 Monday 7 March
Image of chairs, desks and shelves in a libraryThe Academic Library Liaison for Literature, Katherine Hughes, and Level 5 Coordinator for Literature, Adam J Smith, will be co-delivering a one hour ‘research refresher’ session 2.30-3.30 on Monday 7 March. They will recap everything you need to know to effectively conduct research for Literature assignments including the dissertation. 

Continue reading “Level 5 Research Refresher Event with Dr Adam J Smith and Katherine Hughes”

Dissertation Corner: Tia Clifford on Fairy Tales for Feminists

Recent graduate Tia Clifford sums up some of her dissertation ideas for us in this blogpost.

Fairy-tales: the term itself is attributed to Madame D’Aulnoy, a French writer who coined the term conte de fée in the 17th century (Zipes, P. 222- B).

Engraving of woman with arms folded
Dorothea Viehmann: a German storyteller and source for many tales collected and published by the Brothers Grimm

Oral fairy-tales, I contended in my dissertation, were often likely to have been told by women. Noticeably, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were given the title of “dignified scholars” after the publication of Children’s and Household Tales, their first revised fairy-tale collection for mass consumption in 1812; however, the lexis originally surrounding fairy-tales, prior to their appropriation by male writers, tended to be negatively gendered as “domestic art”, “women’s art” or “old wives’ tales” (Maria Tatar, P. XVI). I suggested that fairy-tales were initially a form of female rebellion against the patriarchal society oppressing women. Some fairy-tales acted as proto-feminist critiques of patriarchy, but they can also be viewed as survival manuals or as warnings by women for women regarding the dangers of a male-dominated society. In “Little Red Riding Hood”, for example, young girls learn that men are not always what they seem and that deviating from the socially accepted path will lead to danger. Continue reading “Dissertation Corner: Tia Clifford on Fairy Tales for Feminists”

The Top 10 Books Studied on English Literature! (According to a recent graduate) by Adam Kirkbride (he/him)

As we begin a new semester, and as some of us begin a new path in life as a university student, Adam Kirkbride reflects on his recent undergraduate studies and the books that inspired him:

This semester I began my MA in Contemporary Literature at York St John University, where I also studied for my BA in English Literature. I’ll be completing my MA on a part-time basis, so by the time I hand in my MA dissertation, I will have been at YSJ for five years.

So, I felt now was a good time to stop and reflect on my previous studies, and I’m writingToni Morrison author this down because it will help me to remember what I have learned in the years to come. Over the past three years the texts that I studied have helped to shape my views on literature, politics, representation and so much more. Reading is, in my opinion, the best way to educate or entertain yourself in an age of turmoil. And if I get to the end of writing this post without developing an overwhelming desire to read all of these books again, then I will be shocked!

The freedom and independence to pick and choose texts, topics, and modules on my degree was by far the feature that I enjoyed most. I rarely came across a text I disliked, and not once did I have to write about a text which truly bored me with no redeeming factors. Creativity and the study of literature go hand in hand, so it is important when reading to engage with texts that pique your interest and inspire originality. These ten books have nurtured my head and my heart throughout my degree, and I know that I am a better person for having read them. I can only hope that the texts I will read over the next two years will have the same impact on me. Continue reading “The Top 10 Books Studied on English Literature! (According to a recent graduate) by Adam Kirkbride (he/him)”