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.

International Women’s Day 2022

 

#BreakTheBias

Happy International Women’s Day! 

This year’s campaign theme is #BreakTheBias – find out more at the IWD website

 

To mark IWD, Dr Anne-Marie Evans is hosting an online event on Thursday 10th March with acclaimed playwright Ade Solanke. Ade will be talking about her play Phillis in London. The play explores the life of Phillis Wheatley – an enslaved woman – who was famously the first African-American woman to publish a book of poetry, and only the second American woman to do so. Find out more and book a ticket here.

You can also celebrate IWD2022 by calling into the Fountains Learning Centre to see their YSJ Women display, which  explores resources from our archives that provide a glimpse into the changing lives of female students over the years. 

“Take the Time to Smell the Roses”: Megan Sales discusses Mindfulness in this Busy World

Final year English Literature student Megan Sales shares her thoughts with us about managing stress.

A group of students sit at a table and discuss a problem
(c) York St John University

As a literature student, with an obvious love of books, it may seem odd when I tell you that I have never considered reading a ‘self-help’ book. I’ve spent my years with my head stuck in 18th and 19th century books, finding amusement in the way humans work – How much do we change? However, after an intriguing conversation with my Auntie, I found myself reading a psychology book and from there I have moved onto my current read Stress, the Psychology of Managing Pressure by Diane McIntosh. The book itself so far has been an interesting read. I personally love to find out how the mind works but even more than a basic interest, I have found this book genuinely helpful. Here is what I’ve learnt. Continue reading ““Take the Time to Smell the Roses”: Megan Sales discusses Mindfulness in this Busy World”

Top Ten Books Read at YSJU – by Charlotte Crawshaw, Class of 2020

I completed my BA in English Literature last year. I was one of the sub-editors for Words Matter during my time at the university, with my undergraduate graduation just around the corner (finally!), it feels like a great time to reflect on my time studying at York St John.

Since finishing my BA at York St John University I have completed an MA in Eighteenth-Century Studies at the University of York and I now work as a Research Intern with Elizabeth Montagu Correspondence Online. The texts that I studied during my three years of studying at YSJ had so much influence over the course I have taken after completing my degree, including my current job.

One of my favourite things about the texts that I studied during my degree was their diversity; I had the freedom to write about texts that interested me, as well as read texts I would have never even thought about before. I studied authors I’d never heard of before,  and forms of texts I’d never even imagined.

These top ten were so difficult to choose – over my three years at YSJ I studied so many different texts –  but I decided to go for those that left a lasting impact on my view of English Literature.

10. Charlotte Brontë, Shirley (1849)       

 I had always been a fan of Charlotte Brontë,  and growing up not far from her hometown I read a lot of the classic Brontë novels. I read Shirley as part of the “Sick Novels: Literature and Disease” module in my second year. It is a beautifully written novel with classic Brontë twists. It’s a great intersection between romance and something new; Brontë delves into the issues of women’s health and illness whilst drawing on many cultural anxieties about ‘punishment ‘ for certain behaviour choices. Brontë’s inclusion of these anxieties is what intrigued me the most in this novel.

9.  William Wordsworth, “Composed upon Westminster Bridge (1802)

 “Composed upon Westminster Bridge” was a poem we studied in second year, in the “Revolution and Response: British Literature 1740-1840”. The speaker of the poem is pondering on the views of London from Westminster Bridge, considering both its beauty and its power. Wordsworth’s vivid and detailed exploration of the city below is beautiful.  He draws upon ideas of community versus individuality, as well as nature versus industrialisation, and it is a poem which really stayed with me after reading it. Wordsworth also explores the impermanence of things – the city that the speaker is looking down upon in particular – creating a sense of reassurance for the reader.

8. Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year (1772)

 A Journal of the Plague Year was one of my first encounters with a piece of fiction that was presented as non-fiction. Of course, the events which unfold in this text are the events which occurred in 1665 during the plague. Defoe’s text tells the story with the voice of a man surviving through the bubonic plague outbreak in London, told in loosely chronological order, with incredibly specific details of neighbourhoods and individual houses. The legitimacy of Defoe’s account was speculated about for some time, until it was accepted in 1780 as a piece of fiction. This text stuck with me after studying it as it opened up a whole new genre of literature. It played quite a large role in my desire to study eighteenth-century literature.

7. Stephen King, Cujo (1981)

One of the more contemporary novels on this list, Stephen King’s Cujo is a classic thriller / psychological horror. Similar any Stephen King novel, it is a slow burner to begin with, with the threat looming in the background for a while before it strikes. I’d always been a huge King fan before beginning my degree, so I was thrilled to be studying this in the second year module “Sick Novels: Literature and Disease”. Cujo differs from other novels by King, as rather than a supernatural threat, such as Carrie’s telekinesis or Pennywise, the threat here (a rabid dog) is real, although exaggerated.

6. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper (1892)

This short story was a key text for the study and understanding of feminism and attitudes towards female mental health in the late nineteenth century. The short story follows an unnamed woman and her inner narrative as she describes the room her husband has locked her in, in order to aid her nervous disposition and “temporary nervous depression”. Gilman draws on the discourse of women’s subordination to their husbands, as well as the ignorance of the struggles of mental illness in women, often dismissed as hysteria. This is another text I think about often:  Gilman’s writing style is beautiful, in stark contrast to the content. 

5. John Milton, Paradise Lost (1667)

I’ll be perfectly honest, when I first read Paradise Lost I did not quite get it. It seemed convoluted, unnecessarily long and generally confusing. It was one of the first texts we studied, alongside texts such as The Metamorphoses and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I remember going home after my seminar on Paradise Lost and rereading it again. It was after this that I realised how much I enjoyed it. This epic poem concerns the Fall of Man, and conjures images of Satan, Beelzebub and Hell. The character of Satan is charming and charismatic, rather than evil and aggressive as he is usually portrayed in popular culture. The reason this text is in my top ten is because of how it turns a traditional story on its head, but also for the controversy it caused after its publication.

4. Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1995)

Another contemporary novel, Lolita follows the narrative story of a middle-aged literature professor “Humbert Humbert” and his gradually increasing sexual obsession with a twelve-year-old girl. Being narrated by the aggressor of the novel himself creates an unreliability to the story itself. The reader has to work out what is true and what is not, between Humbert’s manipulation of the young girl. Although difficult to read in many ways, Nabokov’s narrative style is unlike other authors’, and this was truly a great text to really read between the lines.

3. Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (1963)

The Bell Jar quickly became one of my favourite texts – ever. Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel follows the narration of Esther Greenwood and her descent into mental illness, along with her attempts of recovery which ultimately reflect Plath’s own struggles. Through this narrative Plath was able to express and explore her own struggles, as well as bring issues of women’s mental health to light. The Bell Jar is an incredibly emotional, thought-provoking novel which is why it’s so high on my list.

2. Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl (2012)

Gone Girl was a text we studied on the “Gender & Sexualities” module in third year. It was a popular choice due to the film adaptation in 2014 and is the most contemporary of my entire list. The unreliable narration from both Nick and Amy creates an immense amount of suspense and really makes the reader question who is telling the truth (most likely, neither). Neither Amy nor Nick is the ‘perfect’ protagonist:  both are flawed and even borderline psychopathic at points, Flynn creates a great chemistry between the two whilst also setting out a new concept – the “Cool Girl” in contemporary feminism.

1. Jonathan Swift, “A Beautiful Nymph Going to Bed” (1731)

If someone were to ask me what satire was in the eighteenth century, I would direct them towards this poem. Swift is unrelenting, brutal, and savagely satirical in this poem – and many other poems which follow later. The poem follows Corinna as she undresses in her dressing room and transforms from a beautiful young woman to an old worn-down shell of a woman. It has been argued that Swift is simply admiring the strength and determination of the woman to continue working despite her declining health, however it is more commonly accepted to be a scathing criticism of the deceptive nature of this woman – and perhaps all woman who engage in cosmetics to alter their appearance. This poem makes its mark on a reader, which earns it the top spot in my list since it began an interest in the study of the eighteenth century and satire which influenced much of my academic career from there on.

 

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)”

Meet Clara Barley and Hear About Her Work On Anne Lister, As Seen In Gentleman Jack

Yorkshire-based author Clara Barley has written both fiction and non-fiction about Anne Lister of Shibden Hall. Clara was inspired to write the novel through her work at Shibden Hall, and was also involved both behind the scenes and on camera with the Gentleman Jack TV series.

Continue reading “Meet Clara Barley and Hear About Her Work On Anne Lister, As Seen In Gentleman Jack”

Where are they now? YSJ alumni Philip Price on Literature at Work: Publishing

In order to begin explaining my life after the three years studying at York St. John University (2015-18), I first need to highlight some events which occurred over my three years as a YSJ undergraduate.

I chose English Literature as my BA subject at YSJ for only one reason: my passion for books. I knew from a young age a University degree was going to be almost mandatory for future success. I chose to study at YSJ for one simple reason: it felt like home. I travelled from my hometown a few miles outside of Norwich up to York and instantly fell in love with the campus. Besides the stunning architecture, I instantly believed that the tutors at YSJ cared for me as an individual rather than merely a student on the course.

In the second semester of my final year, the University offered a module, ‘Literature at Work,’ which allowed students to explore the many avenues of employment after taking an English Literature degree. Within this module, most weeks consisted of a lecture and Q&A from people working in employment from journalism to publishing. Prior to my final year at YSJ, I had very little idea as to where my academic career was leading me. Again, I knew I wanted to work with books; however, my in-depth knowledge of specific book-related sectors was almost non-existent.

David Barker, who worked with Continuum publishing, later to be purchased by publishing behemoth Bloomsbury, offered an extremely insightful lecture on life in the publishing world. I instantly fell in love with every element of the industry and truly believed I had finally worked out the next step of my academic career.

I spoke to David after the lecture and discovered he was a lecturer at the University of Derby, offering a Publishing MA. After visiting an open day at Derby, I was offered an unconditional offer on the course.  All of the events, from my initial conversation with David to the offer on the Publishing MA happened within a few months over early to late Spring 2018.

September 2018 saw the beginning of my MA at Derby. Throughout the first semester, I came to understand that without choosing YSJ, this opportunity may have never been offered to me. I have fallen in love with academia once again and now wish to pursue a career in Publishing after this semester. The MA offers students to create and engage with a ‘Major Project’ of their choice, where you must find and publish work of your choice (specifically written for the project). I decided to work with YSJ and their alumni in order to create a short anthology of work which can then be distributed to current and future YSJ students.

This piece has touched mostly on my academic life during and after my time at YSJ, but it would be unfair to leave without acknowledging the friendship and community which I have become a part of.  I have made friends with students who I now see as friends for life, alongside creating bonds with tutors who I know are always willing to help with anything I need, even after my transition from student to alumni.

‘Et in Arcadia ego’ – Reflections on Visiting Castle Howard

By Charlotte Stevenson

Each year, to accompany reading Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, third year students studying our Twentieth-Century Writing module visit the Brideshead of the screen, Castle Howard. Here Charlotte Stevenson reflects on her thoughts of the 2018 trip and her experience of reading Waugh’s novel.

Continue reading “‘Et in Arcadia ego’ – Reflections on Visiting Castle Howard”