We’ve got our next open meeting this Wednesday (20th November), 7pm in the Bar Billards Room, Golden Ball in Bishophill.
Will be discussing how to develop further our timeline of York’s radical pasts (which we started at the Clement’s Hall local history day), our project on ‘how decisions about heritage’ are made in York, our radical take on the 1WW commemorations, our next York social talk and much, much more… Hope to see you there!
York has an official history. You can see it in our museum displays, on the plaques on the city¹s walls and in the Visit York advertising. This York is a place of Romans, Vikings and Railways, of benevolent Quaker employers, of lovely medieval streets and of chocolate and tea shops. But we know there are many other Yorks and many other histories.
To explore ‘York’s History From Below’ this workshop will ask three questions:
· Which histories does York remember? Does the ‘official history’ hold dangers for York as a city today?
· Which histories should we remember?
· How can we change York’s public histories? How might more plural sense of York’s history lead to a more inclusive and equal city today?
York’s Alternative History is a group of local people aiming to ‘put the politics’ in York’s histories and heritage. We are interested in radical histories of York and interested in the political implications of how York manages its ‘heritage’ today.
Trying to get to grips with the historical, social and psychological construction of any sort of identity is difficult enough: almost impossible in the case of that slippery customer ‘Englishness’. Nick Smith set us neatly on our way on 30 September at the Golden Ball with a useful tripartite approach. This was the second of the joint meetings with ‘York Social Ideas’ led by York Alternative History.
After a short survey of the way in which the EDL tries to construct their idea of what constitutes being English by referencing back to some strange misreading of events in the early medieval period, Nick went on to deconstruct the wider concept of identity formation. The main content of his talk was an explanation of how a version of what constitutes ‘English’ was created as part of moves by the rulers of Wessex to assert hegemony over the vast variety of different groups that then inhabited what became eventually defined geographically as England. It was created in cultural opposition to what was considered foreign and had to be fought or held at bay: the Welsh, the Vikings, and so on. No mean feat to go through all this in less than half an hour.
There followed a long and wide-ranging discussion lasting the best part of an hour, though in the nature of things it was hard to come to any other conclusion than that the whole idea of any ‘nationality’ continues to be elusive the closer you look. It seems to have to do with a felt need to assert difference, which may or may not be inclusive or exclusive or perfectly neutral, depending on the social and psychological factors behind the ‘need’. The role of the State and its ruling class has, historically, been a great deal more important in hardening the edges of national identities than any presumed cultural or linguistic factors. In the creation of these identities there seems to be a complex interaction between generally benign cultural differentials and the activities of specific interest groups (political, commercial, psychotic) seeking to use these for some other purpose.
Well done Nick for such a good introduction to the subject and well done to those who came along for their often profound contributions to the discussion. A very civilised, entertaining and illuminating evening!
Watch out for other York Social events on their website and keep track of York Alternative History’s ongoing efforts, as well as out next foray with York Social in about three months’ time.
Readers of this blog might like to check out ‘The Many Headed Monster’ website, especially the tab ‘History from Below’. Here you will find a host of articles coming from a new wave of historians reconnecting with the radical tradition in history-making in fascinating and critical new ways. No review from me, just check it out for yourselves. Great stuff!
There will be no open meeting during August. The next one is scheduled for Wednesday 25 September, so pencil it in your diaries and watch out for the notice.
Meanwhile, various things are being organised. On Monday, 30 September at the Golden Ball from 7.30 there will be the next joint meeting organised by York Alternative History and York Social. Nick Smith will be leading a discussion on ‘A History of Englishness’. It will look at how and why England was created as a kingdom/country; the political motivation, spin, propaganda and creation myths that established England and what it means to be English. He will link this to how nationalist groups use these ideas from the early Middle Ages. If you have been watching the recent series on TV about ‘King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons’, this will be a fascinating alternative view.
On 17 October, there will be an Anti-Slavery Film Evening. Put that date in your diary and watch out for more information.
Some time in the autumn, there will be a new initiative that will get us out into the public domain in a high profile way. We will be involved in a project that will critically engage the public in thinking about York and how ‘Heritage’ affects the city and its people. Watch this space for further announcements. This will give us the chance to challenge the ‘authorised heritage discourse’.
Two big things for autumn 2014. We are helping out with events to do with the commemorations of the ‘Great War’ that was supposed to end all wars and in fact laid the foundations for most of the ones ever since. On our own efforts we will also be doing something similar to only different from our Luddite event last January: we will be looking at the way Guy Fawkes has been characterised through ‘heritage’ and used by the activist movements in recent years.
The next open meeting of York’s Alternative History will be at the Golden Ball, Cromwell Road, York on Wednesday 24 July from 7 to 9 pm. You are all welcome!
During the past week, the Rowntree Foundation, the York Press and the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, have each drawn attention to the poverty and hardship that underlies and, through high rents and low pay, underpins the superficial prosperity of the City. York continues its transition from a manufacturing centre to a twin-track economic structure in which a low-paid sector provides services to tourism, finance and a high-tech and academic elite. As factories close, cafes and restaurants seem to mushroom.
Much of this false economy, which includes the East Coast Main Line commuters attracted to live here while working in London, exploits a fanciful and skewed interpretation of York’s historic fabric. What is superficially entertaining and good to look at is foregrounded, while submerging and ignoring the ordinary people of York and their experience – not just in the past, but equally in the present and in formulating policies for the future.
Challenging this ‘chocolate-box’ version of York’s past is what YAH is all about. We campaign about history and heritage in parallel with other forms of social and cultural activism. How the past is presented is part of today’s social problems and the prevalent inequality. We are planning events for more than a year ahead and welcome new ideas to help us shape our agenda and make our small voice louder and more colourful. Help us plan this year how to challenge the way Guy Fawkes is presented and next year how the ‘Great War’ to end all wars is going to be commemorated. Help us devise a programme of public talks, events and interventions. See you on Wednesday!
Those readers who followed our events in January to commemorate the execution of 17 Luddites at York Castle 200 years before, will remember Alan Brooke. He was one of our speakers during the afternoon discussion at the Guildhall and, dressed dapperly in early 19th century dress, added a splash of colour to our commemorative event at the Castle, along with his comrades. If you are alert to the mass media, you may have heard him eloquently represent the Luddite cause on Radio 4 (Looking for the Luddites) and on BBC TV (Nick Crane’s programme on Huddersfield in his Town series).