‘The walk was important because it showed there is not just one story of the city’: Reflections on York: A Walk on the Wild Side

Rebloggd from: York: Living with History

On 1st March we had our first York: A Walk on the Wild Side history walk led by local radical historian Paul Furness. As we have a second chance to catch the walk coming up on 5th April, I won’t ruin it by chucking in spoilers here but suffice to say the aim of the walk is to tell histories rarely publically shared and which unsettle any cosy notion of what York is. The tagline Paul and I came up with, when trying to capture this was: ‘Radical and raucous York: a place of protest and repression and a place to have a good time’. But without any revealing any secrets, I wanted to try and capture the very interesting informal discussions we had as we walked between stops and in the pub afterwards.

One of the first things one of the group said was that ‘it’s a really interesting walk because it felt like real stories, like history you can smell’. This led on the discussion about how little York’s history is taught in schools, with mention of teenagers who were born in York yet still don’t really know about railways and chocolate. As reflected in the title of this article, there was a strong sense that the importance of the walk lay in the idea that there ‘wasn’t just one narrative of the city’ and the way Paul had show how grounded and specific local histories where connected internationally.

Reflecting on the idea that York’s history gets dominated by certain greatest hits – such as the Roman and Vikings – a member of the group commented that ‘history can be come folklore very quickly. It become kitsch’. This flowed into a point made by another member of the group that, sure, there might a sense of the ‘greatest hits’ but what exactly, in a concrete way, is presented about the Vikings and the Roman. There is a danger, the whole group agreed, of even York’s greatest hits being quite content-lite.

As older histories dominate York’s public histories, Paul’s walk made it clear that the city is missing more recent histories. One of the group was a volunteer at York Museum Trust and mentioned a new initiative using objects to enable people to share stories – precisely focused at histories in living memory. Yet there was a sense from others that those professionally responsible for our history and heritage haven’t been connected enough locally to make really good decisions. One example given followed the closure of the Irish National Club in Walmgate. On the front of the Club had been, entwined, a Yorkshire white rose and shamrock, yet that wasn’t spotted and is now lost.

Yet, for one member of the group, there seemed to be a wider point. How does history relate to life in York – rather than just that preserved by professionals and sent to museums? And another noted, where are the young people in York – ‘I can’t see the voice of the young here. I see a lot of old things’. There was a strong sense that York needed to be and feel like a living city. There was a danger expressed by one that the city centre felt less and less like that: ‘What does York need – more coffee shops?’ An argument was made that we’re always saying what a lovely place York is – but maybe there is too much focus on what it has (certain histories and medieval town centre) rather than what it doesn’t (the example given was an arts centre).

One member of the group who has been involved in developing the ‘York’s Jewish History: Community and Identity through the Centuries’ walk suggested ways in which alternative and plural histories might become taken seriously. She noted that although Visit York had originally been cautious about holding the Jewish history walk leaflets – they realized how important the city making this kind of statement was to Jewish visitors and Visit York do distribute the leaflets now.

The significant example of ‘York’s Jewish History: Community and Identity through the Centuries’ walk takes me to something one member of the group (who wasn’t able to join us for the pub discussion) said to me as we went between stops. I think she’d felt there had been a bit too much moaning on our part about alternative and not-greatest-hit histories being ignored by the Council, English Heritage or York Museums Trust or in the decisions made about which commemorative plaques to put up on York’s walls. She argued that we were probably wrong to think of it as ‘decision making’. It was more likely, she said, just some people who had an interested and pushed for certain histories rather than a conscious decision to exclude others. In other words, she advised, ‘do something – not just moan about it’!

For me a few key questions for the York: Living with History Inquiry come out of our wide ranging discussions and then, to respond to the final point, a few actions too:

·      What local history is taught in York’s schools and how might local groups be able to help with this?

·      How can we develop histories for visitors which tell multiple stories about York? Practically speaking, what is the role of plaques and walks leaflets in this?

·      How might a more plural understating of York’s past help us actively balance tourist and local use of the city centre? How has use of the city centre changed over the past 20 years? How might knowing York is more than pretty streets help keep York ‘living’?

·      To what extent can we think of York’s public history as being a result of ‘decision making’ – maybe it’s just well connected people pushing their passions? Which makes you wonder, how this might be democratized either through D-I-Y action, activism to influence decision makers or through key agencies consciously-developing structures of participation?

·      How might bodies such as City of York Council/York Museums Trust/English Heritage make it feel more possible for any of us make contact when we think something important might be lost – like the Irish National Club example?

And in terms of action – we do have some things to ‘do’ coming up. Perhaps York’s Guerilla Plaques Day on 10th May will be a precursor to all sorts of other histories and the many different stories of York being very publically visible in the future?

 Second change to catch the walk!

York: A Walk on the Wild

5th April, 3-6pm

Free tickets via Eventbright: http://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/york-a-walk-on-the-wild-side-tickets-10561211869

A second chance to catch ‘Walk on the Wild Side’. Walk with us as we explore the histories of York rarely heard about. Of protest, of raucous parades, of gay love and of militant suffrage. We will then head to a Pub to reflect on these histories as part of York: Living with History Inquiry.

The Stonebow Inquiry

12th April


Central Methodist Church, St Saviourgate

Drop in exhibition and event. Find out more about what was here before and debate what should happen next. We’ll be sharing our work so far on the histories and uses of Stonebow House and hoping you’ll share your own memories and opinions.

York’s Guerrilla Plaques

10th May, 10.30am-2.30pm

Friends Meeting House, Friargate

The commemorative plaques on York’s buildings and walls are a bit random really. Have you got a piece of history or a story you think should be remembered by everyone but isn’t? Then come and put alternative histories of the city in the heart of York with your own D-I-Y heritage with our very safe and easily removable cardboard plaques. Just let us know you want to come via yorklivingwithhistory@gmail.com

Get in touch our blogsite www.livingwithhistory.wordpress.com or via yorklivingwithhistory@gmail.com


2 thoughts on “‘The walk was important because it showed there is not just one story of the city’: Reflections on York: A Walk on the Wild Side

  1. “I think she’d felt there had been a bit too much moaning on our part about alternative and not-greatest-hit histories being ignored by the Council, English Heritage or York Museums Trust or in the decisions made about which commemorative plaques to put up on York’s walls. She argued that we were probably wrong to think of it as ‘decision making’. It was more likely, she said, just some people who had an interested and pushed for certain histories rather than a conscious decision to exclude others. In other words, she advised, ‘do something – not just moan about it’!”
    Can you personally thank this member of your group from me for this observation! I do occasionally get a sense of conspiracy theory arising about the underplaying of so-called hidden histories or alternative histories. The reality is that the professionals involved are nearly always a) few in number; b) under-resourced; c) over-whelmed by the quantity of potential work there is to do and d) constantly having to react to short-term operational pressures. I for one have virtually no time to think and plan: I DREAM of the day when I will have the time to retire to a darkened room to devise my oppressive conspiracy! 😉 There is NO shortage of ideas in York about what “they” should do to develop the profile of and participation in all aspects of York’s history. I’m not sitting around twiddling my thunmbs waiting for someone to give me work. But there IS a perennial shortage of people or groups willing to get off their backsides actively to create/fund/resource/plan/execute/publicise these great projects. If you offer to (help me) do the work, or (help me) fund the work, or both – it will happen! If all you have is moans about what “they” aren’t doing, you’ll wait a long time for any change. The city archive (and the libraries) are about to become a community-owned mutual, with far more real opportunities for direct community input and influence than ever before, so what are you waiting for? Best wishes to all at YAHG – Richard Taylor, the very tired City Archivist

  2. I think these two comments reflect something of the frustrations of those trying to do their best in difficult circumstances in the public sector. Members of York Alternative History profoundly understand and share those feelings, and our members and supporters have been vocal and active in trying to defend public services in the face of recent cutbacks. In particular we have provided personal, written and verbal support to the Gateway to History archive facility.

    Sadly, the comments also reflect a complete misunderstanding of what YAH is all about. Taking our cue from one of our historical heroes, we don’t mourn, we organize! We don’t expect others to do what we won’t or can’t do for ourselves. As and where we spot gaps in the public history of York, we seek to fill those gaps and to encourage others in the same process. We all come from a broadly left libertarian, communitarian outlook with a distinctly non-partisan, non-sectarian flavour.

    Perhaps it is worth saying a little about who ‘we’ are and what ‘we’ do. Essentially the day-to-day effort of YAH is sustained by no more than four people, three of whom have demanding full-time jobs, and all of whom are involved in other public activity. Occasionally others step in and organise particular events, and we are supported by a small group of occasional helpers and a wider group of sympathetic supporters. We would like more people to be actively involved, as that way we could do more. But we don’t grieve about that, as we know that many of our supporters also have jobs, families, and are voluntarily active in other ways.

    What do we do? Last January three of us organised the day of events to commemorate the Luddite 200th anniversary. One of our supporters has devised a series of ‘alternative history’ walks. Another has organised a First World War Day School for November coming, while one of our members is developing a series of film evenings with City Screen on the same theme for the early autumn. We organise, alongside our friends from York Social, quarterly public talks with a history theme – the next will be the last Wednesday in April. Several supporters are involved in other local history research projects, such as those highlighted at last year’s Local History Day at Clements Hall.

    High on our current agenda is working in conjunction with the ‘Living with History’ project that is part of a much wider, national initiative to explore the concept of ‘co-design’ in relation to projects with a development/heritage context. That is the only project for which there is any funding. The rest is done at our own risk. We don’t charge entrance to events, though we sometimes pass the hat around and so far that has worked.

    Out there in the community are scores of other similar initiatives: local and family history groups, volunteers in archaeology groups, museums, churches, the Minster, as well as the vast numbers helping the elderly, disabled, and disadvantaged. There is a ‘Big Society’ already and always has been: mutuality has been a more significant factor in human evolution than greed and competition. But it is a finite resource, increasingly starved of resources just as are municipal and state facilities.

    Perhaps what we all need, those of us doing our best, is for a wider cultural and political shift away from the cosy but mean-spirited consensus that now seems to dominate public life. But then, most people are just doing the best they can to get by and have some sort of life.

    ‘Don’t Mourn, Organise!’ [Joe Hill, Utah, November 1914]

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