Deconstructing the English in York

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.

Personal Stories: an interview with local activist Nick Smith part 3

Here is part three of the interview I gave to Helen Graham on 15th March 2012 (part one and part two).

In this part I discuss the politics of working with people with learning disabilities, getting involved in the York activist scene (in particular York Stop the Cuts), the University of York occupation in December 2010, consensus decision making, solidarity and pacifism.

To listen click the link below:

Personal Stories: an interview with local activist Nick Smith part 1

Helen Graham interviewed me as part of our project to collect and document the stories of local activists.  The interview took place on the (very wet) evening of 15th March 2012 in the York Arms pub.  The full interview came to nearly 2 hours long, so I have edited it down into smaller installments which will be posted here over the next few weeks and months.

This is part one, where I discuss how I became interested in politics as a teenager.  Includes my thoughts on how my hometown (Bedworth, Warwickshire), music, my A-level history teacher and the Socialist Workers Party influenced my developing political, moral and ethical values from socialism to pacifism, vegetarianism and anarchism.

To listen to the interview please click on the link below…

Nick Smith’s YAH interview part 1


Gateway to York’s History – Open or to be Shut?

The consultation process to build the case for HLF funding to improve the City of York’s provision for archives and local studies came to an end on 1 August. The submission will be made in a month’s time and the result will be known at the end of the year. If successful, the construction phase will happen during 2013 and finish in the spring of 2014, subject also to the planning process now in progress. For those who have suffered the old archive provision and the current mess in the upstairs of York Explore, the improvements can’t come soon enough.

The overall archive and local studies content in York is second only to London, if one includes the Borthwick Institute at the University of York, the characterful York Minster Library and the City Archives and Local Studies department. Records in the City Archives go back more than 800 years and are not confined to just the civic records, though these form the largest element. For radical and alternative historians who like to write against the official grain, what is in there might come as a surprise: vaccination records, poor law administration correspondence, slum clearance plans, council housing construction, 1960s Civil Defence material, to mention a handful. Unfortunately the content is not matched at all by the provision for access.

Among the improvements, other than architectural, funding has already been achieved for cataloguing the civic archives, thanks to The National Archives. There are plans to open up access to archive material through neighbourhood initiatives, combined with a much broader and more inclusive collections policy. There will be links to schools and colleges and a stronger partnership with the other archives and libraries in the city. Architecturally the key element will be a purpose-built, state of the art repository, which is desperately needed. In terms of access for the public, the upstairs of York Explore will be completely re-designed to create separate areas for the secure study of original archive material, informal drop in areas separated from quiet and individual study areas, and a dedicated Family History room. This will be much better, especially for those who want peace and quiet for research.

Congratulations are due to the archive development officer, Richard Taylor, for his open vision for the archives and how they should relate to the wider community, and may every success attend his endeavours to bring this project to fruition. Not everyone will like what is done, some people comfortable in the existing arrangements will have to get used to change and a new professionalism about the place and there will be the inevitable upheaval of construction work. But this project has the potential to improve archives access in the city a thousand-fold from its current dire state and create something with which the people of York can more readily and enthusiastically engage.

If there is one issue over which concern might still be expressed it is the uncertainty of the City Council’s commitment to the future of libraries and archives in York. The current budget indicates that from 2013 there is to be a £200,000 saving scheduled against the establishment of unspecified ‘social enterprises to operate in areas including libraries and community education’. It is time the Council came clean on what exactly this means, especially as it continues to make cuts in grants to other ‘social enterprise’ provisions in arts and culture, year on year. Or are they going to spring it on us as a fait accompli in March 2013, as is their usual practice?