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.

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Luddites at the Guildhall York

For 90 people to turn out on a chilly, miserable Saturday afternoon, to sit in York’s draughty Guildhall and listen to a couple of hours of talks on a relatively ignored piece of York’s history has to be some sort of triumph for York’s Alternative History. What follows is a personal sense of this part of the day’s events, and my reflections on what the speakers had to say rather than a summary of their talks (which YAH hopes to provide elsewhere).

As commented by Adam Gutteridge, who chaired proceedings with a light and unobtrusive touch, YAH had originally booked the Council Chamber, where the warmth, comfort and acoustics would have been better. Nevertheless the historical setting we were given lent its own ambience.

Adam skilfully introduced the speakers, setting the event into the context of YAH’s aim to interest the general public in a re-engagement with York’s past outside the constraints of what tends to be publicly portrayed by events such as last year’s York 800, now mercifully past. The test of speakers of such high calibre is whether one comes away wiser, in this case with a better understanding of the Luddite rebellion in the West Riding in 1812, its dénouement in York in January 1813 and its continued relevance today. We were handsomely rewarded.

Katrina Navickas (University of Hertfordshire) wove an intricate argument that set into context the seemingly desperate attempt at armed rebellion against the local manufacturers and, by implication, the State that lay behind them with a massive military presence in Yorkshire. These were skilled workers rather than self-employed artisans, threatened with the loss of their livelihoods, who had tried unsuccessfully to persuade Parliament of their case. They were supported within a community and culture intrinsic to the landscape of the Calder Valley and the West Riding Pennines, with its valleys, hamlets and market towns. Support came from many other trades than the cloth-dressers or ‘croppers’. They sought to defend what they regarded as their common rights against the private interests of a handful of manufacturers. Their defence of what they called ‘the commonality’ echoes interestingly with our own fears in 2013 for our own ‘commonality’ under threat from cuts, outsourcing and corporate aggression. They were not a lot different from us in that regard.

Malcolm Chase (University of Leeds) spread his analysis beyond the immediate issue of the Luddites. With case after case, he described York Castle and its 800 year role as the main centre in the North for political and social repression, second only to London. I could not help but note that this division of labour exactly matched the organisation of the Church of England into its two provinces, with York the administrative centre of the Northern Province. From medieval times, York was frequently chosen to handle the legal repression of revolts and opposition to the State, and not merely in Yorkshire or the North generally. You would have struggled to have found anything of this in last year’s fatuous York 800 junkets or in the way in which York’s history is customarily portrayed by public institutions. York Castle (and the former Tyburn on the Knavesmire) was the scene of multiple cases of mass trial and executions until the 19th century. Only then did public sensitivity begin to recoil from this conspicuous brutality and some slight reform of the jail system begin to be effected. But York’s former black role should not be ignored in its present day historical presentation. Our commemorating the execution and trial of the Luddites points at only one small fragment of this bloody heritage.

Alan Brooke (from Huddersfield Local History Society and co-author of Liberty or Death), dressed appropriately in contemporary Luddite costume, explored the legacy of Luddism. If in one sense it was not spoken about in the Huddersfield area in years afterwards, that was part of the close culture of the people protecting their own and reflecting the extreme secrecy within which the Luddites had organised. Luddism was only one of three revolts in those times in which Huddersfield people took part. It seeped into local consciousness. To a degree it was also a precursor to Huddersfield’s unusual level of conscientious objection in 1914-18. But Alan also traced the influences through dystopian literature, the politics of Bavarian revolt in 1919 and through to modern debates about technology in society. It is useful to understand that the re-appraisal of the Luddites by today’s historians has its counterpart in current political and social movements. There is an ongoing debate as to whether we can build a relationship with technology that is not fundamentally de-humanising, degrading and impoverishing of all but a minority. Livelihoods continue to be mercilessly destroyed in the name of a ‘progress’ that seems to have little to do with human well-being. Technology is double-edged and that comes down to the question of who is in control and for what purpose.

Perhaps picking up from Alan’s more political appreciation of the Luddites, many of the contributions from the floor seemed to focus on the relevance of the Luddites for today’s politics, rather than directly engaging with the arguments presented by all three speakers. This had the unintended affect of deterring some people who had come to learn more about who the Luddites were, losing the value of having Katrina and Malcolm to answer questions and comments. Katrina’s discussion of the importance of communal context is just as vital for guiding action today and Malcolm’s arguments laid bare how politically loaded is the idea of ‘heritage’, which can subtly influence the sense that people have of themselves today, as Adam commented in his introduction.

This minor cavil apart, thanks to the wide coverage of the talks, we came away with much on which to ponder and reflect. Involvement in this commemorative enterprise has given me a wholly new appreciation of the significance of Luddism that will lead me off into further investigation, both of the past and of its relevance today – hopefully others will be similarly motivated. Meanwhile perhaps this highly personal view, only one among ninety, will prompt others to comment?

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

 

What is Alternative History?

What exactly is meant by ‘alternative history’ or ‘radical history’, as it is alternatively known? To kick start discussion, I have put a piece up under the ‘Write It!’ banner. Have a read and let’s have a debate about what might be included or excluded.