At the Vespertine Yorktopia event in November York-based poets and signers imagined York in ten years’ time. York performance poet and writer Henry Raby brought the event to a close with this piece. Henry describes York after a battle has been lost, a time when emotions and histories have been stablized and contained, where hope lies in not in visions or plans but half memories and feelings that creep up on you.
A contribution by Henry Raby
We are not allowed to be afraid. If you’re afraid, you’ve lost. The sign at the train station reads: Never Fear.
White sign with deep red letters like thick scars. Hissed with a splash of graffiti in cutting black paint.
School trip clog up my route. No braying noises, these children are fixed and focused. Their teachers, tall men and women, solid and dependable. The children demur, showing a reverence that belies their tiny age. The children of 2020, born to the smell of diesel, sounds of gunshots, ticking of lists, dazzle of streetlights. They grew up knowing they cannot Fear.
Their tour guide, a thin gentleman as standard as you’d ever likely to find. A smiling character. He points out the great holes in the City Walls. I can recall when the walls were complete, or at least walkable. But these gaping absences suit the walls. Make them look battle-hardened. Like Vikings learnt how to use rocket launchers. He tells the class
“Like the Romans before, and the Vikings, and the Siege of York in 1644, these walls stood to defend the city from oppression, this time from inside the city of course.”
The class nod. They note it down in their memory. They are good students. They are 6.
“And the Walls biggest challenge occurred 6 years ago. Gosh, when you were all born”
The class nod. They know this. This is not new information.
“But York stood up to that test. York survived, as it always does. The rest, as they used to say, is history”.
The children don’t seem to enjoy their history lesson. I think they’ve been taught it all before. I forgot it all. Faces pinky in the winter chill, their cheeks puffing tiny clouds almost beautiful in the crisp air. No one notices their breath, they are all upright. Attentive. Competitively so.
I stand and listen in. Hear my history replayed like this young man, all said with the certainty I wish I had. He regales all the old battles I don’t remember as battles, the events I don’t remember as being so important. He misses out details that fix hard in my mind. He speaks without fear like a good person.
I give a cough absent-mindedly and a parade of eyes swivel towards me. I instantly fumble for my identification, but before I’ve had chance to grasp it from my pocket, the eyes have returned to the tour guide and I realise my heart is thundering. I’m no threat. Nothing to fear.
I walk into York alone, relief at leaving the throng of bodies. The streets are naturally quiet, the roads quieter. If people have trod their way into the city centre, they did so long before this hour. A bus must pass through, I recall. Every couple of hours doing the rounds. Traffic lights are cracked. Road paint worn away.
I go onto autopilot, aiming for my destination like a seeking missile. The streets I walked down so often in the past, the routes so well visited, are alien to my now. Crunch through puddles, like an assailant. I feel like I’m causing trouble just by being here, breathing this air. Stealing oxygen, taking up space, walking paths which are not mine. Because I lost them.
I am furious with my memory for picking up hints of the past. Where the charity shops and cafes and pubs peppered the streets. For imagining where buskers stood, what they sounded like, where the Food Not Bombs stall would be found, where the Christmas tree would have loomed. My memory is too reliable, or these memories too solid. I wish they’d float away like my breath.
The past was ripe for taking. We plundered 50 years of music and fashion and ignored the fact beneath our borrowed culture we were scabby and rotting. We paraded the fashions of the century in the new millennium and poured the past onto our iPods and phones.
We were stagnant and remainiators. Necromantic artists obsessed with the dead, with holograms, releases and remake, fixated with mourning passing and words like ‘irreplaceable’.
I’m a cynic because I was told the future can be bright, but the past was brighter. I’m a cynic because I was told to hope with one foot in the bogs of the past.
Maybe I’d feel better if my home town was busy. But there are no shops, cafes, restaurants or bars. Just office space, windowless buildings and refurbished blocks for the business of 2026. And that’s when I come across the place I made my pilgrimage too. The wandered wrapped in scarf and gloves finds the Snickelway like a twisted corner tucked away.
I take off my glove and feel the brick work, see the dents from bullets and recall, alongside memories of gigs, hot chocolate and guitar bands the howling that came from silence. The pauses we mistook for calm which were really hot thoughts getting hotter.
It didn’t feel like our last attempt, it felt like progression. The history books are already being written, saying York was at the centre of a warzone. But it wasn’t a war, it was eradication.
I hope in my future we are allowed to be sad.
I thank thickness lodged in my throat. I want an empty stomach waiting to be filled. I want to sigh out my breath.
I want fear to tingle me. I want it to rest inside my toes at night. I want it to be the reason I turn lights on and drive slowly and walk around in groups and arrange to meet people early and keep my phone close at hand.
I want fear and sadness to be my twin guardians, one on each shoulder. Whimpering and sighing, gasping for air and holding its breath.
I don’t want instant joy, I want it to creep up on me when I least suspect it, and fill me up slowly like poison through sad veins.
I want to feel it rise like icy rainwater. I want it to flood my house and make it grumpy. I want joy to come through the door in the middle of the night and disturb my rest. I want to blame it for making me sleep in.
I knew that anger so well. I knew it inside me, and I could see it in everyone’s eyes. Harrowing and drilling, a sense that we could take the tension from our own tight fists and put it to good use on all sides. And my anger lost out, and their anger won and now all the faces are white. The only history we wanted was celebratory, bold, bright and had a flag wrapped tight around it.
So now we say, boldly, in signs and sayings and casual agreement. Never Fear. Move forwards. Don’t look back, just look to the next stage, the new wave. Because we’re building it better, they say, everything is going to be better. So stop looking backwards.
I want to go find one of the schoolchildren. Take them to this wall. Show the next generation the bullet holes. The place where we held banners and broke windows and stood in front of trucks and shouted slogans about deportations. Some light candles and wrote petitions but it wasn’t enough. There weren’t enough of us. The silence in the city is familiar. I want to show the scars where I tried to crawl into camps.
But their fathers and mothers probably worked in those camps.
So, with hours before my train to take me away, I wander around York more. Looking for gigs and curries and quiz nights and real ale and poetry nights and film screenings and theatre events and a different language. I fail.
I have found myself down by the river, all browns and grim blues. On the walls around me in thick black spraypaint, like a maddened scrawl, the words ‘Normans Go Home’ is written.