When people talk about ‘culture’ they refer to it as an almost transcendent ideal – recently I heard someone talking about their trip to Amsterdam, and their critical issue with the trip to the Dutch capital was that it was not as ‘cultured’ as their trip to India – other than that, though, they enjoyed it. But culture cannot be catalogued or quantified; the idea that any place can be more or less cultured than another is one that nourishes the very western rhetoric of tourism. The fact that someone would refer to India as more cultured than Amsterdam is, indeed, an active display of a long upheld tradition of orientalism and othering, whilst also being an essentially inert statement.
There are certain rhetorical discourses that feed into and directly contribute to the overall aesthetic quality and structure of culture. To me and I think to the majority of my generation, and indeed the former generations, culture is a byword for an image of culture. As with the person negating Dutch heritage, so too do modern stereotypes negate the culture and history relevant to any, and all, societies.
My walk was through York, a place described by www.visityork.org as a city ‘Rich in ancient history’ where you can delve into the ‘vibrant café culture’ whilst enjoying ‘exquisite architecture’, tangles of ‘quaint cobble streets’ and a ‘wealth of visitor attractions’. York is, effectually, an icon of the cultural rhetoric of Britishness. My own walk, punctuated periodically by the ‘exquisite architecture’ and ‘visitor attractions’ began at York Castle – a Norman fort completed in 1068 which, in lieu of a post-Hastings UK, was one in a network of fortifications constructed to impose the Norman occupation upon the native Britons. Today it stands atop a grass mound and shadows York Crown Court, the York Castle Museum and an open car park which acts as the main automobile repository for the high-streets of the modern city. Crossing the car park and then through a brick-built passage, you emerge into a stone-flagged courtyard centred with a faux-garden and surrounded by a multi-storey Topshop, a department store called Fenwick and a boutique art gallery.
…an icon of the cultural rhetoric of Britishness…
The modern courtyard exists at the foot of Coppergate, a small street occupied by a Café Nero, a Clark’s and a few other chain stores; but in one corner of the courtyard there is another of York’s attractions. The entrance to Jorvik Viking Centre is flanked by person sized posters of a typically Nordic looking warrior – into a small lobby and then down a flight of stairs and you emerge into a dimly lit room with a reinforced glass floor – here you are informed that you are standing mere inches above the old Viking Coppergate. From this room you travel through a ‘reconstruction of Viking-Age streets’ which also offers you the opportunity, as jorvik-viking-centre.co.uk continues, to ‘come face to face with a Viking’. Following the animatronic, track guided route you come to another small room with walls lined with the weapons of the Viking warriors. And then you ascend out of the past into a well-lit gift shop and back on to the modern street.
The next attraction exists ‘in the shadows of the Minster’ – Guy Fawkes’ birthplace, and now the Guy Fawkes’ Inn is a pub decorated in the fashion of the 1500s with the candlelight and the television only being in mild aesthetic and contextual collision. Less than a minute from The Shambles, according to www.gfyork.com – ‘Real ales, traditional pub meals, gas-lamps and timber floors all combine with this heritage to create one of the most characterful pubs in Britain.’ From the front door of the inn you can go either left or right but you will, in either case, come to the York Minster itself.
…walls lined with the weapons of the Viking warriors…
The York Minster, ‘the largest gothic cathedral in northern Europe’ is the icon of the City of York. First constructed in 627 AD, the cathedral stands at over 61 metres and stretches to a length of 158. A member of the Church of England since 1533 the modern Minster is the seat of the Archbishop of York – the second highest position in the Church of England. All facts and tourism aside, stand at the foot of any side of the Minster and you are struck by the spectacle inherent to the building itself. If you went left from the Guy Fawkes’ Inn then you would now be standing on ‘the piazza’ – a recently completed light-stone courtyard that sprawls around the southern entrance to the Minster. Close to the Minster wall there is a statue of the Emperor Constantine – the overseer of the Edict of Milan which, ironically in many ways, saw to it that Christians in the Roman Empire were no longer persecuted and also cemented Constantine’s position as a Saint of the Catholic Church.
From the Minster it is just a very short stroll to the final ‘attraction’ on the walk. The York City centre, and certainly all but one of the attractions which punctuated my walk, is surrounded by the remains of the Roman walls which have existed since 71 AD. They are accessible at various points and offer voyeuristic views into the back gardens of the terraces and townhouses that litter the city. Beginning at one end, the deep stone walls curve around two sides of the city and, along the way, is split by gatehouses which hold small quasi-museums and plaques proclaiming and remembering events and long-gone historic spectacles.
…favouring tourism and what sells over reality and what is logical…
Overwhelmingly it feels to me now that the historical city of York has been lost to the rhetoric of the tourist board, with the multitude of cultures and invaders that have come together to create it, almost absent behind the image of culture – the modern financial spectacle. In the same way that modern anti-foreign media forgets that we are all product of immigration and emigration, so too does the finance led selling of place trick us into forgetting that we are looking at real life. Jorvik Viking Centre masquerades at historicity whilst concealing the reality of what is visible just inches beneath your feet – the focus of your visit there is not the actual Viking remains but the modern recreation of them and the animatronic pretenders. At the Guy Fawkes’ Inn you are asked to ignore the televisions whilst also pretending to slip back into the 1500s. Standing upon the very Roman themed ‘Piazza’ you are asked to ignore that this cathedral, one of the foremost monuments of modern British Protestantism, is guarded by the herald of the Catholic Church and that, in the statues mid-nineties unveiling, there was a very clear process of favouring tourism and what sells over reality and what is logical.
In all, my feelings on the walk were of disassociation. York is a city peppered with history – sold for its beauty and history but existing on the barely hidden premise of modern commercialism – from the museum surrounded by boutiques and chain stores to the fort that you have to pay fourteen pound to enter.