Once, a couple of years ago, I decided that instead of taking the train up from London, I would drive back to York for Christmas. This was a huge mistake for a number of reasons, the main one being that it robbed me of the usual re-introduction to York, via the soaring arched caverns and charmingly off-brand sandwich counters of the city’s iconic railway station.
For a short time after it was built, in 1877, it was the largest station in the world, and there’s something comforting about leaving the breakneck futurism and relentless ambition of London for a place whose most recent claim to impressive-ness was still outpaced more than a century ago. Maybe, in the context of returning to write this piece, I’m more susceptible to romanticising these things – but then what is York if not a place for romanticising the past?
The city has been thriving/surviving on tourism for longer than the concept of a "weekend city break" has even existed, thanks to its uncanny ability to sugarcoat centuries of bloody, bloody history in a glaze of fairytale quaintness. Sure, there’s Clifford’s Tower, which played host to one of the worst anti-Semitic massacres of the Middle Ages… but forget that, because doesn’t this unusually narrow street look just like something out of a Harry Potter movie!
I leave York station by the front entrance, opposite which rises a grassy bank, atop which sits a section of the city’s famous, near-perfectly preserved Roman walls. You can still walk along them for nearly the entire circumference of the city-proper – possibly the only "tourist" activity I enjoy to this day. In the near-distance you get your first glimpse of York’s biggest draw, the Minster. It’s the second-largest gothic cathedral in Northern Europe and has been standing there in one form or another for well over a thousand years.
Famously, it can be seen from pretty much anywhere in York, peering down like some benevolent guardian / Sauron-like dictator. Spiralling out from beneath its spires sprawls a supporting cast of tearooms, charity shops and increasingly bizarre gift-shops that keep the coach-loads of pensioners and Chinese tourists ably sated and the locals numbly uninspired.
Old walls and old churches: they’re defined – celebrated – for their unchanging physicality, and yet I'd wager those same formations of stones and metal and glass have come to symbolise so many different things for those who spend their childhoods living in their shadows. If I arrive back on the right day, with the right type of crisp, cold Northern sun in the sky – say, early April, or late September – it’s easy to get lost in the hype. York and its structures are beautiful: a politely magnificent Roman nose slap bang in the middle of the moors' wild and windy romance. Today, those walls seem to envelope like a comforting, don’t-worry-everything’s-OK-I’m-here-now hug.
And yet, if I think back a decade and more, to angry teen years and even angrier pre-teen years, they manifest mainly as a symbol of imbalance. On a personal level: as the marker by which my sisters and I would make our way from one parent’s post-divorce home to the other’s. More generally: as a tangible divide between the smugly archaic affluence to be found within them, and the flailing social dysfunction to be found around the city's outskirts.
My sister Hannah and I were four and five years old when my parents decided, in 1992, that Acomb – one of those outskirt communities – would be a better place to raise us than our birthplace of Hackney. If you add those first four years of life to the ten I’ve lived since moving back down, I’ve spent more of my life now living in London than York. And yet if you ask me where I’m from, I immediately think Acomb; and if you ask me about my childhood home, my mind goes straight to 29a Beckfield Lane.
The house is situated on the border between what were the wards of Beckfield and Acomb, now realigned as just Acomb – two of the most disadvantaged areas in York. A study published around the time I was moving from Acomb Primary School to Oaklands Secondary School states that it was an area with "high percentages of people receiving means-tested welfare benefits and a high ratio of non-earners to earners […] relatively high numbers of admissions for mental health problems […] high numbers of lone parents [and] pockets of concentrated drug use". Speak to my mum, who has worked in another local primary school under increasingly uncaring governments, and she’ll wearily tell you things have only gotten worse since.
And yet now, heading to 29a Beckfield Lane for the first time since childhood, I completely get why my financially comfortable parents chose to settle here. Why they chose Acomb above the prestigious schools and WH Auden-birthplace of Bootham, say, or the allotment-owning middle-class hippies around Bishopthorp Road (pretty much every time I make the trip home now, my mum proudly informs me that "Bishy Road is actually widely regarded as the Notting Hill of the North these days"). I'm sure we moved to Acomb because, as one of those countless families to leave London smog behind in search of a more vaguely bucolic lifestyle, the house at 29a Beckfield Lane must have seemed like the most perfect end-goal imaginable.
The house itself was detached in every sense: it stood alone at the bottom of a long and leafy lane, away from the surrounding estates and with a sprawling, beautifully unmanageable garden that I can’t imagine existing in London. Acomb had its problems, sure, but it was also known to locals as Acomb Village. It even had "the green", a sort of village-esque triangle of greenery and playground that provided the focal point for most of my adolescent socialising.
Venturing down the driveway to that house for the first time, I lose my nerve at the new fence and gate with its novelty sign. I daren’t risk a knock because I can’t bear the thought of seeing the place in even more of a crumbling state than when we left it. Later in the day I regret this. Because one thing I can’t avoid from the wrong side of the gate are the same trees I used to climb as a kid, only to freak out without fail every time I reached the summit.
My younger sister Hannah would have to scurry up and patiently guide me down, and remembering this – knowing the strained, slightly sad gulf that exists between us now as adults – is the moment in the day where I feel the most intense fondness for the place I used to call home. There aren’t really any equivalent adult experiences that match the matter-of-fact tenderness of a tree-climbing-rescue-mission, are there? I hope, at least, that there’s a new set of siblings climbing those trees together now. I hope they’re learning better, brotherly lessons from it than I ever did.
Beyond its historical buildings and streets, York is probably best-known for its chocolate factories (though they may have recently been overtaken by the viral Facebook sensation of September 2017 that was, "The Roast Dinner In A Wrap But Wait The Wrap Is Actually A Folded-Up Yorkshire Pudding!"). Rowntree’s, home of numerous beloved sweet treats – and now, sadly, a scion of the not-quite-so-beloved Nestlé corporation – was founded by Joseph Rowntree in 1862. Rowntree was a Victorian Quaker, chocolatier and philanthropist who gave the world not only fruit pastilles and Kit-Kats, but also the proof that treating factory-workers with decency and respect was actually really good for both business and society in general.
Eighty years or so after his death, his legacy still hovers over the city. There’s the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the social policy charity where my dad got a job when we moved here. There’s the clear plastic bags of deformed Kit-Kat and Yorkie-esque "mis-shapes" that some kids would bring to school when I was growing up, if they were lucky enough to have a mum or dad with access to the factory shop. There’s the York suburb of New Earswick, which was commendably built by Rowntree for his workers to live in, which also houses the Quaker meeting house my mum (and often my sisters) attend most Sundays.
There's also the smell. After my parents' divorce, around 1996, we would get dropped off by my mum every Friday at Edmund Wilson Pool for swimming lessons, and picked up afterwards by dad, to go and spend the weekend with him at his new house on the opposite side of York. We’d leave around dusk and cross Water End bridge by the RSPCA centre. We’d pass the squat, brick hospital that became the worst kind of summer camp after a car crash en-route to Scarborough beach around the turn of the millennium. Sometimes, though, on those Friday night drives, if the production schedule was at a certain point and the wind was blowing in a certain direction, the smell of chocolate-mint Aero would blanket the entirety of our route. The ten-year-old-version of me would share a sensorial moment with every other kid out there at that moment in time. Windows rolled down, living in a Roald Dahl book for 15 minutes or so.
Today, that same route is disfigured from the off: Edmund Wilson Pool is now, it turns out, a hulking Lidl supermarket. Further down the road in a slightly different direction, my secondary school is just about clinging on, though grossly it now bears the name York High, rather than the rather lovelier-sounding Oaklands. If you ever wanted to sum up in just two words the completely bastardised priorities of education policy in this country, that slick-sounding, empty rebranding exercise is a pretty good starting point. I'm not sure when exactly the name-change took place, but a few years after I finished my GCSEs the school was "merged" with the other terribly-performing school down the road, Lowfields. Not sure whose bright idea it was to suddenly put every kid from two rival schools into one big melting pot of white working-class ennui, but I’m sure they had their rationale.
Still, I'm convinced to this day that the best thing my parents ever did was let me follow my primary school mates to Oaklands, which squared its upsettingly low GCSE pass rate with some of the most compassionate and hardworking teachers you could ever hope to learn under. When I return today, for the first time since leaving in 2004, everything is shinier, more "interactive", less Portakabin-y – and yet the heart of the school appears the same.
Its 24 percent GCSE pass rate last year was the lowest in the city by a good 20 points or so, but there’s still something irrepressibly eager and unstoppable about the kids and teachers there. I’m greeted by my old Head of Year and Maths teacher, Jan Mackay, who continues to embody the qualities that brought so much value to my own time there. Utterly no-nonsense when it comes to kids eating crisps in the corridor. Utterly heartfelt in the work she now provides as Head of Pastoral Care to some of the most disadvantaged kids in the UK. Utterly inspiringly in opposition to the bum hand her beloved school has been given by the powers that be.
Going to a school like Oaklands makes you realise – beyond a smattering of gobshites and a couple of standard-issue, chair-throwingly violent oddities – just how fundamentally good-natured and all-the-same-deep-down people are.
Which obviously sounds really trite and dumb and obvious, but god, I mean, I’ve been living in east London for the best part of a decade now. I’ve lost count of the times I've overheard barely concealed contempt for the working classes, from supposedly "should know better" public school kids raised in the Home Counties. Sneering neoliberal ideologies dressed up in a bizarre mixture of tracksuit-appropriation and gentrification-enabling brunches. Growing up in Acomb, going to a school like Oaklands, coming back at least a couple of times a year – it reminds you just how horribly, baselessly demonised this particular demographic is. The dog-whistle bullshit that seeps out of the tabloids and gestates around Westminster: that cruel idea that poverty is somehow linked to immorality.
In fact, the next destination on this visit is the only place I ever experienced violence first-hand, and it took place after leaving Oaklands, at what was supposed to be the advent of more "civilised" times. Sixteen years old and suddenly doing A-levels in subjects like Philosophy and Film Studies, with new friends who had names like Zachary and George and Patrick, rather than Mark and Joe and Jordan. It happened on one of York’s supposedly "rough" streets, which now, of course, in sunlight and adulthood, seems endearingly quaint. The pub at the bottom of the road briefly appeared in the national news a year or two ago, when its basement got dug up in the search for the body of a long-disappeared local chef (the body wasn’t there, and it’s now noticeable only because of the two-storey Spongebob Squarepants mural that adorns one wall).
The beating was administered by two older guys at about 8:20 in the morning, which I guess seemed weird at the time. In retrospect, I should have picked up on the bad vibes and crossed the road, rather than walking straight into a barrage of fists and "fucking faggot"s. I remember heading into my first class that morning 15 minutes late, with a black eye and actual sovereign ring marks cut into my cheek, and not one person said anything. Posh bastards, I remember thinking, smugly.
Really, though, being 17 and relatively carefree in a place like York is about as close to halcyon as it's possible to get. The prettified terraced houses and close proximity to countryside are tailor-made for house parties, and bike rides, and for the most part having no idea what to do with impending adulthood beyond working in the trendy fashion shop in town.
Nothing in early adulthood felt of real consequence to my friends and I because most of us knew, on some level, that we were going to leave in search of bigger and better things, as soon as the chance arose. So we’d spend our time getting initiated into the world of things like middling gigs at Fibbers, the York Barfly – a place described in the North Yorkshire News as "the spiritual home of Shed Seven", which, frankly, sums the place up better than I ever could.
There was the basement bar of the York Picturehouse Cinema, which was a hive for the sort of cringe-worthy spoken word events my friends and I would routinely turn our noses up at, yet also provided a venue for the bizarrely popular "club night" my friend Jacob and I ran on and off towards the end of our teens. As a jaded adult, I can confidently say that playing on-trend DFA records off an iPod and tinny PA to a room packed with pissed-up 17-year-olds brought me more pure joy and pride than anything I’ve achieved in my actual grown-up career.
I can’t not make a stop at the flat I lived in around this time with my friend Tom. Right in the pigeon-shit grey-brown heart of one of York’s crummiest estates, it was a wonderful time. Tom would get annoyed at how bad I was on the Playstation and then make me sandwiches with names like the "Fuck-Me Chicken Sandwich" or the "Daddy Surprise". Or I’d eat £3 curry and chips from the Chinese takeaway on pre-Notting Hill Bishopthorpe Road, watching The Wire with Tamara, my girlfriend at the time.
As good as it was, living there still always felt like a stop-gap in the wider narrative move towards Getting Out, Going To London. Going back now, I feel nothing but longing: it’s a punch in the guts of the upwards mobility that my friends and I seem to constantly be chasing in London, no matter whose terms we kid ourselves it’s on.
A few years ago, and reaching the peak of my London-dickhead years, I had a bit of a freak-out about all those dumb things I was running after. You move from somewhere like York to London to chase those things – better jobs, better clubs, better food – and because there’s literally millions of your peers competing with you for the same thing, you convince yourself that the resulting precariousness somehow equates to liberation. You trade those oppressive stone walls for the thrilling surface gleam of a shiny mirrored capital, and suddenly anything that could be classed as meaningful, or essential, or indicative of basic decency is falling by the wayside.
It was only when I started really engaging with those formative years in York that I started to feel more concrete again. Like someone who’s fully-formed enough to actually take responsibility and not just "get away" with leaving a shit-show in my wake wherever I went. At 17, I couldn’t wait to get out of York, and the place still does my head in, and makes me despair in so many ways. But I really do cherish the times I drag myself back. Because coming home, home-coming – it grounds you in actual space (home) and time (coming). You see small indicators of the marks you’ve left and reminders of tangible moments and locations that led up to the you, now. And there’s something valuable in that.
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