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Story time for York
9:19am Wednesday 2nd May 2012 in Features
Do you have a story to tell about York? If so, it could end up embedded in the city walls as part of a social sculpture that aims to capture forever York as it is now. STEPHEN LEWIS reports.
DAVE Fleming has a lovely story to tell about how he ended up living in York. He was brought up on a Birmingham council estate in the 1970s – you can still hear the traces of Brummie in his voice today – and first saw York when he was ten.
He had been to visit his sister in Scarborough and she brought him here on a day trip. He was thunderstruck.
“I remember walking down Stonegate and thinking, ‘I love this place. I want to live in York’,” he says.
So he did. He went to university at York St John and today he’s the ‘inclusive arts officer’ at City of York Council.
It is his job to try involve everyone in the city in arts projects of all kinds. He has an office in Back Swinegate. “And I walk down Stonegate every day when I’m going to work,” he says.
It is a lovely tale: simple, direct, the story of a love affair with York. We all have that kind of story to tell. And now Dave would like to hear yours. He is coordinating a project known as YorkStories2012.
The idea, as part of the York 800 celebrations to mark the 800th anniversary of the city receiving its charter, is to get everyone from schoolchildren to centenarians writing or narrating or recording their personal stories about York.
They don’t have to be epic, exciting stories – although many York people do have epic stories to tell, as the eyewitness accounts of the York blitz we carried all last week revealed.
They can be simple, such as Dave’s: stories that capture a moment of time in the city, or the way you feel about York.
You could write about the first time you went to the cinema in the city; or about your memories of York during the war; or about your York schooldays or – if you weren’t born here – the first time you saw the city.
You could describe what you were thinking as you walked to work in York today; or what your worries for the city’s future are; or your thoughts about York City making the playoffs.
Importantly, you don’t have to write your story down, although the council has guidelines for those who want to (see panel). You can record it on audio-tape: or video it; or tweet it.
Because the council is aware that not everyone with something to say will feel confident about putting it into words, Dave is also looking to recruit story-gatherers – volunteers who will visit pubs or elderly people’s homes or houses in their neighbourhood to ‘collect’ stories from others.
“It’s a real opportunity for people from all walks of life, and of all ages, to capture a moment in history as part of York 800,” Dave says.
“It’s a chance for people to reflect on their relationship with York with their families and their friends, and to bring people together for an intergenerational conversation.”
Stories will be moderated to make sure they are within the guidelines, then posted on the YorkStories2012 website set up by the council. They will also be stored in the city archives.
And then something else will happen to them, courtesy of Scarborough artist Kane Cunningham. Kane has, most famously, made a piece of performance art out of his bungalow at Knipe Point that is slipping into the sea (see panel). In York, his job will be to turn the stories into what he calls a ‘social sculpture’ by downloading them on to memory sticks which can be embedded into the ancient city walls.
This project will dwarf even his house at Knipe Point, he says. The idea is that, once the ‘artwork’ is completed, anyone visiting the city walls will be able access the stories through QR codes on their smartphone.
“So you’ll have all these stories and memories being embedded in the city walls forever, and people will be able to walk along the walls and access the stories where they stand.”
Your story could become part of the city’s history. “In 100 years time, or 800 years time, it could be your story which people are looking at as part of the next York 800,” says Dave Fleming.
That’s a chance not to be missed. So why not start thinking about our story now?
‘Cliffhanger’ artist Kane places tales
KANE Cunningham has his own story to tell. He’s an artist, so naturally his story has an epic quality. Two years ago, he bought a semi-detached bungalow on the top of a cliff overlooking the North Sea at Knipe Point near Scarborough for £3,000.
He got it cheap because the bungalow had been given only three months to live. The cliff on top of which it was built was being eroded. Three nearby bungalows had already been demolished before they could tumble into ruin, endangering walkers below.
Kane, who teaches fine art at Yorkshire Coast College in Scarborough, decided to turn the demise of his bungalow into a work of performance art. He set out to chart every moment of its destruction, with a number of big set pieces along the way.
So he invited 11 guests – including former Cabinet Minister Clare Short – to a meal he called the Last Supper. They spent the evening discussing the big issues of the day, such as the environment, the credit crunch and the global economy.
He invites everybody who visits – and there have been many – to autograph the main room of the bungalow, which he has turned into a chaotic art studio.
Most poignantly of all, he invited children at local schools to take part in an event he called the ‘Last Post’.
He asked them to write a letter about something that was important to them, seal it in an envelope addressed to him at Knipe Point, and mark it ‘Do Not Open.’ Those envelopes – dozens of them – are now pinned up on the walls of the bungalow.
He likes, sometimes, to imagine what the children who wrote those letters might have confided in the knowledge that what they wrote would never be read. “Kids can be incredibly honest,” he says.
But he will never find out. “They will never be opened. This house is going to die, and the letters will go over with it.”
It’s quite a story, told with the true artist’s flair for embellishment.
Unfortunately for Kane – or fortunately, if you look at it from the point of view of his neighbours at Knipe Point – the cliff erosion has proved to be much slower than expected. There are still a good 15 feet or so of lovely green turf between the artist’s bungalow and the edge of the cliff. About eight to nine feet of cliff top have disappeared since he bought the bungalow, he says, and the blue rope stretched along the edge is getting inexorably nearer. “But I never expected it to be this long.”
We should perhaps be grateful for that. It means he has plenty of time to devote to his new project – embedding the York Stories into the fabric of the ancient city walls. Now that’s a real piece of performance art.
Stories already submitted...
Dave Fleming has been overwhelmed by the response to the YorkStories2012 project already. Many stories are already up on the website, and many more will be included once Dave has had a chance to process them – he desperately needs volunteers to help.
Norm Rowley, who was born in York but has lived in Australia for many years, submitted several. This is just one: a memory of the floods of 1947: “Dad Rowley wanted to take his three children into town so seeing we had no transport we walked along until we reached Holgate Road where we encountered flooding outside the Fox Inn,” Norm writes.
“In order for people to pass through, the York Council had placed plank ways by the side of the wall and we were half way along with dad shepherding us when he lost his footing and plunged neck deep into the water. Naturally my brother, sister and I broke into peals of laughter with dad being soaked to the skin and totally embarrassed.
“We never did get to town that day, but there was always another time when we would get there with dry clothes.”
Another entry on the website takes the form of a short video, in which 87-year-old Margery Allison talks about her childhood memories, and how different York was during the war; “My parents lived in Micklegate,” she says, demonstrating a lively sense of humour. “Father always said Micklegate was the only place to live. ‘You’ve got to have a good address. Micklegate is the address to have’…”
Life was different during the war, Margery says. “We used to grumble about York, it was a dull city. There was nothing to do, nothing for young people to do. We danced at the Co-op, and occasionally at the De Grey rooms…”
• How to prepare and submit your story...
If you have a story to contribute, the city council has prepared a guide, the York Stories Toolkit, which gives advice on how to write or record it. The toolkit is available from yorkstories2012.com
Written stories should be a maximum of 300 words, although they can be much shorter. The toolkit gives advice on how to structure a story, and how to add details and descriptions and emotions that bring it to life.
“Paint pictures with words,” it advises. “Think about your senses, such as ‘I could smell chocolate in the air’ or ‘the flooded river was a mountain of water’. Create strong images in the minds of those who read your story.”
Once your story is ready, submit it by email to the following email address: email@example.com
As well as stories, Dave Fleming also needs volunteers, to help gather and archive stories. He is also looking for volunteers with digital and internet skills to help manage and market the website the York Stories 2012 website.
If you would like to get involved, email firstname.lastname@example.org