I visited York for a day. It was an opportunistic visit, tagging along as a tourist while my partner was there on a teaching gig. For all the culture and layers of history that Edinburgh has to offer, I had begun to feel a bit hemmed in at home, seeing the same places every week, reading the same Scotland-centric news.
A change is often better than a rest, to lighten up the mind. One of my colleagues advised that it might not be much of a change – that I would find York had a similarly grisly history to Edinburgh. On our small and much-invaded island, it seemed that the two places had endured parallel sieges and colonisations. Nevertheless, I fancied a day trip, and the more gruesome the history, the better.
What first surprised me on my arrival in York – and I'm ashamed to admit to my ignorance – was the wealth of the town. On a sunny Saturday in May, business was booming. A taxi driver explained that the York Races were on, which was why people were dressed up to the nines. Outside slick bars and traditional pubs were tables filled with beaming groups of people. There were tourists, sweet shops, ice-cream vans, and an old-fashioned carousel in a busy square. Audiences gathered around talented buskers. I was delighted by all of this. It was an unexpected, sunny, joyful departure from the grim despatches from the north of England that I had seen in the news.
Yorkminster is breathtaking, inside and out, and has the interior delicacy that all gigantic religious buildings have. Inside, voices fell to whispers; rows of candles flickered in dark corners; footsteps made papery noises on stone floors. The cathedral has outlasted all manner of invaders, kings and queens and governments. It began as a wooden structure around 630 AD. The current structure was consecrated in 1472, after a 250-year build. I thought of those mysterious people of the past, who had a genius for creating an unearthly atmosphere, where the divine could respectably be invited in. We bask in it today, agnostics included (I love a good cathedral).
The Shambles, old narrow alleyways where meat and wares were once sold, have survived miraculously intact. Merrily tilting buildings of lime and wood beams hang over a maze of boutique shops, jewellers, and mandatory Harry Potter merchandise stores. There is a Swinegate and a Coffee Lane. On every corner, there is a small ancient church, asleep amongst the glitz and clamour of the shops. The scrupulous maintenance of the Shambles and Yorkminster spoke of a judicious investment of time and money by people long since gone; a long-term design for prosperity.
As I walked amongst the cheerful shops, I wondered how this all looked to tourists not from Britain; not from Europe. You could easily believe that Brexit was a distant, cryptic political hysteria, or a figment of the media's imagination. Following a pattern across England, the metropolitan university town of York voted remain in the EU referendum, while voters in the countryside and struggling, depressed towns near York voted leave. That I was viewing a small pocket of wealth and security in a divided country was made clear to me from some hasty internet research on my phone, as I sat under the shade of a tree in Dean's Park, next to the cathedral. When I was a busy ant weaving through the streets all had been well, but with a bit more perspective everything was changed. Yorkminster now took on a kind of pathos.
I have been taking refuge in history recently. As someone who voted remain, I find myself in a discarded minority, in a country that has gone mad and begun to eat itself. The climate crisis requires humans to join together in a long-term vision which must transcend borders and the lengths of our own lifetimes. At a time when climate action is crucial in this country, we have instead embarked on a self-destructive charade which will have no conclusive resolution. Brexit will eat up our time and money, our faith in our political institutions, and any nostalgic sense of ourselves as a prudent nation.
History provides a change of perspective (almost as good as a rest from it all). I put down my phone with its Bad Brexit News, took a moment, and looked at the cathedral, which has stood there, in one form or another, for well over a thousand years. In its earlier days, there was an attempt to destroy the building every few years, by one inflamed faction or another. William the Conquerer's soldiers and some motley Danes all had a try, before work began on a proper stone structure. Thereafter, every couple of hundred years, it seems, there were attacks, lootings and fires, each followed by a programme of repair.
The history of Yorkminster, when viewed from the lofty position of 2019, appears as a series of obscure squabbles. I tried to take heart in a view that went beyond the paltry stuff of one person's lifetime: as if a siege by Cromwell's forces was much of a muchness with the destruction of Catholic relics in Elizabethan times. All of this conviction, all of this violence, began to melt into a sense of continuous human activity, a tug-of-war between destruction and restoration. I consoled myself: we are currently in the middle of another of these waves of destruction, and that is all it is, another wave, which will eventually turn the other way, toward repair and stability.
It was a comfort, for a moment, as I sat ensconced in a peaceful day in a well-kept park, in a rich town in England. On the train home to Scotland that evening, every passenger seemed exhausted and tight-lipped, grey-faced and grumbly. I was counting out in my head the chores that needed done at home and the items on my to-do list at work, and the other passengers appeared to be engaged in similar dutiful thoughts. The news on my phone tugged at the corner of my mind, asking for my attention. Theresa May had just resigned and news sites were busy with opinions on a possible replacement. There is no way to ignore Brexit; it is very real and very near. A wave of destruction, in a long series of waves, it may be, but we are bonded to the here and now.
When the train rolled under the castle on its way to Waverley, I saw Edinburgh up above us, picturesque, steadfast in its glamour and its ostentatious display of history, and my spirits were lifted. For a moment I sat and believed in the fantastical Edinburgh-before-my-eyes, a pocket of a part of a city, enticing, untroubled, lovely and persevering.