Inspired by the literary travel guide series City-Picks I have been spending some time trying to discover how easy it is to pull together a few literary gems about one of my favourite cities, the beautful historic cathedral city of York. I have recently used the literary guide to Amsterdam (see article) and so I have read a whole range of extracts from fiction and travel writing which added to my perspective (though not all of it read before or while I was there, honesty compels me to admit).
I travelled to York for the first time in ages, in February of this year and it occurred to me that on my many trips there I had never taken a York related book along with me. I guess I am not the only person who likes to read destination related material judging by the frequent customer requests that I get at work for ideas for books to take on trips.
One of my own favourite holiday pairings was Frank Delaney’s A Walk to the Western Isles after Boswell and Johnson, with my visit many years ago, to the west coast of Scotland. I did not manage to see all of the places that Delaney (or Johnson before him) visited, but the book went very nicely with a cottage at the edge of Loch Carron, amid wonderful scenery. The odd bottle of wine after a day walking added a pleasant glow to an evening spent with the book. Mind you, I seem to recall that I also took 84 Charing Cross Road (Helene Hanff) on that holiday which was not exactly of local interest.
But back to York in literature; I did originally read Kate Atkinson (York born) merely because her first novel Behind the Scenes at the Museum is set in that city, but sadly I didn’t read it in situ. I have been trawling through my elderly edition of The Oxford Illustrated Literary Guide to Great Britain and Ireland in search of further York related inspiration. I learnt that the philosopher Alcuin was born in York as was W.H Auden and that Shelley stayed there with his new wife Harriet Westbrook. Now, did Shelley leave us his thoughts on the cathedral city as a honeymoon destination I wonder? Now there is a thought with which to conjure methinks…
If I want a description of York to put in my guide to the city, apparently Daniel Defoe describes York (the birthplace of Robinson Crusoe) in A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724-7). I can already feel an urge ‘to let my fingers do the walking’ and do book searches for this one (I am guessing it is no longer in print but I have yet to check). JB Priestley was Yorkshire (Bradford) born and I am sure that he must have described York somewhere in his extensive writings.
Also into the mix I can perhaps put Laurence Sterne who apparently upset the good people of York with some of the characterisations in Tristram Shandy (particularly that of Dr Slop) as they were recognised as local people. Sterne was the Prebend of York Minster and lodged in Stonegate for a while, where the book was published. I suppose putting the neighbours in a book is often rather risky unless you are prepared only to say pleasant things about them.
Well that will do for a start, though I think a great deal more research will be needed if I am to create a satisfactory literary impression of the city. Which of course, leaves me the arduous task of finding more books to read….
This is a tweaked version of a piece that was originally posted up on Hand and Star on May 15th 2011.
For more on York, see this piece by Mary Byrne on Irish News Review
Photo credits, with thanks: Verity