Exploring Hull and its high water

Julian Wood travels around Kingston-Upon-Hull and immerses himself in 2017's 'City of Culture'

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Sitting down with a friend for the morning pre-lecture coffee, I decided that I could no longer put off broaching the subject: “If I were to say ‘Hull. Discuss’, what would your response be?” Even accommodating the strange spontaneity of my question, the look with which I was met—as if he had decided to consume his morning fix in granular form only—said it all. “Umm…City of Culture”, came the bemused response, “industry, I suppose, maybe football”.

The mention of Hull, or Kingston-Upon-Hull to give its seldom-used full name, is sadly the common precursor to such reactions. The furrowed brow; the kind of strained face one would give to somebody quoting the Trainspotting script in a nursery. They are the familiar response to the mention of a town that has become an almost unspeakable byword for all that is bleak, Northern, post-industrial misery. Forever fixed near the top of the ‘worst places to live’ list in the national consciousness, the title ‘City of Culture’ seems to be the one positive thing anyone is willing to say about the East Riding of Yorkshire’s largest settlement. It is the one potentially positive, stereotype-avoiding thing people can come up with, and when pressed further many struggle to elaborate on anything distinctly recognisable about the city.

What actually is cultural about Hull after all? Edinburgh has Sir Walter Scott, Liverpool the Beatles, London the West End, to name but one for each. What, if anything, has this Land-That-Time-Forgot ever given to the UK that would ever constitute ‘cultural’?

And this pervasive attitude is a devastating shame. Hull, the winner of the ‘UK City of Culture 2017’ competition, is—as its City Council’s website accurately describes—a “great Northern city with a rich heritage and vibrant cultural offerings”. But it has yet to show its true colours to the country in this regard. It is true that Hull is playing host to many cultural celebrations over the course of the year hosting, for example, three concerts of the BBC Proms performance of Handel’s ‘Water Music’, at the Stage@Dock on 22 July.

Such activities are excellent opportunities for the city, and I thoroughly encourage and welcome them, but they still do not properly constitute the showing off of Hull’s own culture. They almost suggest that Hull’s 2017 status is a form of slap-on label. It is cultural because a distant committee has decreed as such, and in order to celebrate this, they will ‘put culture over here today’, dropping it, like a patronising UNICEF, into an otherwise barren wasteland that could not possibly come up with any of its own. Maybe some stereotypes simply die hard in people’s minds, but certainly this city’s real character, even with its new title, remains unknown to most.

Now, I must confess to committing the cardinal sin of essay-writing: searching for ‘culture’ in the Oxford English Dictionary. My guaranteed afterlife in the eternal fires of Academic Hell aside, the definitions with which I was presented seem to fit perfectly with Hull, despite its unfortunate national image. “Distinctive ideas, customs, social behaviour, products, or way of life”? Absolutely. “Artistic and intellectual development”? Definitely. Hull is unfairly preceded by a reputation as a forlorn, flavourless backwater—it is a place as distinct as they come, with its own unique character and richly varied contributions to the world of human achievement. It is simply a matter of being willing to look for them, and, in the absence of being able to truly appreciate these things from a distance, I did.

Paragon Interchange, the grand, column-lined Victorian train station on Hull’s bustling Ferensway. In the shadow of the huge board celebrating the city’s 2017 status, there is already evidence of Hull’s justification in receiving the accolade. Amidst the crowd on the packed concourse stands a seven foot bronze statue of former Poet Laureate Philip Larkin, frozen mid-motion, manuscripts in hand, rushing towards the platform.

Predictable jokes about the virtues of fleeing Hull aside, the station itself was celebrated in the opening line of Larkin’s 1964 poem ‘The Whitsun Weddings’, and Hull served him faithfully as a city-sized muse from his appointment as its University’s Librarian in 1955. Larkin’s own succinct reflection on the city: “I never thought about Hull until I was there”, is sadly all too accurate—it can be difficult to remember somewhere so ‘over there’, surrounded on all three sides by sprawling farmland, let alone its significant contributions to the world of literature. Yet significant they were, for Larkin was not alone. Leaving Paragon and heading West, to Bishop Alcock Road, one comes face to face the marble statue of the 17th century metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell, who grew up in the city and later served as its MP.

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Evidently, despite being the home of one of the most distinctive accents in Northern England—with vowels so flattened that even a simple can of ‘kerka kerla’ appears an alien concept—the city has inspired some of the finest lyricism in the English language.

Certainly, nobody would deny that this was a significant ‘cultural’ contribution, and indeed the arts are a greatly under-appreciated aspect of Hull’s creative output. Still in the west of the city, in the leafy suburb of Newland, I am greeted by the residents’ own self-assertion of this: the plastering of a large poster onto the side of a generator. The picture: the cover of the first album by Hull band The Housemartins, aptly named—in typically city-proud fashion—London 0, Hull 4. Initially based here at a humble terrace in nearby Grafton Street, this jangly guitar group–best known for their 1986 Number 1 acapella cover of Isley-Jasper Isley’s ‘Caravan of Love’—was the training ground for two of modern music’s giants. Paul Heaton, subsequent co-founder of The Beautiful South, served as frontman, singer, and lyricist. Behind him, the unassuming Norman Cook, now perhaps better recognised by his stage moniker of Fatboy Slim, plucked at the bass. Backtracking south towards the city centre, at 38 Beverley Road, lies the former premises of Turners Furniture Shop. It was here in 1982, after taking their name from the shop’s tagline, that Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt founded Everything But the Girl, best remembered for their 1994 Number One single ‘Missing’.

Of course, there’s visual art itself, perhaps especially surprising given the needless reputation of the place. Certainly, one would not expect Stig of the Dump to paint something Rembrandt-esque, yet once again the city’s unjustified caricature precedes it. Until recently, when it was moved to the Humber Street Gallery for preservation, one of the locals’ most prized visual expressions of the ‘Hull spirit’ adorned a corrugated iron jetty at East Hull’s Alexandra Dock. I refer to ‘Dead Bod’, a human sized painting of an upturned, stylised dead bird, with the words that gave the image its name scrawled beneath. ‘Bod’ being a local slang term for bird, the piece was allegedly the post-pub effort of Captain Len ‘Pongo’ Rood and Chief Engineer Gordon Mason in the 1960s. It became a symbol of the city’s rich maritime heritage, the bold outline being one of the most prominent features to guide the once vast fishing fleets on the River Humber back to their docks.

Associated British Ports painstakingly took the effort to transfer the image in March 2015 after a significant campaign was mounted to save it in the face of demolition. This included the creation of a special ‘Save Dead Bod’ blonde ale by Humber Street’s Yorkshire Brewing Company, a typically Hull-esque gesture that highlights the importance of the down-to-earth, ‘good chat, good drink’ mentality that gives the community its cohesive power for such actions . These efforts by the locals are as good an indication as any of their devotion to this aspect of their own heritage-based identity, and of their immense pride in championing it.

Strolling through the empty murmur of East Hull’s waterside, the city’s fishing fleets are long gone. The damage to their industry was irreversible after the so-called ‘Cod Wars’, a series of Iceland-UK confrontations from 1952 to 1976 over fishing rights, ending with the loss of Hull’s prime catching grounds. Yet, despite being estuarial, and no longer a fishing capital, the people of Hull are fanatically proud of their maritime connections.

In July 2016, 3,200 residents gathered, naked, and painted four shades of maritime blue, from 5am in the city centre to take part in New York photographer Spencer Tunick’s ‘Sea of Hull’ installation. The photographs, recently opened for exhibition at Hull’s Ferens Gallery on 21 April 2017, depict the volunteers as a blurred collective mass, arranged as flowing waves through the streets of the Victorian city centre, and in the Queen’s Gardens in concentric rings as a huge human ship wheel. The sheer number of volunteers, and their willingness to totally expose themselves to the freezing morning winds for multiple hours—a task requiring multiple truckloads of Northern mental grit—shows the importance the people of Hull attach to their own unique take on ‘culture’.

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Everyone was socially levelled by the process, an egalitarian gesture where background and class were discarded in favour of collective celebration. Even the great rivalry within the city itself: between the two sides of the River Hull that runs down its centre—seen most passionately manifested at the Rugby League games between west-supported Hull F.C. and east-supported Hull Kingston Rovers—was put aside for a common gesture of appreciation. A city that inspires such devotion from its residents, especially in the pursuit of artistic creation, cannot constitute the swamp of protozoan lowlife many are too willing to brand it. Hull needs anything but the truck-based import of culture—it already lives powerfully, in its own distinct form, within every resident and every paving slab.

It is a place that inspires devotion: the people of Hull—or ‘Hullensians’—are proud of their city, and are unwilling to succumb to external pressure in demonising it. The only city in the UK to have non-red telephone boxes—opting for cream instead when it escaped British Telecom’s monopoly—is a place that is quietly confident in its own unique identity. Indeed, it is this sense of self-reflection that is perhaps among the most admirable traits of the city as a collective entity, and lies at the heart of what constitutes arguably the most overlooked, yet culturally significant, building in the city.

At the corner of West Hull’s Beverley Road, number 144 on the corner with Fountain Road, I pass what appears to be yet another one of the boarded-up, crumbling remnants of Victorian Northern England. Another example of the grim-covered, expired grandeur that characterises the common mental picture of Hull. But this dereliction is, unlike most, deliberate.

The wreck’s original incarnation, the National Picture Theatre, was, on the night of 17-18 March 1941, filled with 150 patrons for a screening as the Second World War distantly raged. The film: ironically, Charlie Chaplain’s The Great Dictator. At 10pm, an airborne mine from a German aircraft fell through the ceiling and exploded, devastating the building and smashing the very glass that still remains, in small fragments, in the corners of the skeletal window frames. Miraculously, an air raid warning prompted prior preparation, and all 150 moviegoers emerged unharmed from the incident. Hull, as an industrial centre and key port, was the most bombed city outside London: 1,200 were killed, and over 153,000 made homeless by the Hull Blitz, as more than 95 per cent of the city’s housing was damaged.

In an act nothing short of outrageous, the September 2015 BBC documentary Blitz Cities did not cover Hull, prompting bitter indignation from the city that serves as home to one of the very last non-ecclesiastical bomb-damaged sites in the UK. Indeed, while seemingly overlooked, the building—save ageing almost unchanged since impact—seems to form a fitting reminder of the ground-level, local, and irreplaceable damage of war. It is a shattered mausoleum to thousands of voices silenced by conflict—those often too readily forgotten in the grand narratives that relate them. Hull is anything but the remorseless, bleak frontier zone it is all too often characterised as. It is a place of tender sentimentality and respectful appreciation, a place whose rugged industrial past does not rob it of a heart. This is the Hull many are unable or unwilling to see: a place of distinct identity, bold creative expression, and passionate and powerful feeling. It is a city of culture not just for 2017, but for all years. ‘Hull. Discuss.’ can have no brief response, and certainly anything but a silent one. People can laugh at the prospect as much as they like, but to paraphrase what Larkin said: ‘You’ll never think about Hull until you’re there’, and it’s well worth it.