TO HULL AND BACK – the fall and rise of Hull, the UK’s new City of Culture (Mirror, Nov 2013)

 

Hull. Rhymes with dull. One vowel away from hell. These unfortunate linguistic properties have made this sizeable city in the North (turn right near the top of the M1 before L**ds, and keep going) the butt of media jokes since before newsprint was invented. In fact, they’ll probably title this piece ‘To Hull and Back’, as many thousands of previous stories involving the town have done before. It’s an open goal.

While there is undeniably something about travelling to Kingston-upon-Hull (to give it its full, only-ever-used-in-articles-like-this name) that can seem very trying, especially if you have to change trains at Doncaster to a laughably named ‘Sprinter’ service, there’s certainly nothing particularly Hellish about it these days. Admittedly, the ‘dull’ associations were, for a while, backed up by The Idler’s 2003 book Crap Towns: The 50 Worst Places To Live In The UK. It saw Hull named the clear winner, and while it was easy to dismiss that verdict as the work of sneery London poshoes, it was actually the result of an online poll. The people (or the people that read a sneery London website) had spoken.

But since then, the place has seen a sharp upturn in its public profile, a journey of redemption that has now culminated in Hull being elected the UK’s City of Culture for 2017. Why it’s four years hence I really don’t know, but best thank the lord for small mercies.

 

There’s a very Yorkshire-ish stubborn independence about Hull’s most enduring cultural jewels that has been reflected in the very same culture that I hope the 2017 celebrations will recognise. I’m not talking about undeniably impressive attractions like world-class aquarium The Deep, the Maritime Museum or the celebrated Hull Truck Theatre.

I’m talking about nightlife that was there when I was a teenager and against all odds, is still there now. Such as The New Adelphi club on De Grey Street, a club the size of a small terraced house (because that’s what it used to be) that puts on new music every night of the week, and the fashion-proof goth nightclub Spiders, which for over 30 years has plied dirt cheap booze and anti-social music to weirdos, freaks and alarmingly young-looking people wearing too much eyeliner. I was once one of their number, and just as only Goths and cockroaches will probably survive a nuclear blast, I suspect Spiders will also still be standing, and still selling the Pangalactic Gargle Blaster cocktail.

 

Hull’s enduring commitment to the noble sport of Rugby League should also be noted. Such is the passion for the 13-man variety of egg-chasing in the city that when its two professional clubs, Hull FC and Hull Kingston Rovers, met at Wembley in the 1980 Challenge Cup Final, legend has it that someone hung a sign on the A63 (the road to Hull, since you ask) reading “Will the last person to leave the city please turn out the lights”. As the only city in England outside London to boast two top-flight rugby clubs and a Premier League football club, I think we can confidently call it a sporting mecca.

And since RL legend Clive Sullivan already has a main road named after him, can I suggest Hull City legend Dean Windass, now humbly turning out for a village club a few miles from the KC stadium, possibly have a boozer rebranded in his pitbull-like image?

 

I hope the City of Culture also honour Bob Carver’s legendary chip shop on Trinity House Lane, if only for its sign, which looks as if it hasn’t changed in 50 years.

And special nod should be made to The Land of Green Ginger, which isn’t a land, but a street, which claims to contain the World’s Smallest Window. Not sure what Norris McWhirter would have made of that claim, but good attitude anyway.

 

Again, you’ll notice that there’s a certain bloody-minded and slightly surreal independent quality to all these cultural assets. I mean, Spiders even refuses to play dance music, a good two decades since the last indie band got a remixer in. Mental, but strangely admirable.

The cultural products of the city have also inherited those traits. The City’s two most successful bands, The Housemartins and The Beautiful South who formed from their ashes, still lived in the city for years after more impressionable musicians would have fled to the big smoke, and did weird Northern socialist things like sharing their profits between them.

Even long-serving Hull Uni librarian and adopted son of the city Philip Larkin liked the sense of being removed from the rest of the country, as expressed in his supremely evocative poem ‘Here’.

 

The fierce individuality of the city is somehow reflected in its infrastructure. Like the cream-coloured phone boxes that people proudly use every bit as seldom as the red ones in the rest of the UK. Or the trains – if you’re lucky enough to get a direct one to Hull from London, you’ll be travelling on Hull trains. You don’t get Bristol trains, or Stoke-On-Trent trains, now do you?

 

Along with that individualism comes a certain flintiness in the attitude of some Hull people. If some less-loved parts of the UK have adopted the mantra ‘No-one likes us, we don’t care’, Hull’s attitude is more like “No-one cares about us, and we don’t like it”.

The place has been neglected, ignored, patronised, and much-maligned for many a long year. I mean, many of those condemning it in the Crap Towns book repeated the apocryphal claim that it smells of fish. Given that there have only been a handful of fishing boats docked in Hull since the early 1980s this seems scientifically impossible, but still the reputation persists.

 

And sometimes you suspect that the City’s out of sight, out of mind status has had more serious repercussions than a few bruised East Yorkshire egos. For instance, Hull suffered terribly during the summer floods of 2007, but presumably because it was a darn sight less picturesque than Tewkesbury, no-one outside Yorkshire noticed, and the help from central government was sluggish in comparison.(http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/flood-costs-to-top-15-billion-488642

This isn’t a new thing, either. As a major port, Hull was the worst-affected British city apart from London during the Blitz, with 95% of buildings affected. – but you wouldn’t know it, because the more central city of Coventry has since become synonymous for that particular catastrophe, and others’ suffering is largely forgotten.

 

So that’s all the more reason why this long-overdue national attention is so welcome.

Of course, like most professional northerners who talk up the charms of places like this, I don’t actually live there any more, and haven’t for a quarter of a century. In fact, I never really did anyway – I’m from Beverley, a small town a full eight miles north often dismissed by prolier-than-thou Hullensians who have never been there as ‘posh’. But it was a second home then, and it always will be. But please, don’t anyone else start moving there – it’s already one of the few places you can still buy a house for a decent price.

 

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