Wednesday, June 13, 2018

A Northern Digression

Way back in 2004 when I was a 'Writer in Residence' for Somerset Libraries offering a menu of themed readings, one of these was 'Places' which included, just for fun, a brief extract from Crap Towns - the 50 worst in the UK. Number One was 'Hull - it smells of Death.' As well as olfactory repulsiveness, WW2 devastation had been compounded by '60s & '70s brutalist concrete reconstruction, leading the nominating writer to conclude 'no matter how bad things get later in life, it can never, ever be as bad as living in Hull.' Since then (aided possibly by EU rulings) those morbid aromas from nearby docks, factories, and tanning works seem to have diminished, and 2017 European City of Culture status has completed the transformation of Hull into an absolutely brilliant place for a writers' weekend, as poet Hazel Stewart and I can happily confirm. (That's the steam fountain outside City Hall in the top picture - great fun on a warm day,  though a notice on the nearby toilets firmly forbids parents from drying their children therein.)

Our B&B, the Kingston Theatre Hotel, a Victorian mansion beside a nice little community park (with a statue of course) was perfectly placed to see all the interesting bits, including the old town and Fruit Market, the river and docks, and all the posh stuff around the ornamental fountains.
This includes the Ferens Art Gallery, opened 1927 and now with a good collection outstandingly well curated, with exciting proximity choices: one gallery had a focus on 'Conversations' spanning eras, styles, and media - and interactive rooms as children's arty play areas. There's also a video of the extraordinary 2017 event Sea of Hull, artist Spencer Tunick's active installation of 3200 naked people painted blue.

Hull can boast quite a few residents born great, or having greatness thrust upon them, and boast it does, with many of them literally on pedestals: from William III in 1734  to 1970s pop star David Whitfield, from William Wilberforce to Philip Larkin, late for his train, they bestride and survey the streets and alleys.
Old Hull loved to build big: courts and museums with domes and turrets, lofty statues and grand fountains. There's a peaceful central park that was originally a dock, created to cope with the shipping gridlock in the harbour in Victoria’s day: Queen's Dock is now Queen’s Gardens, with long pools of water lily ponds and a tall Solar Gate which allows sunlight through its cheese-grater-like texture in tiny predicted pools.
There are plenty of historic pubs - my favourites were dockside Minerva and Ye Olde White Harte, where the plot was hatched close Hull gates to Charles I when he arrived to claim the city's arsenal. The plan succeeded, and Charles responded by attack - an act of civil war against his own citizens, thus precipitating the conflict that led to the establishment of Commonwealth in 1649. History oozes out of every stained glass window here...
History is definitely the currency of now, in this city: the Museum Complex, a vast hangar-like building, acts as a kind of directory of exhibitions, and there's a Museum Quarter where you'll find William Wilberforce's house with its beautiful garden and mulberry tree (and a disturbingly graphic account of the slavery he strove to end) next to a Museum of Transport, and the East Riding Museum of just about everything from the dawn of time, which has so many life-size life-like models silently going about their business on the many floors of this tardis-like building that I nearly had a panic attack.
Everywhere we went, we stopped for 10 minutes of free-flow writing (Ted Hughes reckoned this the ideal length of time: 'the compulsion to haste frees ideas previously hidden' he suggested). For a writer, this kind of practice is as essential as breathing: it helps you to realise if you can think it and feel it, you can write it, and to trust your mind, however unexpected the words it produces. And writing-and-sharing like this a really lovely way to have a serious catch-up with a long-time friend who now lives a long way away.
Fourteen hours travelling forth and back, with only one full day in between, may seem a tad arduous but we had such a good time it was worth it. Every corner brought unexpected surprises: wandering cobbles, we found ourselves in a dismantling film set and were plied with strawberries and apples by the crew... we discovered a great (&cheap) home-made curry pub just when we realised we needed supper (breakfast had been massive)... and we arrived unexpectedly at Hull Truck Theatre exactly minutes before LipService Theatre were about to perform Mr Darcy Loses The Plot so I'll end this digression by telling you about this utterly hilarious pastiche of writers' problems: On a set composed mainly of quilting with an occasionally- 
(and cleverly)-used projection screen, Maggie Fox and Sue Ryding played every role, not only all those women writers of previous centuries struggling to fit their scribbling in with the life of a lady - Jane Austen, Mrs Gaskill, Daphne du Maurier, Beatrix Potter - but most of their characters too - even Jemima Puddleduck. Like Frome's amazing thespian duo Rare Species, they have an extreme-performance style that's hard to describe - this little video gives an idea of their fast-moving absurdity - but with an edge, illuminating constraints on women creatives in earlier eras. If LipService ever come south-west, don't miss them.

I'll leave you with a line from Philip Larkin, famously critical of his adopted home yet conceding it 'as good a place to write in as any': inscribed on his personal solar-circle in Queen's Gardens is the reflection: what will survive of us is love.

No comments: