I wait behind an old fashioned, green painted, heavy iron British Rail gate. Craning my neck as the just-arrived Hull Train from Kings Cross snorts a few engine noises and a sort of cut-price crowd file along down the platform towards me. I’m stood in front of the Royal Station Hotel on a Friday evening. I’m stood next to Philip Larkin too – in tall statue form. I strain and peer to make out Giristroula, joining me here back in Britain.
After a little under two years away in Greece, we have returned to finish the uncompleted journey that had laid, just on the edge of vision, a nagging thought, while we had made a new life for ourselves two thousands miles away in a country on the very southern edge of the continent. I had arrived on my own a few days earlier and made my way up north, but now we are going to finish the tour round Britain together. A tour we had started, and which we had travelled in a clockwise fashion from London round three quarters of the country, before the journey had stalled in the north east. We’re going to pick it up again, from Hull. But Hull is, of course, the end of the line. We are starting in a place that really makes little sense for beginnings. A city beached up on Britain’s eastern mudflats. The end of England. And beyond Hull, the end of land. People don’t pass through this city. If people come this way, they’re only coming to Hull.
I came here myself exactly 23 years ago. To go to university.
“You’ve just come off London train have you?” said the thin-moustached, short-sleeved, copper bracelet and anchor-tattoo driver of the Cream Cabs taxi back then.
“Ooh you’re all cunts down there. Arseholes the lot of you. Fucking Londoners, can’t fucking stand you people… You’re not friendly like what we are up here…”
It was my introduction to the city. And it served as a pretty good one. A bit surly, a bit suspicious of outsiders, a hatred of flashiness, or anyone over-friendly. And quick to cut any ideas you might have of yourself, any pretension, cut it right to the bone. But also generous. And tough. And funny. And when I left, 3 years later, of course I was fully attached to the place. It has a bad name, this is true. Say you’re going to Hull and people sneer, look at you as if you must be mad. But perhaps this is why I grew to liked it so much. Yes, you could be proud of your city if you went to Manchester or York. Yes, Durham has some cache to boast of when reflecting on your student years. But like having a brother with a club foot or a gammy leg, I felt a loyalty, a fierce protection towards Hull. And, when I left, a real affection. Would my travelling Greek Giristroula see things the same way though?
We trundle out of Hull Paragon station and, straight away, some things have changed. Hull has clearly had a clean-up, a refit. It has been named the UK City of Culture this year – more sneering hoots from those who have never been there, and never want to go. I’m not sure if it is because of this newly finding itself, a little nervously, in the country’s glare – like the old timer in the corner of the pub, who’s been happily drinking on for year after year, smiling quietly with suffering humour at the other brash showboaters shouting and boasting, suddenly being called up to do his long-forgotten party piece. Or Hull could have had this sprucing earlier, in the 20 years since I’d last been here. But it immediately looks different. As we walked out, past the garish pop-up stand for new cultural events, I was surprised by the gargantuan glass and shining steel shopping centre towering above. A music academy below. The small old Hull Truck theatre I used to go to has moved and grown fat and new and impressive. I feel slightly disoriented. Even things I was sure would remain seem to have changed in just this short time since we left Britain. The perennial, durable country that I thought I had left safely in aspic. The precious stone set in the silver sea. Nothing stays the same.
But as we headed north out of the centre, towards the Avenues round Pearson Park – my old land of student digs – things slowly start to right themselves. Hull still seemed to have all its dark red Georgian streets intact. My old regular fish and chip shop glowed in the falling dusk, still serving the, unique to Hull, patties and ‘chip spice’. The park was still there, sheltered by dusty sycamores. Larkin’s old house growled over in its corner. This at least felt familiar. Princes Avenue, the old thoroughfare that the poet would have looked out over from his top floor was strangely cosmopolitan though. Cafés, bistros, trendy signage, young couple sat sipping in large glass bays – rather than the gloomy bald head at his dark Pearson Park window. I tried to see myself here, years ago, cycling around these streets – still as flat as mirrors, as they always were – but couldn’t quite make out the ghost of myself, passing by. Being here, being back in Britain, this was going to take longer to adjust to than I thought.
We’ve rented rooms in the old town, just off the brilliantly named street: The Land Of Green Ginger. Peeling bells from St Mary’s the Virgin across the road bouncing off the old Guildhall buildings.
The old town of Hull is beautiful. It’s small – German air raids saw to that: the second most bombed city in Britain – but beautiful. No one really thinks of this, I guess, when they sit in their London publishing houses, all sleek lines and designer minimalism, and smugly add Hull into books about Crap Towns. A trio of astonishingly old, good, pubs I remembered well – The Old White Harte, Ye Olde Black Boy and The George. I also recalled that Hull was very proud that, in the Old White Harte, the 17th century council men of Hull had been the first in the country to turn away the King during the English Civil War. And in the wall of The George there sits the smallest window in the world. A slit of an opening where a cramped doorman kept watch in this old coaching inn. I remember, drunk on my student grant, full of the hubris of youth, prodding at the unimpressed landlord – fat stomach half contained under his patterned V-neck sweater, face of undisguised irritation – and saying “What about those little windows you get on boilers, eh? Those windows to see if the flame is still lit… They’ve got to be a smaller window than your one…” If there’s one thing Hullensians hate more than a student, it’s a cocky student trying to be smart. And if there’s one thing they hate more than that, it’s a cocky student trying to be smart from London. Still, I’m sure all this is forgotten, and we take a seat in the White Harte for the night. The night has turned into a gale outside, the wind ushering in the rain. And as if to show us just how removed Hull is, how set-apart this lonely northern daughter of a city is, there’s a couple of men in the dark recess playing East Country folk music. Other men of the pub then get up at intervals to read poetry out loud. Maybe it’s to do with the loneliness, the feeling of being on the edge of everything? The strange light Hull has? Whatever it is, this is a city for poetry.
The next morning we take the short stroll to Hull’s main square: town hall; statue of Victoria erected with some seeming vague contempt above the gents; some youths loitering around outside the toilets, as they do. The great Ferens Art Gallery – changed again from when I used to while away dull student days there. Now it’s showing this year’s Turner Prize exhibition. I wonder what the few regulars – the old men in falling down trousers and myself – would have made of that, 20 years ago. Not much, is my guess. We catch a bus from the spread Queen’s Gardens, built over the old docks: benches, grass, lovers crooning under the trees.
Hull’s dock were filled in and made parks and grim shopping centres years before I came here. But the dropping off of the fishing industry wasn’t the cause of the hardship of the Hull I knew. It was the falling off of the industries that had moved in after the ships had gone that was causing the damage and the impoverishment that I saw – and the rest of the country knew but did its best to ignore. “A northern town” was how Hull was described in the newspapers during the second world war bombing. Nameless anonymity to protect the plans and the morale of the rest of the country. Just “a northern town” was pretty much how it was seen in the 80s and 90s too.
We’re heading to the university, where the library there is holding an exhibition of the poet, and the library’s famous old custodian, Philip Larkin and his life. Almost implausibly the East Yorkshire Motor Services bus number 105 that turns up has been named – a little name plate by the driver’s window – the ‘Philip Larkin’. I can’t remember anyone being interested in Larkin when I lived here. But now he has statues, plaques, ceramic toads, ‘Larkin trails’. And a bus. We get off the bus earlier than the university though. To take a walk in Spring Bank cemetery. A dark, dank place which I was always fond of and walked in during more of my unspent student days. A City Of Culture erected sign tells me Larkin did too. Nothing has changed inside. Nothing has changed in 150 years, I imagine. Derelict overgrown ground. Nettles rise between the tombstones. A Victorian haven of quiet. We sit for a while and I start to feel happy. Giristroula motions we should move on though. We head out onto Spring Bank, past the cream telephone boxes – again unique to Hull – that I remembered you could make a call for as long as you wanted, for hours, just for 10p. The council has sold off its independent Hull telephone network now. Rolled all the money into the stadiums and the projects that have given the city its new feel. I’m glad the old cream boxes still remain though.
I lived on Spring Bank once. Above Norman Harrap’s shop. Selling old Yorkshire tiffany lamps and leaded lights, ‘Norman Harrap & Son. Est. 1933’ the old shop sign says in stained glass. Now it’s next door to the, equally good-looking, but quite different feel really, ‘Baghdad Bakery’. Further down the road there are other establishments I could never have imagined 20 years ago. ‘The Kurdistan’ Restaurant’, ‘Koomaadii African Market’, ‘Wlasny Wyrob Wedlin Polski Shop’. Just as there was never any mention of Larkin when I was here, there was never really an ethnic presence in the city either. Never really a black or a brown face. The people that were born here, remained. A pleasant sort of stagnation for them, I guess, but the city didn’t really have one of those populations that had drifted there from all over the place. But this seemed to be changing now.
Many of the pubs I knew in my time have closed down. Symbolic of all the local pubs I’m told the whole of Britain is losing. 20 pubs a week closing down, so I think I read somewhere. What you gain with one hand, you lose with another… We call in on The Grafton Arms. A bit of a rough old boozer I was always a too afraid to ever drink in during my student days, but which I can now see as utterly invaluable to the community here. A big man with a thick chain round his neck, tattoos on his hands – he seems to hold two rather different feelings towards both sets of his knuckles – stands underneath two pinned-up flags for Hull’s two Rugby League clubs: Hull FC for the west of the city, Hull Kingston Rovers for those on the other side of the River Hull. The river Hull that flows down from the Yorkshire Wolds through the centre of the city, under the moveable swing bridges and tidal bridges, some built before the industrial revolution, and out into the Humber.
The drinker is friendly enough, but he tells me he’d never go down Spring Bank now though.
“What, with all them immigrants? No way. You wouldn’t get me going down there. You just don’t feel safe,” he says, suddenly sounding like some tremulous old Yorkshire aunt.
I go to the gents, and on my return find Giristroula has been surrounded by a gaggle of Hull girls out on the town. Short skirts, shiny legs.
“You are like…dead exotic,” one says to her. “Where did you say you’re from? Greece?” She stares bewildered at Giristroula, like a child looking at a seal for the first time.
“You might be, like, the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen in the wirld…” says another.
Ah, the Hull dialect. The look on Giristroula’s face shows she’s having trouble with the Hull vowels: thin as a wafer, sharp as a disc.
“Are you here on your errn?”
Giristroula thinks about this for a while. Processes the words, and then suddenly a light comes on. “Oh. No, I’m here with him,” she points over at me as I lurch back from the toilets doing up my flies.
The six blonde, hair-straightened, heads turn as one and contemplate me slowly.
I think they were expecting something better. And then they all break off, starting texting into their “ferns”, chatting to one another.
“Borrow me a tenner warl Monday will yer?” “I’m just off outside for a smerk.” “Will he be drunk by now? I dernt kner. He normally has the constitution of an ox… a right pissed ox.”
Giristroula stares from one to the other, as they talk, open mouthed, eyebrows furrowed. And then off they go. Off up the “rerd” to the next bar. I wish we could follow them.
At the university library exhibition, some grey haired, grey slacks volunteers are being taken through the rules as they replace some other kindly retirees – all of whom now leading their retired, satisfied lives of litter picking, charity shop runs, coffee mornings for cancer, wicker basket making with the mentally ill. The people who really keep Britain going.
“Some people are shocked by Larkin’s collection of pornography,” says the leader “Move them on if this is the case, move them on…”
We walk around the exhibition, and then my old campus. The old red brick and ivy covered university has changed too. Updated and renewed. Studios and modern tech labs I don’t remember at all. Of course in my day I was paid to come to university, to study, to hopefully get a good education that could benefit the country and give something back in some way. Now you have to drown yourself in debt to do it. But the universities can at least build a nice on-site cafe with the money I suppose. I dodge the library staff prowling around and sneak my way up into Larkin’s old office. This has been left preserved as it ever was. The old gas fire and armchairs. I pull up a chair behind Larkin’s very own Librarians’s desk, amazingly still here. I sit like some important walrus, taking it all in. Until the door opens and I am again a miscreant student, caught doing wrong.
In the evening we turn up at a tatty old semi-detached house on a narrow suburban street.
“Do you know what this is?” I ask Giristroula. And of course she doesn’t. “This is the New Adelphi Club. This is Hull’s most legendary musical venue.”
She looks at the white-washed outside walls, splattered with mud-brown filling-plaster. She looks sceptical. We leap over the large stagnant puddle and rattle through the thin, badly-painted door. Inside there is an empty, dimly-lit bar made out of an old Hull bus, gold lame on pebble-dashed walls and in the back, a small stage. A stage that has seen huge names, Oasis, Radiohead, the Stone Roses and all of that sort of lot, play their first gigs. All given a chance by Hull’s great mythical figure, Paul Jackson, the owner of the club. This is a place that symbolises – just as much as the plotting room upstairs at the Olde White Hart where they shut the city gates on the king – the bloody-minded independence of Hull. A decrepit old building, held together by string and hope, known through the world because of one man’s labour of love to put on bands, if they want to play.
In my second year here, I approached Paul about wanting to play with a student band we’d got together.
“Are you any good?” he asked.
“Not really, no.”
“Well… you can play Thursday then.”
This was his spirit. If you were keen enough to get a band together, who was he to turn you down?
I’m standing in the old audience space – buckets on the floor catching the drips – explaining all this to Giristroula, when out from the dressing room – which are also the toilets – comes the man himself. To find Paul Jackson here at the Adelphi feels a bit like waiting at St Pancras Station and meeting St Pancras. I go to say hello and tell him I played here once. He looks me over. The shaggy old white hair, as it always was, trapped under the beatnik fisherman’s cap. Tape keeping his glasses together. “Aye…” he says, thinking. “About ‘96 weren’t it?”
I’m utterly amazed he can remember. How he can remember someone who played third on the bill on a wet Thursday night. But this is his life. Of course these grass-roots places, places like the Adelphi, and the cultural values they represent, are dying away in Britain – the Sword of Damocles is always hanging over the New Adelphi Club too. Paul tells me how he struggles to keep the venue going on a shoe string, with no help from anyone.
“Does anyone know Paul Jackson?” Jarvis Cocker once said from the stage of the enormo-dome Humberside Ice Arena when I was a student here. Paul Jackson was the only man who would ever give Pulp a gig for years and years in the 80s, when no one else cared. “How’s his dog, Yosser, doing?” Cocker asked the audience of thousands. Paul Jackson and Yosser were back at the Adelphi, putting on another band, who may or – more likely – may not one day reach international stardom. Giving something to the few paying punters, and the old men sat with their shopping round their ankles. Pouring out pints of ale, slopping out the empties, giving something to the community, giving everything to the musical world. A real cultural leader, not one of those government-sponsored-scheme sort. The sort that should be cherished in this country.
The new day has a heavy grey sky, looking like it wants to split under its own weight – like a sodden paper bag. We walk past the Holy Trinity Church, built in 1300, but since my time upgraded officially from the once largest parish church in England into now a full, proud, Minster. We walk past Bob Carver’s chip shop, still serving the best patties you can get: fried mashed potato and sage. We walk down to the Humber River. wide as a mile, deep brown sepia water, wandering out towards the sea. The sky is enormous and open here. Spread endlessly. The colour of a sink full of washing-up.
Standing on the pier head, on the old wooden planks where you once had to catch the ferry over the river before the Humber Bridge was built, water is lapping all around. The Deep – a slice of metallic and glass architecture cutting into the grey sky – stands where the rivers of the Hull and the Humber meet. Sharks swim in the tanks below this aquarium, children run around. But lonely gulls sit on the wharfs and wires outside. And men coming out of the Minerva pub turn their collars up against the vastness, where sky and water meet.
We get some bicycles and cycle off to see some of the countryside that surrounds Hull – the pretty rustic flatness that lies out on the East Yorkshire flats: arcadia with that strange touch of Dutch. Travelling back up north through the town though, past Pearson Park, I see a family coming out of Larkin’s old house. I cycle over.
“Do you live here?” I ask the father.
“You what, mate?” he calls back.
“Is this your house?”
“Aye…” he replies, warily.
“You know it was Philip Larkin’s house?”
He stands under the plaque, telling quite clearly that Larkin lived here, 1956-1974.
“Oh God. Not him. I get coaches pulling up here to see the house. I always clear them off. Pain in the arse it all is. I don’t really know anything about all that Larkin really. My dad, he bought this house off the university 40 years ago. We kicked Larkin out. He left his old bike here. My dad threw it away. Big idiot. Should’ve kept it, could have made some money on that…”
“Do you think I could come in and have a look at his old rooms?” I ask, fully expecting a no.
The man stares at me a while.
“Ah, come on then,” he gives in. Standing back from the gate, nodding towards Larkin’s old front door.
We walk up the old thread-bare carpet. I walk in a hushed reverence. There’s a small orange stained glass window with rural scenes of birds and woodland animals halfway up the stairs, letting the light in. The banisters chipped old white paint, not changed in years. The flat at the top is smaller than I thought it would be. A bedroom and a back room. Tiny kitchen and bathroom built in together. But there, in the front room is Larkin’s famous high window. Where the phantom of Pearson Park would sit. His view out over the tops of the trees.
And immediately, rather than words, comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.
We cycle up the Beverley Road, flanked by the large fronted house. Life in each window passing like a flipbook, or one of those flickering kinetoscopes – someone watching tv, someone opening a door with a cup of tea in their hand, a child bouncing up and down on a sofa. Someone has picked a fallen kid’s woollen glove up off the pavement and placed it over a railing’s prong, so it seems to give us a pink-mitten wave as we pass.
Hull never smelt of fish. Not when I was here anyway. That always seemed like a tired old joke that people used to make about the city. No, Hull always smelt of the chemical industries around the city, and the leather tanning factories, mixed in with a strange chocolatey smell from the Hull chocolate mills. But never of fish. North Hull is not pleasant. After the war, the slums and bomb-damaged houses of central Hull were cleared and widowed old ladies and young families were moved out to newly-built estates and the high-rise towers here. A bright new future that, as ever, never really worked out. Half a century of problems and misery followed. Vandalism, struggle. And still people are living here, below the poverty line. They used to say the trawler men of Hull would come back from their weeks on the northern waters, where they’d been fishing out amongst the giant whales and icebergs, under the northern lights, and they’d spend the next days drinking all their money away in the pubs of the Anlaby and Hessle Roads, before setting out onto the dangers of the high seas again. They say they still do it now in Hull, but without the fishing part. I remember in my time in Hull, locals used to tell you that in the Bransholme Estate they had the largest council estate in Europe. They seemed rather peculiarly proud of this fact. But I have the feeling though Hull has started at last to have other things to boast about now. And anyway I certainly have no interest in being one of the censorious, disapproving faces that froth about people on benefits. All that cankerous rancour and those front-room curtains shaking with rage watching what people do with their meager government handouts in miserable situations.
Out of the city, we cycle pass a couple of big roundabouts with dull, huge, supermarkets and Harvester pubs anchored on them. I am sad though to see, as we stop for the depressing parsimonious experience of the sandwich Meal Deal in a Tescos, on the alcohol shelves amongst the bottles of whisky there’s a discarded pack of Pampers nappies. I don’t like to think of the internal struggle of whoever left them there. As they stood and wrestled with their dilemma. And failed. Finally – as the curtains of clouds sweep away and the blue at last reveals itself and the sun starts to seep down over everything – we’re out of the northern suburbs of Hull and into the fields and hedgerows and farms. Farm lands that are flat and wide, thin and thistled, not really lush meadows, but now painted under this watercolour light, looking perfect. Beverley Minster pokes over the top of the trees from miles away. We cycle closer and closer, along the pastoral paths. The Minster always on the horizon, peeping at us from afar.
Up close the Minster is pretty magnificent. English Gothic. Taking over 200 years from its 11th century beginnings to complete. The two west towers looking suspiciously like Hawksmoor’s later famous Westminster Abbey towers. Our necks crane upwards to take in the brilliance. Can it really be the same God that inspired this towering Minster to be built as the one that guided Hull’s old Aldermen and councils into building their Bransholme estates?
Beverley is polite and pleased and a little dull. A town built on Preservation Societies, Victoria sponges, labradors in padded gilets, 15 hands to a horse and 3 feet to a yard. And no immigrants to spoil the view. Hemmed in by the ancient old town walls, market streets with no-nonsense women in thick skirts gallumphing along and the North Bar with its narrow arches for traffic to pass in and out of – restored old Morris cars, wood interior, of course. It is a clean, busy sort of English town. The sort that is then utterly quiet again by 5pm. The cafes are full of pensioners gathering dust, like hard-to-reach-behind ornaments. The fish and chip shop has a sign saying it is closed for lunch.
A little bored. we decide to head back south again, and to look for Hull’s famous emblem. Its bridge. We are just outside of the Beverley, out into the countryside once more, when I have a fear we’re lost and so stop and ask an old man, stood leaning on his stick staring at a scarecrow in a field.
“Do you know which way we should be heading for the bridge? Is it far?”
He stoops low to talk to me. Cupping his hand round his mouth.
“Which country d’yer come from?”
I’m taken a back at this.
“What country yer from?” he says again. “Do you use miles? Or them…what do you call ‘em…them…ki-lo-meters?”
“I’m from here. This country,” I tell him, pointing to the ground below my feet.
“Oh! I thought you was foreign!”
Obviously my two years in Greece has changed me in my fellow countrymen’s eyes more than I thought… Now feeling safe in the knowledge I’m from England, the old man falls into the broadest East Riding dialect of Olde English. And I can follow very little of what he says.
“Well you don’t want to be mickling or muckling about around here. What you want to do is head down yonder…”
We follow the way his old stick pointed.
We cycle through old ginnels and woods and past windmills at Skidby and into old quiet villages gathered round more churches: St George’s Crosses flying from the tower tops, matting, seats and stone. We stop at one, a blue wheelie bin left in the church vestibule, and look around: the chancel and the rood screen behind the organ, used to store the mops and the spare chairs now. An old woman appears from nowhere. “Oh hello, are you here to help set up the chairs for the fete?” We peddle on. Cottingham is attractive – the money of Hull all seems to be here. And then, as we cycle further down south, like the top of Beverley Minister, the tip of the modern Humber Bridge is visible, poking over houses and trees from miles away. We cycle closer and closer. The span of the bridge always there but always seemingly just out of reach. Then finally round a confusing car park and a very shut-up tourist visitor’s centre for the Bridge – whoever thought that a good idea? – we are there: right under the breadth of the bridge’s dark wide overpass. The bridge runs straight above us. Rosy clouds pile up on the sky above the bridge.
People are gathered here. loafing around, drinking cans. It seems a fairly odd place to come for an evening out. Some kids are a little desperately running about on the thin tussocky strips, even though there is a huge country park set behind the bridge. Well, I wish them their grass… Little cottages sit under the wide runway of the bridge, remnants from the century before the century before. Certainly not giving way when this monstrous intruder arrived in 1981.
The bridge is one and half miles long, which makes it the longest bridge… around here. It also seems one of the most under-used. Few cars and lorries are passing over. We join it on our bikes, cycling down the long straight line towards the county of Lincolnshire and the town of Barton-upon-Humber on the other side. We stop halfway, look back towards Hull, resting all by itself on its river under the sunset building up, westwards. Hull isn’t really Yorkshire, maybe it isn’t even really Britain. Something more distant, easterly, Dutch, Viking. Perhaps this is what gives it its sense of difference. Perhaps this is why it voted overwhelmingly against a government that had ignore it for so long and voted for Brexit last year. Defiance and stubbornness, born out of cold North Sea isolation and brewed God-knows how long. And probably all against its better interests. But still, I was happy to have spent this time in Hull. A place that is the unconsidered trellis of Britain: solid, tenacious, not so pretty, dependable, which the rest of the country can use to expand, if that’s what they want, with all their fancy blooms. I was happy too that in the 20 years since I’d been here the city looked as if it had gone forwards, not backwards. This year especially being a year in the sun for Hull…Even if everyone I spoke to had complained – moaning and creaking like old gates – about the roadworks and disruption Hull had suffered during its cleaning up for the City of Culture. I knew they didn’t mean it. No Hullensian would say it, of course, but I could tell that deep down, hidden away, under the dry as a bone surface, they felt proud.
New eyes every 20 years renew. I must come back. But Lincolnshire awaited over the bridge, flat and wide and big and open. We cycled on.