Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Maritime Museum, Hull

I didn't leave Ireland until I was well into my twenties. I used to preen myself on this. I agreed with George Bernard Shaw that travel narrows the mind. I thought that finding yourself in a conversation with a travel bore was a fate only a few notches below death by dismemberment. I considered travel writing to be the lowest form of writing, fathoms below the writing of fridge manuals and perfume catalogues. (I still agree with the last part.)

Of course, I was being a twit. It's true that you can travel further in an armchair than on an airplane. It's true that someone who stays at home can know more about the world than any globe-trotter. But none of that means we should decline the opportunity to travel, for whatever it is worth. Just leaving the country doesn't make you a traitor to the beauty of the ordinary and near-at-hand. And travel is an experience unlike any other, after all.

In my late twenties, the clamour from friends and colleagues to "give it a try" became too much to resist. I spent a weekend in London, which was my first foray past the borders of the Republic of Ireland. (I've still never been to Northern Ireland, or the six counties, or whatever you want to call it.) And the next place I tried, after that, was-- Hull.

Some of you may be asking, 'Where's Hull?'. People who know the answer to that question may be asking, 'Why Hull'?

To answer both, Hull is a small city close to the east coast of England. It has the reputation of being one of the dullest and least glamorous places in England. In fact, it was named the worst place to live in Britain during the very week I spent there. As for why I went there-- it was mostly me being a contrarian. But it was also because my admiration of the English poet Philip Larkin was reaching a crescendo at this time, and Larkin had been a librarian at the University of Hull for most of his later life. (Hull was a suitable home for the determinedly stolid and curmudgeonly Larkin. Interestingly, for all its mundanity, Hull has been home to so many renowned poets that it has been called "the most poetic city in England". Perhaps there is a lesson there-- and in the fact that "Slough", a tirade against another soulless city, is actually one of John Betjeman's best poems.)

I travelled alone so it was a rather lonely trip. Whenever I gave not having a travelling companion as an excuse for not travelling, people would say: "Just go anyway." I see now that they were right. Not doing things because you have nobody to do them with is a good way to never have anyone to do anything with. Even if you don't meet anyone at the time, at least going out and doing stuff makes you less inward-looking and gives you something to talk about, stories to tell.

The highlight of my visit was the Maritime Museum, about which I wrote this poem. I loved it. It wasn't one of those new, fancy, multi-media, interactive, obnoxiously clean and bright museums. (Its only "fancy" feature was a recording of a whale song, which was played at regular intervals.) It had the musk of the past. Exhibits stood in rather grimy display cases or hung on walls with typed labels and captions attached. It was pleasantly cluttered. It told the story of Hull's whaling past-- at one time, whaling ships used to make their way from Hull to the Antarctic to fish (is that the word?) for whales, a trip that would take months at time. The trip was also dangerous. At one time, an open-air memorial service was being held in the harbour for the crew of one ship, who had not returned from their voyage, when that very ship sailed back into view. (The crews of these ships seemed to be very religious, with services often being held on board.) The museum also displayed various examples of the art of scrimshaw, which involves carving and sculpting from the bones of whales.

I found this memorial to a vanished past very haunting. Hence the poem, which has had more of an introduction than it deserves. (I wrote far too many sonnets back then. Everybody writes too many sonnets. Too often, a sonnet is a poetic form that people use when they won't take the bother to come up with a form more appropriate to the poem. Sonnets should really just be used for the most introspective, reflective poems.)

The Maritime Museum, Hull

The recorded cry of some dead whale resounds
Over and over again. Rusted harpoons
Hang from the walls. On winter afternoons
Descendants of dead sailors make the rounds
And mouth the names: Diana, Truelove, Swan.
Just syllables now. But children must have thrilled
To hear them, once. They gave renown. They killed.
But even the echo of their glory's gone.

These streets still pay their homage to the sea;
Pubs named for admirals, the Harbour Deck
Of a supermarket. Flotsam in time's wreck.
No-one tells tales of the Swan triumphantly
Returned from Arctic ices. Old, revered,
The Humber crawls, still dreaming of the days
It held the city's anxious, longing gaze
Like a mother no longer needed, no longer feared.


  1. Nice poem Maolsheachlann. I've considered traveling, but don't think I have the time for it.

  2. I thought the poem was marvellous, too! The beginning reminds me rather of 'Friday Night in the Royal Station Hotel', which is one of my favourites. These are both open buildings, which oughtn't to be empty, waiting; waiting....

    And the last line struck me in particular. It does seem to me, thinking of many towns and cities in the U.K. at least, that the general mood is something like a disdainful pretence to adulthood - it thinks that old-fashioned ways are to be grown out of, looks inwards (but not too far) and forgets its history - and just as you say, with no need for or fear of anything.

    I have never visited Hull, but Larkin's poetry has put it - or at least the E. Riding of Yorkshire, and also Lincolnshire, on my list. Did you go there by train? Larkin never seems to reach or leave the city by any other way.

  3. Thanks for both your kind comments!

    Antaine, I personally wouldn't be in too much of a rush to travel. It's good, but I don't think it's all it's made out to be-- personally.

    Dominic, I did take the train to Hull. I took the train all around Yorkshire at that time. I managed to get lost in the grounds of Doncaster prison...all my travels in England made me quite sad. I am a massive anglophile, to the extent of having actually proclaimed myself spiritually English rather than Irish for many years when I was younger. I'm over that nationality disorder, but I am still an anglophile, and it makes me sad to see the cultural amnesia that has come over England. We have it in Ireland too but it seems worse in England. However it is a good sign that the Church seems to be flourishing in England, almost unnoticed.

  4. When I was writing that post, I tried to hunt down a very funny remark Larkin made, in a letter I think, about how he liked thinking of all the railway connections between London and Hull, and about how people who were contemplating coming to Hull to "bother" him would see all the connections and decide to bother Thom Gunn instead. But I couldn't track it down.

  5. I think the railways really must be the best way to travel. I hadn't heard that remark of Larkin's, though it sounds like him. It’s funny because I think on the line between Selby and Hull is the longest stretch of straight track in Britain (I think he mentions this in 'Here'): that would lead people directly to him! And then there is that enormous Humber Suspension Bridge which broke a record too, I think (longest single span?) – it seems an unlikely corner of England for such interesting engineering. I shall have to go there.

    Yes - cultural amnesia is exactly the phrase. I too have been saddened by it, and for longer than I have realised, I suppose for most of my life, having mistaken it for a sort of nostalgia. What really shed light on this for me was living in Paris for ten months (a very unlikely thing for me – I am no Marco Polo either – but I am reading languages, and the course requires me to spend a year abroad – and it was tremendously formative in the end!). From a country that takes its culture quite seriously, looking backwards at Great Britain gave me new pangs of affection for it, and of sorrow for the clinker and silt of cheap modernity and an unworthy popular culture that everyone has to wade through. I also discovered Peter Hitchens’ writing at this point (via his apologetics it must have been) and found his observations of even quite little changes utterly resonant (I mean things like ‘Can I get...?’ replacing ‘Please may I have...?’ – Hitchens is quite right – this is happening). I feel really quite often out of step (to use the media’s favourite phrase) with today’s England. Perhaps it is to do with urban living – in the countryside there are still people built like Englishmen , and I think quite a lot goes on there without people noticing; quiet things that prove that all is not as the television says. The example you give of the Church is exactly right (and of course the most important). As far as I can see, it is flourishing – I think Pope Benedict’s tremendous visit showed that – and there are plenty of young people as well. So there is plenty to restrain us from despair.

    Still, it must be hard work being an Anglophile given all that. But I have to say that my first trip to Ireland (the first of many, I hope), spent mainly in Co. Wexford, gave me the impression that there certainly doesn’t seem to be the same extent of cultural amnesia. I found it marvellously refreshing and authentic (among many, many other good things!).

    Perhaps you should write a blog-post about getting lost in Doncaster prison...? (or even a poem?)

    Ah - is this the Larkin quotation?

  6. Yes! That is the comment. That's a pretty impressive piece of detective work, especially considering all the false clues you had to work on! (I think I was thinking of Larkin's limerick:

    There was an old fellow of Kaber
    Who purchased a volume with Faber
    When they said 'Meet Thom Gunn
    He replied 'I must run'
    But Charles called, 'You must love your neigbhour'.)

    I can never take too much comfort from the survival of cultural heritage in rural areas, since it seems like a mere hangover and doomed to disappear. Maybe I'm too bleak.

    I don't think my little escapade in Doncaster would even stretch to a poem, but I often think of writing an article about my anglophilia. It's a huge subject, though.

    Your mention of Selby makes me think of Flanders and Swann:

    The Sleepers sleep at Audlem and Ambergate.
    No passenger waits on Chittening platform or Cheslyn Hay.
    No one departs, no one arrives
    From Selby to Goole, from St Erth to St Ives.
    They've all passed out of our lives
    On the Slow Train,

  7. I don't know that limerick either. Thank you!

    Yes please to an article about Anglophilia, if and when you have the time or inclination.

    I think, as Flanders and Swann must have done, that appendix II of Dr. Beeching's hard-nosed report, 'The Reshaping of British Railways' (how about that for euphemism?), is unintentionally one of the most heart-rending poems in the English language - like your 'Little Towns of Connacht, and searingly elegaic in its own way.