Sunday, November 19, 2017

To Hull and Back (Sorry)

Eleven years ago, I went to Hull for five days, on a holiday. Remarkably enough, this visit was recalled to me today for two reasons. One, that I happened to look at a Youtube video about the Martime Museum in Hull, which was the highlight of my visit, and probably the best museum I've ever visited (although I also liked the Jewish museums in Dublin and London); and two, because somebody commenting on a previous post asked if I had ever "written up" my visit. I never have. So here goes. I'm going to make it quick, since it's near my bedtime.

When I tell people I went to Hull on holiday, the reaction is nearly always the same: "Why on earth would you go to Hull?". Well, it was mostly to garner that very reaction. I've always been something of a contrarian. I dislike the idea of travelling to beauty spots or historic centres. I wanted to go somewhere utterly mundane.

People kept pushing me to travel. I was very anti-travel. I regret this now. I wish I had travelled more in my youth.

My choice of Hull wasn't completely random. At this time, my admiration for the poet Philip Larkin was at its peak. He spent his best years as the librarian in the university of Hull (and he died there). Larkin, like me, was a lover of the mundane and the provincial, so Hull suited his temperament. It also kept him a safe distance from admirers and journalists.

At this period of my life, I was posting a lot on the now-defunct Philip Larkin Society Forum. It was a real den of miserabilists and curmudgeons, though I look back on it with some nostalgia and affection. I even wrote an article for the Larkin Society magazine, which you can read here. I wish I had the paper copy for my archives. I also sent them my poetry, but it was rejected. This was a real blow.

The commenter asked my impressions of Hull, so I will be impressionistic.

What I remember most is the amount of pedestrianisation in the city centre, how clean everything was, and a kind of orangey--brick colour that predominated.

I remember how portly many of the people of Hull were. But they seemed to be a jolly kind of fat.

I had breakfast in a café on several occasions, and the big greasy sausages were both delicious and consistent with the amount of portliness in evidence.

I went to a pub called The Admiral of the Humber for dinner. I had spaghetti bolognese. The barman, who looked like Chris Finch from the Office, addressed me as "young man". I was flattered by this even back then. I remember there was considerable joviality in the pub, which I don't remember closely but I do remember was very nice.

I went to the Deep, which is an underground aquarium-- Europe's biggest, or the world's biggest, or something like that. The thing that struck me the most was a caption over the inside entrance, from Genesis-- the one about God's spirit moving on the face of the waters. This surprised me, and stirred my imagination, although I was still an agnostic at this time. Alongside the escalator leading down to the aquarium is (or was) a timeline on which the scale of evolution is pictured. That sticks in my head, as well.

The Deep itself was rather overwhelming-- as I walked around it, I realized I wasn't going to retain even a fraction of the information all around me. This always gives me a sense of futility. I remember seeing a small shark. I remember reading an information panel that told me the weight of plankton in the seas exceeded the weight of all the other creatures on earth-- I think.

I was very struck by the name of a little street in the city centre, which was The Land of Green Ginger. I wondered if this was a dinky, quaint, made-up name. I learned subsequently that it's not. Nobody knows where it comes from, which makes it a real name. The street contains the smallest window in the British Isles-- I think.

I never went to the University of Hull, or saw Larkin's grave, though I did visit a graveyard.

I was stopped by a market researcher on the street and participated in market research for some sports drink. She said she loved my accent. I was also stopped by a radio crew asking me how much I would spend on a first date. I declined to answer.

Simply Red, the blue-eyed soul band from Manchester (who I quite like) were scheduled to play in Hull soon after my visit. A huge screen somewhere in the city centre had a short video on constant loop, advertising it. "Simply Red are coming back to Yorkshire" was how it began.

I remember there was an indoor shopping centre which used nautical terms as the names of its malls. (Hull was a whaling city for a long time.) There was a sign on the bathroom saying: "Be aware a female cleaner may clean this bathroom". The only internet access I could find was an internet café which had just opened in this mall.

I was surprised by the popularity of rugby league (a variety of rugby, distinct from the more popular rugby union). I got the impression, from headlines and radio and so forth, that it was the most popular sport of the city. However, it might simply have been that there was a big rugby league game coming up at the time.

Another thing that struck me was the sense of nostalgia which pervaded the city. The local newspapers all seemed to have columns about Hull in the old days. These obviously weren't aimed at tourists, but at locals. I seem to remember there was a lot of books about Hull and Hull history, as well.

I was disappointed that there were more Yeats books than Larkin books in the local Waterstones. I prefer Yeats to Larkin, but I felt Larkin should have pre-eminence in his hometown.

I saw a book with the title Goodbye Hessel Road, written by a local author. This sticks in my mind as the title is (in my view) incredibly evocative. Hessel Road is a place in Hull, of course.

I can't remember much more. I spent a lot of time tramping the streets. I've written a post about my impressions of the Maritime Museum, which you can find here. It includes a poem I wrote about it.

As I mention in that post, Hull was voted the worst place to live in the UK the very week I visited it. When I got back to Dublin, I wrote a letter to a Hull newspaper defending it, and they published it. This led to a Hull gentleman called Sid contacting me-- he was a man in his eighties, or his nineties, who had lived quite a tragic life. His parents had lost their business in the Blitz. He was in love with a woman in his youth but he had never married her-- I don't remember why. He kept sending me letters and we spoke on the phone once. I found it hard to speak to him on the phone (I hate speaking to anyone on the phone) and I stopped responding to him eventually. I feel very bad about this now. God bless his soul, I imagine he is no longer with us.

I'm glad I went to Hull. It's "my" place in a way that Rome or Venice or New York could never be. People tell me about it when they hear about it on the news, and I (rather casually) follow Hull City in the soccer results. I'm pretty sure I'll never go back, though.


  1. Do you have any advice for a mid-twenties young man who feels utterly adrift and hopeless? Also, why do Irish people get so offended by Eire being used?

    1. What do you feel hopeless about? I'm sorry to hear that, I'm certainly no guru, but what I would say from my own experience is try to believe in yourself. Sensitive people get very good at thinking the worst of themselves, downplaying all their gifts and achievements, minimising everything good that happens to them and blowing up everything bad that happens to them.... when I look back on my own twenties I want to tell myself to believe in myself more, to stop being so hard on myself, to try things, not to be crushed by rejection or indifference but to remember that the world is a big place full of all kinds of opportunities.

      As for the Eire thing...just political correctness. People get offended about anything. I've never been in the slightest bit offended at the use of the term Eire.

    2. This year I experienced quite a lot of depression and anxiety myself. There's a channel on Youtube by a chap called Bignoknow which is (I think) very good. Maybe have a look at his videos. I don't know the source of your hopelessness, but I think it's likely some of his videos may be helpful.

  2. Thank you. If you could ever spare a prayer, I would be thankful.

    1. Have been praying for you already, my friend, and will continue to do so.

      I think the twenties are nearly always hard. And I suspect that the more sensitive and idealistic a person is, the harder they are.

  3. In recent months I was looking back at the music video of HOLDING BACK THE YEARS, I'm not sure that I ever saw it back in the heyday. The old Scottish heritage is lovely to see. Even years later.