Phil Janes: Let's Hear It For Hull!9 Jan 2017
A true story: Mrs J and I were once talking to a very nice lady in Florida who told us that she had met a couple from the UK only the week before, and she wracked her brains trying to remember where, exactly, they lived. “Oh, what was the name of the place?” she pondered. “It’s north of London”, she said. “Luton?” we tried. “Watford, perhaps?” Then she remembered; it was Scotland. Well she wasn’t wrong. Scotland is indeed north of London.
Now, it is very easy to poke fun at such geographical simplification, and I admit to having done so, until, in that irritating way that life has of cutting one down to size, I saw mention that in 2017, Hull was to be the UK’s City of Culture, and I tried to work out exactly where Hull was. I live south of London – no, not France – and there is a tendency among southerners, not unlike Floridians, to lump everything between Luton and Lerwick into a category labelled ‘The North’.
Hull, for me, was part of that; though in my favour I did recognise that it was on the East coast, on account of having the Humber Bridge poking out over the estuary. So, with a feeling of guilt that I should know a bit more about this year’s cultural centre of Britain, I set about some research. And I hope I won’t bore you gentle and educated readers by reproducing some of what I learned.
In 1293 the King – Edward 1 – bought the hamlet of Wyke upon Hull, a tributary of the Humber, and renamed it Kingston, as kings were wont to do. He needed to supply his army while it was indulging its predilection for fighting the Scots, and chose a sea route through Hull’s already established port on account of the fact that all the trains heading up that way were running nearly 500 years late.
Its main exports back then were wool and lead, and it imported a lot of wine, on learning which, I immediately felt an affinity with the place. Over the years, as trade flourished it also imported swords, sulphur, cork, garlic, at least one image of the Virgin Mary, apparently, and (inadvertently) syphilis. Now that’s research!
This year it is not trade, deliberate or accidental, that is being celebrated, but culture in all its forms. And while the East Riding of Yorkshire might not immediately conjure visions of the avant-garde – us unknowing southerners struggling with visions of flat caps being worn at a rakish angle – there is much in Hull’s history, music and art that has contributed to the country’s rich heritage.
Perhaps Hull’s most famous son is William Wilberforce, whose tireless efforts to abolish slavery are still universally acknowledged. The most famous daughter is probably Amy Johnson, the aviation pioneer. She is actually best known for flying as far away from Hull as possible, but fair’s fair; attempting a solo flight to Australia left her with little choice.
During the 2017 festivities, museums and theatres will house new exhibits and productions, while Hull’s musical heritage will be celebrated by, among others, the group who backed Bowie’s ‘Ziggy Stardust’; the ‘Spiders from Mars’, or more accurately, ‘from Hull’. And there will also be a special concert by a founder of the band ‘The Beautiful South’, which on reflection might benefit from a temporary name change.
Various projects will celebrate all things cultural, though I’m sorry to say that the health and safety brigade declined my suggestion that Hull’s scientists might leave a selection of loaded petri dishes in random sunlit spots. And, disappointingly, I haven’t found any reports that the city council are planning a brief skirmish with the Scots just for old times’ sake, but I’m guessing that’s because they want to retain the element of surprise.
But whatever they are planning, this column wishes a happy and successful New Year to all of you, of course, and especially to the good people of Hull, City of Culture, north of London.