Fresh from an extraordinary two day conference in Cardiff, “Re-imagining Challenging Histories”, a stimulating conversation between academics and heritage professionals about spaces and silences, I headed again to Hull. I have been grappling with Brexit and its implications and I know Hull voted overwhelmingly to leave, possibly a modern incarnation of its historical tendency to defiance. For those who don’t know, in 1642 the Governor of Hull, Sir James Hotham, refused to open the Beverley Gate to Charles 1. This is widely regarded as one of the trigger points of the English Civil War. More on Beverley Gate later. William Wilberforce, the parliamentary abolitionist, was born and lived in Hull and the Cod Wars are part of its story. Hull has its own Daily Mail, and its own white telephone booths. It also has its own City of Culture 2017, the reason for my journey.
On Saturday night 2 July a French performance group were to close the Yorkshire Festival and open the first Amy Johnson Festival with Plas des Anges, promised to be a spectacle Hull would never forget. As part of the HLF team working with the Hull 2017 team, I was invited to participate and a spectacle it truly was. As night softly descended on Queens Gardens, activity on top of various tall buildings surrounding the gardens indicated something was about to begin. For over an hour we were spellbound watching white-clad “angels” moving along very high wires strung between buildings, showering us with a snow storm of white feathers as ethereal music filled the night. A huge white zeppelin of a cherub, guided by tall poles, loomed slowly over our heads, coloured spotlights changing it from bright white to electric blue and back. Breathtaking yet sinister, its slow pace in contrast to the flying angels who moved and danced and dangled from the overhead wires. As the performance came to a climax, a blizzard of feathers covered the ground all around us and children and adults alike scooped up armfuls and tossed them over their heads with delight. Hull was littered with feathers for days and we kept finding them in clothes and bags and along the footpaths and river where we walked. Such beauty momentarily transformed Hull and a transitory magic brought smiles and laughter to its people. That this beauty came from Europe seemed not to be noticed.
The next day we walked through the building site that is Hull’s central streets at the moment and were brought face to face with the site of the Defiance – the remains of Beverley Gate, uncovered by archaeologists in 1986. You might think that the site would have been cherished, a symbol of how Hull has regarded itself as standing apart, as different. But behind temporary wire barricades, the steps and remaining footings and structures of the gate and the Victorian bridge which crossed the link between the former Queens Dock to the Princes Dock and thence to the Humber, was a site of decay and neglect – rubbish, bottles, filthy peeling interpretation panels, a veritable ‘skip’.
Further research showed that it had been like this for at least four years, possibly more. A local councillor quoted in Hull Daily Mail said it was a disgrace in 2014 and declared, “If this was in any other continental European city, they would be having King’s Head Days or Defiance Days with bands marching, flags flying and people in historical costumes. As it is, we’ve just got a big hole in the ground”. So at some point Hull was regarded as a European city by its inhabitants, even if holding a King’s Head Day was seen as a good idea for a celebration!
A walk around the city and along the River Hull towards the oddly-named quiet and deserted High Street enroute to the Museum Quarter (see my earlier blogs on Hull) was interrupted by another wire barricade blocking off the path. A man in a vicar’s dog collar and his lady companion lifted up the barricade and encouraged us to crawl through and we then repeated the favour for another group of people trapped by the wire. Our small act of defiance! We explored the interestingly engineered Drypool Bridge, and discovered a rather rusty iron plaque which obviously once marked something that Hull wanted to remember but is now only forgotten.
Visiting Wilberforce House where William was born told us much about him but I looked in vain on the ground floor for a mention of any other abolitionists. I did finally find Thomas Clarkson, Olaudah Equiano, Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, Hannah More and others upstairs along with a rather oversized rendition of Clarkson’s famous chest. In this he collected and carried the wealth and skills and natural products of the African continent throughout England for years trying to convince British citizens and politicians that Africa offered far more attractive (and moral) opportunities than the slave trade.
Clarkson was an East Anglian, born in Wisbech, educated at Cambridge. He carried out the major research into the evils of the trade, risking his life to get the evidence needed to provide Wilberforce with credibility in parliament. Clarkson lived and died in Playford near Woodbridge, Suffolk. His brother John was responsible for bringing the free former enslaved Africans from North America to Freetown, the first governor of Sierra Leone and is buried in St Mary’s churchyard in Woodbridge where I currently live. The idea that Wilberforce singlehandedly ended the British slave trade is one of those enduring myths of British history which the Wilberforce House, despite its refurbishment and new exhibitions for 2007, does not actively dispel. A futile search for a cafe on Sunday in the Museum Quarter was another disappointment. The Museum Quarter consists of three museums side by side and a beautiful park-like garden and backs onto the River Hull. It was a shock to discover there was no cafe and the attendant apologised for the lack of a vending room which had existed but was no longer in operation. A room with vending machines wasn’t quite what I had in mind so I was not dismayed by its closure. Thinking that Hull needed to hurry up and think about meeting the needs of the anticipated thousands who were going to arrive in 2017, and presumably would require cafes and non-pub food on a Sunday, we repaired to the nearby Sailmakers Arms for a cold drink.
We walked north of the High Street and found Blaydes, yet another impressive former merchant’s house and office, alongside another derelict dock, white feathers settling among red poppies on the wasteland. There is something very sad about all this dereliction. Many of the empty sites are car parks but none of them that we saw had become community gardens or parks or even temporary allotments or wild green spaces.
The people have not reclaimed their city. I was struck by the evidence of how wealthy Hull had been and how poor it is now in so many ways. What happened in between? Wars, depression, loss of industry, declining fish stocks, containerisation, urban planning disasters, Thatcherism, banking disasters, and finally Austerity. This is the austerity agenda in action, piled onto decades of urban decay and industrial decline. I thought of Westminster, George Osborne and Brexit and the famous lines from Shelley’s poem Ozymandias, “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Can Hull City of Culture 2017 in some small way compensate Hull for the last 100 years? Could some of these small white feathers among the red poppies symbolise a possible future where beauty and magic, dreams and prosperity, make “Hullness” possible once more?