Made in Hull

Short story writer Sue Wilsea is this month’s blogger-in-residence. She was born in Portsmouth and for the last 20 years has lived on the banks of the Humber. In her first blog post she discusses Hull’s exciting current role…

Just in case you hadn’t heard, Hull is City of Culture for 2017 and is getting the type of positive broadsheet attention it could once only have dreamt of. We’ve had Songs of Praise, Gardener’s Question Time and at the end of May, Radio 1 will be holding their Big Weekend at Burton Constable Hall near Hull. The Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition will be in Beverley Art Gallery from February through to April while in December the newly refurbished Ferens Art Gallery will host the Turner Prize. And there’s a lot more to come.

Personally I’ll be disappointed if the State Opening of Parliament isn’t shifted here later in the year.

It all started with a bang – literally – on New Year’s Day with a firework display which was promoted as one to rival London’s. Ultimately it didn’t, but when you belong to a city that’s been denigrated and sidelined by outsiders for as long as Hull has (voted Crappest City in 2003 by what was itself a crappy little book), then you have to excuse the occasional overblown claim. However, the twelve Made in Hull light and sound installations which also kicked off a week of celebrations (no pretentious big opening ceremony here) were generally agreed to have far exceeded expectations, bringing in an estimated 342,000 people to the city centre. The wow factor of the show, directed by Sean McAllister and with a soundtrack by Dan Jones, was a film montage depicting Hull’s recent history projected onto the iconic buildings of Victoria Square.

Along with the fishing industry, the winning goal that propelled Hull City into the Premier League, and an assemblage of famous faces with connections to Hull (some more obvious than others) it was footage of the Blitz, making it appear the buildings were crumbling and melting in front of us, that reduced some to tears. The fact that Hull became, after London, the city hardest hit by German bombing raids with some 95% of its houses damaged and half the town centre wiped out and yet was then omitted from a 2015 BBC series Blitz Cities, in part explains this. It’s not that Hullensians didn’t have pride in their city and its history before, but public recognition and validation (helped of course with injections of loadsa money) is a powerful force. Local poet John Fairclough speaks directly:

‘..all my life that fierce pride of being a part of it

of sharing that hard edged accent…

and now suddenly, it’s here, for all the world to see          

This untold story of my city – and me.’

Another major installation was at The Deep, an aquarium nosing out over the Humber like the prow of a massive ship, which featured Arrivals and Departures, a poignant and timely reminder of how Hull’s cultural heritage, like so many other cities, has been formed by the ebb and flow of immigration.

The following day the 75 metres long Blade appeared in Victoria Square, the installation having taken place in relative secrecy during the night. Conceived by artist Nayan Kulkarni, Blade is part of Look Up, a programme of temporary artworks created for the city’s public spaces. The wind turbine blade, reminiscent of a giant tusk, bisects the square, rising to a height of more than 5.5 metres at its tip, allowing double-decker buses to pass underneath. Over the course of 2017, hundreds of blades will be made in the new Siemens factory in Hull: after a week celebrating the city’s past, Blade looks to its future. Not surprisingly, this generated the ‘Yes, but is it Art?’ debate but perhaps that was always part of its purpose. Grumbles about the cost, references to a row of bricks and ‘what’s the point?’ type comments were always going to be voiced – indeed as they should be.

Like many others, I wasn’t made in Hull but came here to uni in the early 70s (“From Hell, Hull and Halifax, Good Lord deliver us” boomed my pompous uncle when I announced my chosen destination). I wore platform shoes and canary yellow loon pants, slept overnight in the Venn building at the uni as part of an Anti-Apartheid demo and phoned my parents every Sunday from a phone box: the latter cream coloured, another Hull idiosyncrasy. For many years I lived and worked in Hull, though now I’m just across the river so look on my adopted city from an affectionate but slightly more detached viewpoint. However, my four grown-up children, three of whom are now London based, all rightly claim this as their city. The annual visit to Hull Fair, the largest travelling fair in Europe, was a memorable part of their childhood. Later, 90s club culture played its part: the Welly, Spiders, and the wonderful Adelphi, where bands such as The Stone Roses, Pulp and Oasis played.

All of us here claim a version of Hull as our own. What perceptions the rest of the country will be left with post-2017 remains to be seen. At the very least, however, it has certainly succeeded in putting us on the map.