Good Companions around Hull
a personal cultural geography
Alan Plater, Winifred Holtby, The New Poets, The Headscarf Revolutionaries, Cosey Fanni Tutti?
In search of the Land of Green Ginger
In 1927 H. V. Morton scoured the country from London to Hadrian’s Wall ‘In Search of England’ but he couldn’t find Hull. When W.S Percy strolled through England in 1935 he was perhaps a little casual, and he missed the place, even though Baedeker, in the 1937 'invasion' edition of 'Great Britain', estimated the city to have 314,000 inhabitants. In 1942 Morton tried his luck in ‘Two Englands', but found Hull in neither of them. Michael Wood promised to be more rigorous in 1999, undertaking journeys into the English past. But he couldn’t find Hull either. Fortunately, I came across a 1943 copy of Walter Wilkinson’s ‘Puppets in Yorkshire’, where Walter was ‘Caught in Hull’ for eleven pages. He discovered ‘a city of genial and reckless pirates’.
As often happens, the next reference quickly followed, Priestley’s 1933 ‘English Journey’ who found the people ‘pleasant but queer…not quite Yorkshire and yet not quite anything else.’
For a year, as a student in the 1970’s, I lived in Holtby House, Cottingham. I hoped Winifred Holtby’s 1927 novel, ‘Land of Green Ginger’ (Kindle Edition) would shed more light on the city. But, it was not to be. Holtby’s protagonist, Joanna, as a little girl, is taken on an evening car ride through the city centre. Peering through the dusk she is thrilled to see a street sign for the The Land of Green Ginger, a ‘dark, narrow, mysterious road to Heaven, to fairy land…’ Joanna was a dreamer and frequently fell in love, with ‘Hiawatha; the Scarlet Pimpernel; Coriolanus, Christabel Pankhurst’.
Hull remained an enigma. I turned to Alan Plater’s Land of Green Ginger. In his TV play Mike and Sally, searching for the essence of Hull drift apart. Alan Plater caught Hull’s essence in the ‘mystical and magical’ River Hull. I discovered the play on Youtube, skimmed through it, bookmarked it, so I could return at my leisure. Three weeks later, the BBC had removed the content, and I was left to ponder Plater’s intentions in transcribed interviews. I began to understand why the New Poets from Hull chose ‘A Rumoured City’, as the title for their anthology.
I returned to Hull for the first time in forty years by train along the north bank of the Humber. In the early spring morning sunshine the Humber Bridge appeared out of my window. It was fantastical, floating on a bank of white cloud. The world turned upside down. The sun glinted on the glass of the window and the vision was gone. I didn’t have the presence of mind to grab my camera. It remained a fleeting vision, a memory. It became a metaphor.
I returned a second time by train. Both times I travelled by myself, and the city remained tantalisingly out of reach. On a third visit Steve, an exiled Robin, a KR fan, took me in his car, and guided me round his home city. We talked of the ambivalence of home. How home shapes you for good and bad. A place you leave but can’t leave behind. It dawned on me I should embrace the mystery, not dispel it. I began to see the palimpsest that is Hull. A new story built around an old city. A city built on elements and ideas turned on their head: a city of falling silt, and ‘the shorthand of skyline’, of floating bridges and headscarf revolutionaries. A city re-built after the destruction of 45,000 bombs.
Steve took me straight from the A63 along Clive Sullivan Way – named in honour of a rugby league icon - past the city centre to the home of HKR, where the Larkin frog implores the last of the KR and Hull rugby league fans leaving for Wembley to turn out the lights. Rugby league courses through Hull’s veins, and is reflected in the geography. East Hull is KR country. Their home, Craven Park, sits on the edge of two post war estates, Bilton Grange, and Greatfield, childhood haunts of Christine Newby - Cosey Fanni Tutti, and Mick Ronson - one of the spiders from Mars.
The old city is accidental, convoluted, bound by two rivers and buried docks. The new city is planned, straight, stretching to Holderness. A city started again after the Second World War. A city in disguise, covered with a veneer of the practical, above the ‘mystical and magical’. In Genny Rahtz’ poem ‘Hull’, she warns visitors to ‘…attend this subdued city…And keep what you find secret From all obliterating praise.’(2017):5
One of the great secrets of East Hull is ‘The Dump’ in Alderman Kneeshaw Park. ‘The Dump’: a crooked arm; protection from Holderness. The Dump: prosaic, unadorned, otherworldly, safe from obliterating praise. At maybe thirty feet, one of the highest points in East Hull. Here Christine Newby daydreamed as a child, imagined that things could be different, on top of the debris of the destroyed lives of the Second World War, scooped from around the city, dumped so the city could begin again.
Hull was the second most bombed city in the country, killing around 1,200 people. Of 92,000 houses, less than 6,000 remained undamaged. The war created 152,000 homeless people
Hull was also the war’s most anonymous city, simply known as a town ‘On the North East coast of England’, remembered in a poem of that name by Claire Hovell. The war is hidden, secured around the city in memory, inspiring imagination and creativity. ‘The Dump’ is such a place. As is East Park, the realm of Mick Ronson - from Greatfield Estate - and all the young dudes.
Steve and I headed back west to the magical, mystical River Hull, to the imagery of Genny Rahtz’s ‘Id Mud’. Where the city ‘portrays’ itself ‘By accumulation…And the shorthand of skyline.’ The paraphernalia of city life, as if on the tides, hang, exposed, unmediated. Alan Plater thought there were more poets than musicians in Hull. Paul Heaton, developing his talent at the Adelphi in De Grey Street thought Hull had both musical quantity and quality: ‘London 0 Hull 4’, was how he scored the origins of the country's top bands.
We passed the Land of Green Ginger without noticing: the myth more magnificent than the street. Mike Covell in the Hull Daily Mail claimed there are more than 70 theories from over 200 historical sources attempting to explain the origins of the name.
Looking above Boots on Whitefriargate, a Georgian façade survives, with a frieze imploring us to hope beyond the stars, ‘Spes Super Sydera’, tucked below the roof on the site of the old Neptune Inn.
To the south: Holy Trinity Church, where the father of 17th Century poet Andrew Marvell lectured. Marvell, in keeping with this city, was also an enigma, conveniently disappearing in 1641 for six years during the Civil War. His itinerary is unknown, maybe travelling abroad to tutor, or maybe on mysterious ‘government business’.
We crossed into Victoria Square, where ships once passed from the Humber into Queens Dock. Here, Walter Wilkinson, self-styled vagabond, pushing his Punch and Judy handcart round Yorkshire, washed up at the Punch Hotel in 1937. Was it here he looked to Queens Dock to see a steamer ‘…glide imperiously through the crowd, to disappear nonchalantly behind the shops on the other side of the road’? Did Daniel Defoe imagine Robinson Crusoe embarking from Queens Dock, in 1651? Someone is convinced. There is a plaque of Crusoe in Queens Gardens. On the stairs in the Maritime Museum hangs Henry Redmore’s 1868 ‘Calm on the Humber’. In its busyness, it is reminiscent of a Canaletto of St Marks quay from Venice lagoon.
We marched on to Paragon Station and out onto Anlaby Road. We were searching for the mural of Lillian Bilocca. Local lad, Steve, would walk us straight to it. Steve explained we were in west Hull, a foreign land, as alien to him as to me. ‘Anlaby Road’, said Steve. ‘Hessle Road’, I said.
The trawler tragedies of 1968 are commemorated in a memorial in the courtyard of Trinity House, but also in the murals of Hessle Road. ‘The Headscarf Revolutionaries' campaign for safety on the trawlers was remarkably successful, but also controversial. The women met resistance from expected sources, but also from some in their own community. Lillian Bilocca faced personal vilification in the national media, although she was not alone.
We marched up and down. We found magnificent murals on Hessle Road. But we never did find Lillian Bilocca’s, except later in the ether, on the generous Creative Commons web site. Maybe we didn’t look hard enough, or as with Alan Plater’s TV play, we were searching for what was never really there. After all, Hull is but a rumoured city: a city of id mud, headscarf revolutionaries, a land of green ginger, of 45,000 bombs, of hope beyond the stars.
Calm on the Humber (1868) by Henry Redmyre Hull Maritime Museum. For more Redmyre and Hull inspired art in public ownership try John Ward, and David Bell: available at: * www.art.co.uk
Interview with Alan Plater about Land of Green Ginger (2007) David Rollinson. Available: http://www.britishtelevisiondrama.org.uk/?p=921in *
Lily Bilocca Mural: Headscarf Revolutionary [photo by Ian S] Creative Commons.* www.geograph.org.uk/reuse.php?id=4851636
I would like to thank Steve Schofield for his companionship, and for his thoughtful reflection on the nature of 'home'; for his knowledge, and especially his patience with me along Anlaby and Hessle Road! Steve revealed a Hull beyond the City of Culture.
*The author of Goodcompanionsaround is not responsible for the availability and content of external sites.