Friday, February 02, 2007

Hull: A Tale of Freedom and the Sea

Here is the Humber from the Victorian pier; an estuary where river becomes sea and the water is at once both gun-metal grey and

brown. Birefringent, apparently lifeless, a slurry of mud washing at the skeleton of the pier or the jutting piece of land which once held a garrison but now holds the deepest marine tank in Europe. So someone said...

Elsewhere buildings reach onto reclaimed land like stretched-out fingers

while into the town the old marine barely retains its loosening hold with spurting fountains and a domed Museum.

During the second world war Hull was bombed and 95% of the buildings were damaged or destroyed and two-thirds of the population made homeless. However, some of the old streets remain, at least in part; both the endearingly humble - the sort of scene I love because it seems to promise so much -

and the more grandiose with rather splendid ornaments half hidden-away aloft.

Much of the natural history collection of the Hull Literary and Philosophical Society is still buried underground in the rubble but the some of it is on display at the Maritime Museum and includes several Narwhal horns made into poles for four poster beds or the central spoke of hat stands. Some were mounted in a doorwell and, to the accompaniment of the mournful bellowings of a school of whales from loud speakers above my head, I traced their smooth spirals with my fingers. Like white barley sugar they always twist the same way; an extension of a tooth and always on the same side of the jaw - except for those rare and highly prized specimens that grow two.

The French started persecuting the tragic beasts in the fourteenth century but soon several other nationalities joined in. They started with the Right Whale (called thus because it floated when dead and hence was the right whale to catch and strip in the waves) but then went on to other species. As the whales became more scarce men went to further and further extremes into the pack ice and then to the west coast of Greenland. Sometimes they became entrapped in the ice and many must have become lost.

There was a section of whaler's boat - each component labelled and their function in the killing described. First the harpoon would be launched and upon being struck the whale would dive - and the whalers would wait knowing that it would have to resurface within half an hour for air. Then there would be a stabbing with some sort of spear until the whale's blow hole blew red. Once dead the whalers would drill holes through the animal's tail to drag it to the ship and then, climbing aboard this harmless intelligent monster, would start to disassemble it where it lay. It is a sad story with an even sadder ending. Many whales are close to extinction now and yet they are still hunted down and still made to suffer - although no longer at Hull.

But Hull has at least one reason for pride; William Wilberforce - the great campaigner for the abolition of slavery - was born here in 1728. His statue towers very high above the town outside the Hull College of Art. He is also on MySpace (!) and a film based on his life AMAZING GRACE is due to be released later this month.

Unfortunately his house was closed for renovation until March,

when, on the 25th is the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire - the result of a campaign that William Wilberforce had waged in parliament for over 20 years. However his school, which used to be Hull Grammar School, is now open as a 'Hands-On Museum'

and the church in which he was baptised, Hull's 'cathedral' the Holy Trinity Church is also open most days, but alas not on the day I was there.

However, I think my favourite building in Hull is this - a beautiful little church called St Mary's.

It is quiet here and if you sit on the wall outside for a minute or two there is a peace that creeps up through the toes of your shoes and gathers in your head - and if you walk slowly you can take it with you for several hours. It is just a few paces from William Wilberforce's house and I like to think of him sitting here too.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lovely essay, Clare, and a reminder of how much we all owe to the civilizing influence of the British.

Fri Feb 02, 10:11:00 pm  
Blogger Marly Youmans said...

Melville would like the paragraph about the narwhal horns...

Sat Feb 03, 12:43:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


As you know, I too was in Hull before Christmas. My own visit was so swift (literally), I only got to see the traffic queues on the main route in (groan) and the wonderful humour of the locals (much appreciated & enjoyed). So great was that latter element that I have determined to go back in leisure time when I can!

My God, we live in our own bits of the UK and think it's the same all over. It's not. There is so much to explore on our own shores, let alone elsewhere.

Thanks for posting up your thoughts and pics of your visit, Clare. You got to see more than I ever did in such a brief visit, so thanks for the insight.

All I remember right now is the wonderful humour in Hull and that is something that assures my return to seek out more. As for the rest, my own visit was so shortlived, I had no idea, so thanks for the pointer.

It's so good to get around the UK and get to know our fellow citizens. We can be wrong/we can be right in our perceptions. But we have to get our bums off our seats and make it there to find out. There are so many diverse places.

I went to Aldeburgh in Suffolk last year and that is a place that lovingly takes you back 20+ years. It feels steeped in recent history. It doesn't feel an unwillingness to move on, either. It has in its heart and mind, where it needs to be; it can't get away from that. But for place and time, it is what it wants to be and does it well.

An often "flying overseas for hols" member of my family once remarked on my British travels because of work (I add leisure too) and said something along the lines of "I wish we saw more here too; there's lots to see".

This is true. We have small island and a very diverse island in local culture and geographic surroundings and more. And what a lovely and lively place it is! With each passing year, I wish I knew it better.

Sorry for this "short essay" Clare, but I firmly believe that Britain deserves a break. Even the Brits need to get to know what is inside their shores a lot, lot better. There is so much to see and experience, if only we left our homes for other than the airport.

And thanks for the insight on Hull, Clare. I left with memories of a certain road and a certain roundabout, a marina and a very certain office of staff.

But yet again, as in anywhere you go; it's the people who make it! Hull's locals were the tops for me. Even if they have a naff roundabout arrangement...

But then again, we all suffer from the decisions from on high...

Sat Feb 03, 01:55:00 am  
Blogger Kay Cooke said...

Hull ... close to where some of my ancestors came from I believe ( Huddersfield?) I loved reading your descriptions. Lucid and clear with a voice that is distinctly yours and one I have grown fond of! :)

Sat Feb 03, 04:56:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fine piece, Clare. Your mind seems to be include an interesting mix of the curious and the homely. Just in case that sounds faint praise, what I'd compare it to is something I've gotten pleasure from lately, such as savouring an attractive section of old wall during a walk. Which is, I suppose, the least the efforts of their creators' deserve. Pity I can't write descriptively.

Sat Feb 03, 04:36:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fine piece, Clare. Your mind seems to be include an interesting mix of the curious and the homely. Just in case that sounds faint praise, what I'd compare it to is something I've gotten pleasure from lately, such as savouring an attractive section of old wall during a walk. Which is, I suppose, the least the efforts of their creators' deserve. Pity I can't write descriptively.

Sat Feb 03, 04:36:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oops, bloody technology.

Sat Feb 03, 04:37:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry about "homely" also. Not the word I was looking for, but whatever that word is, it escapes me.

Sat Feb 03, 10:55:00 pm  
Blogger Jan said...

As I mentioned, Clare, I once had a Brief Encounter with Hull ( but never actually got there) it's been interesting to see your photos.

Sun Feb 04, 09:02:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, Susan there were some good British traits - Wilberforce did have something of a fight on his hands, however - but at least he got there in the end!

And Marly, yes there is something incredibly appealing about whales. I think part of it is the appeal of the gentle giant.

Ahyes, CFC - something I forgot the friendliness of the locals - not a cross word while I was there just lots of helpful advice and camaraderie.

And I agree completely about the world under our noses being overlooked. I think it is one of the messages of the BBC programme Coast. There is so much to see and enjoy around us. It doesn't always rain - and anyway who wants to sit around all day on a beach in the sun? It was the reason we went to the Isle of Wight last year - and it was one of the best and most interesting holidays we've ever had.

I'd like to go back to Hull too. I think it would be worth going just to see around Wilberforce's House.

Thanks CB: Yes, I had to go through Huddersfield (from Manchester) to get to Hull - so yes, pretty close.

And thanks Andrew: yes homely is an interesting word. It seems to mean different things in different contexts. Just looked it up in my dictionary and apart from meaning 'pertaining to home' (of course) it also means plain, unpretentious and familiar - which is good for most things, I suppose - but when applied to people means ugly!(that also has N Amer written after it). Interesting...actually I think this word is something I've wondered about for some time.

Jan: I hope it caused you to go to some pleasant book in your library of memories...or pick up a glittering piece in your house full of treasures!

Sun Feb 04, 03:30:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I suppose I was trying to suggest the looking with fresh eyes at the everyday, which we falsely render mundane. You know Blake's famous lines,
"If the doors of perception were cleansed
Everything would appear as it is- Infinite."
The corollary to this is,
"If the doors of perception were dulled
Everything would appear as it isn't,
Dull and mundane."
Which I suppose is where much of the developed world is at at the moment.
A hundred or so pages into your Wegener book and I am very impressed. I'm a pretty picky reader, and genuinely incapable of flattery! So Wegener follows on from the fourth volume of Joseph Frank's superb Dostoevsky biography, and Remarque's All Quiet on Western Front, and Wegener is measuring up very well. I think you've put me in the mood for re-reading Hoeg's Miss Smilla and see what I think.

Sun Feb 04, 09:34:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well thank you, Andrew - such amazing company - I feel much honoured.

That point you (and Blake) make is an interesting one. Contrary to the advice 'write about what you know' I often think it is easier to write about what you don't know - because coming on things as a stranger helps you to see things in a different way. It is then easier to be 'fabulist' (I think that's the term the Russian theorists used to use) or find new unusual metaphors and make the most distant links.

Mon Feb 05, 12:28:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting, Clare, and reminds me of an interview of Murakami which I read after enjoying The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle quite alot. He described himself as a very ordinary person, or at least seemed so to himself, living an ordinary life, but that when he wrote he found these quite fantastic or fabulist things emerging, which still surprises him.

Mon Feb 05, 06:55:00 pm  
Blogger Jonathan Wonham said...

Narwhal horns were passed off as unicorn horns in medieval times. They were powdered and sprinkled on the dinners of kings in order to neutralise any poison that might have been added. More details here.

Mon Feb 05, 10:12:00 pm  
Blogger Tammy Brierly said...

Loved this tour ;)

Sat Feb 10, 01:58:00 am  

Post a Comment

Comments are subject to moderation.

<< Home