Kingston On Hull – Stories From The City – September 2016
“I hope when you get home you’ll tell people what Hull’s really like,” said a Facebook friend, “it’s got a bad reputation, you know.”
These words echoed in my mind after it was posted on my timeline. It was 2 days before I left Hull. Right up until then my days had been fun and full and the evenings were spent organising, sifting and planning ahead.
There it was though, the question that throughout my trip was tucked away and forgotten. The side of my mouth twitched into my wry expression; it happens when someone says something uncomfortable to hear.
I reached out and typed, “I will be telling people that Hull is a fantastic City, that the people have been wonderful and the reputation it has isn’t deserved.”
The person clicked ‘like’ and my reply was not a platitude, after 8 days in the City it was meant.
What did I know about Hull before I arrived?
I knew where it was of course. It’s up there above The Wash in that crease that divides the North proper from the Midlands.
If you fold the British map along it you’d have Liverpool, the place of my birth on one side, Manchester underneath it and Hull at the end.
“Where is it exactly?” people asked before I took the journey.
“Yes,” I thought in reply, “it’s not even on the weather map is it!” Their fingers pointed vaguely at the TV screen until I pressed mine at the right spot. “There. It’s there.”
“Ohhh,” came the reply. “I see,” they added, not really seeing it at all.
“Why isn’t it on the weather map?” I thought before I arrived. “Hull was the main fishing port in England. Do they have their own way of doing the weather that doesn’t need the BBC?”
“It’s invisible,” my eyebrows knitted as I looked at The News one morning, “but it’s not invisible at all. Look at how historically important it is and the people I’ve got to know from there aren’t invisible either.”
Conversations I’ve had with people who’ve shared their stories floated back, warm and inviting. Coming from The South-Now, as I call it, the openness and enthusiasm to talk by the people of Hull is not something I experience from strangers on a daily basis.
“Where I live,” I said to quite a few people while I was away, “if you stop and chat to someone on a bus, they’ll think you are mad.”
“They’ll think your mad if you don’t, here,” came the reply.
Having hopped around the UK before settling in London I carry with me the friendliness of somewhere else. It’s in my bones to walk towards people and not away.
It’s in my bones to explore too. I walked around The Avenues, along Newland Park, around Chanterlands Crematorium and into Beverley Road Baths looking upwards all the time.
Throughout the stay, my head didn’t once sag and with it I took photo on photo on photo, there was so much history to look at as all my research sprang wonderfully to life.
Pictures of Dutch style houses spiking the sky in Park Avenue, the corner of The Bull Pub on Beverley Road, the glorious fountain I’ve seen in the tour guides and history books at the end of Westbourne Avenue whose mermaids were curving and glistening in the summer sunshine.
People’s voices came with me. I heard them telling me again about what was important, why it meant something to them.
Sometimes voices joined each other, laying lines of history along the same streets and roads I was walking.
“Cities are the people,” I said, “after bricks and buildings, it’s the blood that runs through it that makes them.”
“It’s not muesli, it’s Morocco,” I added, enjoying the way Newland Avenue bustled and brimmed with numerous cafes and cultures. Everyone was everywhere, chatting, drinking, walking, ‘going to.’
Only the City centre was quiet. I walked there each time, along Beverley Road and Spring Bank from Pearson Park.
That journey was different, hardly anyone was doing the same but the nose of Prospect Street was like the bow of a ship, telling me I’d walked in the right direction.
“It’s taken its toll on businesses, this rebuilding. At least one has closed since they have put these barriers everywhere.”
“Oh no.” I snapped, “ that’s terrible.”
If only the people could find a way of overlaying the old photos of the City centre across the new, like they do in architects or building programmes, they’d see what I see as I look around.
I hear the masts from the ships clattering in the wind. I hear the ‘ding’ of the bell over a door as a well dressed woman removes her gloves and hears “good morning, Madam.”
I compared the center to Leeds, another great Northern City but it wasn’t the same. There, I found the scale of the buildings so immense they were like giants walking through you.
In Hull though, the uneven cobbles along Whitefriargate had fishes carved into them and the sole building on The Land Of Green Ginger looked as immaculate as its For Sale sign glimmering in the window.
I got lost, a bit, but the nearness of everything surprised. King Edward Street was not Oxford Street, Story Street was an offshoot, the walk past the old Edwin Davis building empty and for sale and with planning permission attached took me to The New Theatre and Kingston Square in moments.
“Where Madame Clapham was,” thought I, smiling again at the number of people who’ve asked, “have you heard of Madame Clapham?” and the number of times I’ve said, “yes, yes I have. I’ve heard about Madame Clapham.”
It’s close here, you can see how people knew each other and how proud those buildings would have made you.
“Would you like to go for a tour?” I was asked. “Oh yes, please,” was my reply. The car ride headed towards The Humber Bridge to stop and look at it curving over the water.
“It’s immense,” I said, “and simple and beautiful for it, isn’t it,” I added.
“I used to stop here while it was being built and watch them pile drive those struts into the river bed. I walked over it on the night it opened,” they added and then another voice joined in.
“It was amazing when it opened,” the other voice said, “I walked over it you know, the night it opened. Everyone did.”
Our wrong-turn trip into Lincolnshire and back again before stopping had become an afterthought with the view. I stood letting the wind blow through me, feeling the greys, browns and blues mix for wide miles.
“I’ll find water, eventually,” I joked in the Station Hotel.
“It’s just there, there,” said someone, pointing out of the door to the left. “Go find, Carrie!”
In the last hours of the last day in the City centre I’d taken time to explore. That settling feeling was in my mind, the one you get on the last day of a holiday knowing you are to leave soon.
I’d visited the Maritime Museum but I was surprised to find there were only my footsteps echoing around. They mixed with the plainsong of a fisherman’s folk ballad in an upstairs gallery; but aside from me it was entirely deserted.
“Just me and those figureheads that watched me as I walked in.”
I skated past a polar bear roaring and dressed up in a sou’wester in the selfie mirror. I tweeted #museumselfie but no-one tweeted back.
Rounding another corner I found myself in a room about the Ellerman Wilson Line. I laughed first, delighted to find it and then after reading for a while shouted a quiet, “Yess!” That turn had answered something I’d brought with me in my vast notebook called The Questions.
“It’s happened again,” I said over tea,” another coincidence. It’s got so’s I’m looking out for them now and if one doesn’t happen at least each week, I think it’s telling me I’m on the wrong track.”
“It’s like being a detective,” said a woman across a seat from me at The Royal Station Hotel. “Yes, yes it’s very much like being a detective,” I said, looking directly back at her, “good choice of word.”
I’ve always thought that saying “I’m Doing Research” is academic and excluding. I understand what it means, because I’m the one doing the research and after all I’ve been trained in how to do it but that doesn’t describe it to anyone other.
Doing research is like being a detective, an information-detective, except you don’t have FBI computers at your disposal comparing DNA and matching fingerprints.
Doing research means looking at primary sources: documents, recordings, words, memories, books and newspapers. It means meticulously asking questions that arise from doing that work and then doing the leg work to resolve them.
It doesn’t go in order either. 1975 is more clear than 1955, 1941 is obtuse but 1985 is finished. You learn to give the information enough room to reveal itself however disordered and unruly it is while it does.
“You are very organised,” said someone I was interviewing in Beverley. Beverley was ‘all change’ from Hull. I’d stolen half an hour to walk around the immense Minster before meandering through the shallow streets to the market square.
Across the restaurant table between us was my portable office. The Find List, The Questions, my folders with visual materials in them, all laid out amongst the coffee and tea we’d chosen to drink while we talked.
We swapped stories and then about how we organise materials. “From the outside it’s the ultimate example of a duck swimming calmly but paddling beneath,” I joked.
“Yes,” she laughed, “it is a bit isn’t it.”
Writers of non-fiction spend long hours reading, reading, reading then writing, writing, writing. I have to know the subject I’m writing about inside out and back to front.
I have to have asked and answered all possible questions. I have to support, or prove, what I know by producing the evidence too and all that happens before any writing, big writing that is, not little writing like note-taking and ideas in a notepad.
Then there are people, the blood and bones in the story of The House of Mirelle. The people are like The Humber, they run through it by telling their experiences in their own words, supporting and adding to the research I’m doing.
They thread through the book, enriching it with their Oral History – what they say in their words, not mine.
Tuesday at The Hull History Centre, my first visit, detective and voices came together. Someone came with me; they had a reason to be there for the first time too.
When I first started researching Mirelle the Hull History Centre website returned a name.
The name was Beatrice Bartlett. The Fire Warden card typed into the collection details indicated that she worked during World War 2 with a bucket of sand and a broom to sweep incendiaries from the Mirelle business premises.
I’d written down the reference in the first Mirelle notebook. Later on ‘Beatrice Bartlett’ was added to The Find List, a big database of people I am seeking out to talk to or incorporate into the story. Then, as often happens with research, it became one of the gaps until a year and a bit later a woman got in touch.
“My mother worked at Mirelle,” she said, “she was a dressmaker.” We talked, she shared and I took notes. Afterwards the conversation returned in a quiet moment. “Her name rings a bell,” I thought, “but why.”
I turned the pages on my notebooks, starting with the most recent first but found nothing there.
I searched the Mirelle Database but nothing exactly matched either. I turned out my filing, going back and back through time. 3 months ago, 9 months ago, last year, the year before. Then I read the words – Beatrice Bartlett, Fire Warden and the History Centre reference alongside a note about one child, a daughter.
My scratchy writing stopped me in my tracks. It couldn’t be that this woman was her, could it?
It was. After she and I took stock we decided that we would view her mother’s Fire Warden Card for the first time together. The staff took a photo of us holding it.
“It means a lot to you, I know,” I said, “me too, to be here with you when you see it and because it was the first piece of research that gave me a clue that there was a story to tell.”
The next day I returned and viewed the City’s bomb maps coloured in greens, reds and yellows. “She used to say she didn’t know how she survived,” I recalled the lady telling me of her Mum. I looked down at the numerous handwritten “D’s” that overlaid the areas in the City centre, a big slice of ‘D’s’ and green.
“Are you making a reasonable assumption that ‘D’ stands for destroyed?” I asked the Library assistant. “Um, the key doesn’t make that clear,” they replied. We stood above the table it was laying on and regarded it again.
”I suppose when it comes to The Blitz, ‘D’ meaning destroyed or damaged means pretty much the same thing.” I said, eventually. His eyebrows flicked up momentarily as he looked back at me.
“Hull was bombed as much as London,” he said. I didn’t answer because page after page of the Hull Daily Mail was running through my mind. I’d read the reports about A North Eastern Town, unfolding the Blitz of 1941 and most of the 20 years before and since.
I could name who was in the columns of local businesses advertising new premises with the words, ‘business as usual,’ and I knew that some of them I’d already walked past on my way up Spring Bank.
“Just like that sign outside on the barriers,” I thought, “I wonder if they know.”
“I hope they finish it in time,” someone said, as we stood in a shop entrance in the centre, “It’s really affected business here.” I noticed how kind they were being about everyone’s trade, they all stood together.
“Are you looking forward to next year?” I asked.
“Oh yes,” they said, drawing themselves up a little, “of course, I think it will be a really good thing for us, for Hull.”
“That’s good,” I said, raising my hand to shield the sun, “it’s got so much to say for itself, this City of yours you know, it’s not what people say it is.”
“It’s suffered a lot,” came the even reply. “It’s still there though if anyone wants to look for it.”
I nodded. “It is.”
After we parted I looked at the mass of orange barriers. “I haven’t seen anyone who’s talking about being blue yet,” I messaged someone who’d travelled to take part in the Spencer Tunick installation, “but the barriers are still here,” I added, thinking the Council had done a good thing to arrange the exhibit around the sea of orange.
“It took days to get it out of his hair,” came the reply.
“I went to The Humber Bridge today,” I said. “It was truly amazing, if a little unexpected.”
“Oh, I haven’t done that for years,” they said whistfully.
“Those houses there flood every year, you know.” I was told as we left that place.
“Are they holiday homes,” I asked but my mind wasn’t working and instantly regretted it. “No, no people live there,” was the reply.
I considered a part of London called Richmond. The local newspapers are full each year of people sandbagging cottages along the River Thames because of the Spring tide. It seemed far away and manicured, and this hardship wasn’t.
“Hull used to be a really wealthy City, you know. It all changed in the 70s when the fishing industry closed down but there’s always been money here, always been wealth.”
“I hope next year brings lots of good,” I replied.
“Oh I’m looking forward to it, it’s going to be really exciting.”
“I can’t wait to see the fireworks on January 1st,” I said, thinking ahead to November and the possibility of joining in Hull 2017 with a Mirelle exhibition. The enormity of what I was returning to do flashed in front of me for a few seconds.
“I’ve got a lot of writing to do between now and then,” I added, thinking about how good the trip had been for the research and how the story was now laid out like the roads into Hull from Lincolnshire.
“Do you want me to drive you around the East now?”
I thought about a meeting I had lined up and the next visit but I was tempted.
“No, no thank you. I said.” I want to save something for the next visit.”
“Next time?” came the reply.
“Yes, yes. Let’s do that next time. Next time we’ll properly see The East. I’ll be back before long you know,” making the promise to myself also.
“Let me know,” they said, “let me know when.”
© Carrie Henderson 2016