The city on the edge of the world

In 1933, J B Priestley set off to discover “the common well of Englishness”. In the first of a new s

One of the reasons I've always been fascinated by J B Priestley's English Journey - a "rambling but truthful account of what one man saw and heard and felt and thought during a journey through England during the autumn of the year 1933" - is that my childhood was an "English journey" of its own. I was born in Essex and lived there for the first two years of my life. Then we moved to Hampshire, Northumberland and the Wirral, before moving back to a different part of Hampshire when I was 15.

My father is from Hull, and my mother from Norfolk. I also went to university in Bristol, so I have a connection to most corners of England - Essex and East Anglia, the north-east, the north-west, Yorkshire, the Home Counties and the West Country - and I have felt that my identity was a composite residue of the influence of all those places.

We had moved around a lot because of my father's career. He worked for a company called the Industrial and Commercial Finance Cor­poration, or ICFC. It was set up by the clearing banks and the Bank of England at the end of the Second World War to provide the kind of long-term funding for small and medium-sized businesses that the banks themselves would not provide. My father got his first job with ICFC in Southampton and later ran the regional offices in Newcastle and Liverpool, before moving to London, where he was responsible for the portfolio of UK investments outside the capital.

It was a risky business: he used to estimate that, of every ten "start-ups" in which the company invested, only one or two would prove an unqualified success. Yet the banks that owned it allowed it to operate under conditions of benign neglect, and it developed a philosophy of "making money by doing good". Had the Labour Party come to power in the 1980s, it might have nationalised it, but instead Margaret Thatcher initiated the neoliberal revolution that is yet to run its course, and in 1994 the rebranded business - now called Investors in Industry, or 3i - floated on the Stock Exchange.

My father retired soon afterwards. He told me that everyone who worked for 3i in the run-up to flotation hoped that the company's successor wouldn't change a proven model, but the new management was operating in different conditions. In 1994, half of 3i's portfolio was in manufacturing and 80 per cent in the UK, but the UK's economy was changing, and as the manufacturing sector declined, 3i dismantled its network of regional offices and expanded overseas. It also downgraded its "legacy portfolio" of small investments.

The institutions that now owned the company were not interested in long-term, small-scale funding: they wanted to see it generating quick returns, and 3i, which had once performed a distinctive role, operating at one remove from the financial institutions of the City, became another "private equity" firm, chasing deals in a crowded market. Sometimes, it did so very successfully - in 2005 it bought National Car Parks for £555m, and in 2007 it sold the car parks alone for £790m while retaining NCP's rapidly growing outsourcing business. Short-term, large-scale investments of this kind were not what it had been set up to provide, but profits on such a scale were irresistible, and its management was "incentivised" - that is, paid ever-increasing amounts - to supply them.

Shareholder pressure changed the business in other ways: because the "private equity" model depends on "leveraging" a relatively small investment, the institutions assumed that 3i would capitalise on opportunities by taking on debt, and demanded that it return uninvested cash through a series of "special dividends". The financial crisis of 2008 exposed the weakness of such an approach; once the funds required to facilitate the process of "gearing up" were no longer so readily available, the "private equity" model fell out of fashion, and 3i's share price has fallen so steeply that in September this year it was ejected from the FTSE Index of 100 leading shares. New management has put the business on a sounder footing, but it will not be rebuilding its network of regional offices, or attempting to fulfil its original remit of providing long-term funding to small and medium-sized British businesses in cities such as Liverpool and Newcastle. The absence of an institution that might perform such a role has not gone unnoticed, and when the Labour peer Kumar Bhattacharyya said recently that "rebalancing" the UK economy will require the creation of a "new government-aided bank" to support manufacturing, my father was amused. "Live long enough," he said, "and everything comes round again."

I was interested in 3i's recent history because it seemed to reflect so many of the social and economic changes that have affected the UK in the past 20 years, as wealth and power have drained inexorably to London and the south-east; as a preoccupation with "financial engineering" has displaced our dependence on the traditional kind and the disparities between rich and poor have grown ever greater. Even my father, an avowed capitalist, finds it hard to accept the version of the free market we have appeared to develop as the notion of "trickle down" has been replaced by the practice of "cascade up" - at least in the case of the publicly subsidised bonuses paid to the bankers who are the only discernible beneficiaries of the destruction they inflicted on the global economy.

The scale of the bailout that followed the financial crisis of 2008 is difficult to comprehend. One estimate suggests it cost the US taxpayer $7.76trn (£4.9trn), which is more than most of the big-ticket items in US history combined - more "than the cost of the Marshall Plan, the Louisiana Purchase, the 1980s savings and loans crisis, the Korean war, the New Deal, the invasion of Iraq, the Vietnam war and the total cost of Nasa including the moon landings, all added together - repeat, added together (and yes, the old figures are adjusted upwards for inflation)", as John Lanchester writes in Whoops!, his fine exposé of the involuted madness of modern finance.

The UK's much smaller economy suffered proportionately. Because the bankers' bonuses continue to sustain London's inflated house prices, an illusion of prosperity has been preserved among its property-owning classes, but I wanted to find out how other parts of the country have been affected. What kind of common interest or shared identity persisted through the two great scandals that have hit the country in the past three years? Was the predominant response to the period of "austerity" that is following the financial crisis, and the breakdown in trust occasioned by the saga of MPs' expenses, one of anger or envy, resignation or despair? Was there any prospect of a new social compact like the postwar settlement that led to the creation of the National Health Service and which, on a more modest scale, inspired the establishment of a socially useful and far-sighted institution such as ICFC?

The urban riots that broke out soon after I began my journeys round the country seemed to supply one answer. I was inclined to regard the looting as an outbreak of the kind of mass hysteria to which all societies are prone from time to time, but I wanted to understand the social conditions in which the effusion of criminal exuberance had emerged. I wasn't going to follow the same itinerary as J B Priestley, but I hoped to re-create the spirit of his search for "the common well of Englishness" and, in the process, I hoped to understand the amorphous kind of Englishness that my peripatetic childhood had bequeathed me, as well as the particular forms that it continues to take in the various places that had formed the way stations on my English journey.

I decided to begin in Hull, partly because it is where my father's family is from, and partly because its relative isolation from the rest of the country made it seem a perfect testing ground for the survival of the English character. My grandfather had died while my father was still at school, but we often went to stay with my grandmother, who lived in a village called Ferriby, west of Hull. I remembered standing on a gravelled strip of foreshore beneath the newly completed Humber Bridge throwing stones into the water, but I hadn't been back to the city since the middle of the 1980s and I was curious to see it again.

Two stories dominated the evening news while I was in the city. A local MEP had declared that bosses in the Hull area preferred hiring foreign workers because they were more reliable than their British counterparts, and the residents of a district in the east of the city had grown tired of the stench of sewage emanating from a malfunctioning Yorkshire Water plant and begun to protest. One woman complained that people couldn't sit outdoors without feeling sick. I knew what she meant. I had become aware of the stench as I was taken on a guided tour of the city's docks, and was relieved that it hadn't percolated as far west as the run-down pier that was our main destination.

The German electronics and engineering conglomerate Siemens has selected Alexandra Dock as the "preferred location" for its new "offshore wind turbine manufacturing and export facility", provisionally called Green Port Hull, and even by the standards of the kind of inspirational uplift peddled by exponents of the maligned art of regeneration, a bold transformation of the run-down pier has been envisaged. Further east at the 2,000-acre dock complex, a P&O ferry the size of a multi-storey car park was about to embark on the 12-hour crossing to Rotterdam and we had driven past storage tanks and open-sided warehouses the size of football pitches, stacked to the ceiling with giant rolls of paper and piles of timber.
Yet Alexandra Dock was a picture-book tab­leau of industrial decline. Derelict red-brick buildings, disused Portakabins and abandoned caravans lined the approach road. At the dock, a single ship was moored in the stretch of water due to be "infilled" to create the platform for the factory.

The narrow conveyor belt that runs parallel to the silt-brown expanse of the River Humber wasn't in use, and the jetty on the far side of the dock was collapsing. Even my guide conceded that it would be a challenge to turn the run-down old dock into a gleaming factory complete with heliport. "If we get the go-ahead for this," said Mark Jones, head of economic development and regeneration at Hull City Council, as we got back in the car, "you won't see Hull for dust."

Planners hope that if the project goes ahead, it will create "hundreds of new jobs on site, thousands of support roles, from administration to offshore repair", and turn Hull into yet another candidate for the much-sought-after title of "renewables capital of the UK".

Yet the largest single investment the city has received in several generations will not be a departure from its traditions. Hull is built on its relationship with the sea. In the early part of the 19th century, its whaling ships accounted for 40 per cent of the UK's fleet, and when whaling declined, fishing took its place as the stock-in-trade. Overfishing and the cod wars of the 1970s destroyed the city's trawler fleets and their associated trades, with the loss of 15,000 jobs. "Containerisation" has had a comparable effect. Hull remains one of the busiest ports in England, almost a quarter of the UK's seaborne trade passing through the four ports of the Humber Estuary. But its docks employ a fraction of
the former workforce, with consequences that have permeated the social and familial structures of the city.

Steve Brady, who became leader of Hull City Council after the Labour Party's unexpected victory in the municipal elections in May this year, remembers the days when several generations of inhabitants of west Hull would find employment on the city's docks or in the fishing trade. "The buck used to be passed from father to son - they knew that if the father was a good worker, then the son and daughter would be, too," he told me when we met in his office in the grand, red-brick Guildhall. The building was completed in 1916, during the period of greatest prosperity in Hull's history.

Brady, who is 66, remembers coming out of his house in the mornings and watching thousands of cyclists flooding down the roads to the docks, "like Beijing 20 years ago". Life was hard - he recalls that the monkey nuts pilfered by his stevedore father were a rare treat - but the city's communal spirit was some compensation. "Hull isn't like other cities, in that it has all the best characteristics of a village. Everybody knows everybody; our communities are very interconnected; we tend to speak our minds. It's like that on a bus, as well: people are very open with each other." Council meetings are usually lively affairs. "If you go to a council meeting in the East Riding, the most excitement you'll get is if someone spills a cup of tea. It's not like that here. Hull people are very passionate - they really tell you what they think, and because we feel we've been left behind we tend to get our heads down and grind on. We know we've got to sort it out for ourselves."

It is a common complaint - Mark Jones said the demise of the city's fishing fleets was an industrial disaster comparable to the collapse of the coal-mining or shipbuilding industries; yet Hull did not receive the kind of help given to other northern cities, and the failure was just the latest example of central government neglect. During the Second World War, this was one of the most heavily bombed cities in the UK but, Brady argues, the damage it suffered was never acknowledged. "More British money went into rebuilding flattened German cities than went into Hull."

He suggests that Hull's location on the Humber, at the end of the rail and road networks of east Yorkshire and at the beginning of the long sea crossing to northern Europe, is the reason that it has so often been overlooked. "It's either the first place that you get to when you arrive in the UK, or the last place that you see, but either way you have to come here for a reason. It's not the sort of place you just pass through."

The white phone boxes belonging to the only locally owned and operated phone company in the UK are a symbol of the city's independence. And Hull Prison used to be known as one of the most secure in England: because there was nowhere to go once you got out, the police would pick up escaping inmates on the main road heading west.

If its isolation was not enough to deter casual visitors, the popular perception of the city would be enough to put them off. The fastidious snobs of the Idler magazine awarded Hull first place in their inaugural list of "crap towns" in 2003, and those who work in tourism locally say their most successful "product" used to be "mystery tours", sold to people who didn't know where they were going. Malfunctioning sewage plants don't help. Councillor Brady dismissed my suggestion that the signs welcoming arrivals at Paragon Station to "the new Hull" were a tacit acknowledgement that there was something wrong with the old one, but said that the city has to do more to promote itself. "Hull people are not ones to shout from the rooftops, but outsiders coming here like the place. People are knocked back by what we've got here, and our challenge is to create a different perception of the place."

Throughout the first decade of New Labour's time in power, the deputy prime minister was the MP for Hull East and a native, but Brady believes John Prescott was so strongly associated with the city that "people who wanted to get at Hull could get at him", and vice versa. The other famous resident has not proved an unqualified boon, either: Peter Porter described Hull as "the most poetic city in England", but its best-known poet-in-residence, Philip Larkin, did not enhance its reputation.

Larkin once remarked that Hull was "a little on the edge of things", which he "rather like[d]". He wrote that it was "in the world, yet sufficiently on the edge of it to have a different resonance". However, such scrupulous attempts to convey its allure struggle against the entrenched perception of the relationship between poet and city. Wendy Cope summed it up perfectly in "Mr Strugnell", her celebrated parody of an even more celebrated poem by Philip Larkin:

. . . He said he found Tulse Hill
Too stimulating - wanted somewhere dull.
At last he's found a place that fits the bill -
Enjoying perfect boredom up in Hull.

The lavishly decorated toads that appeared around the city in the summer of 2010 during a programme of events to mark the 25th anniversary of Larkin's death were both a celebration of one of his best-loved poems ("Why should I let the toad work/ Squat on my life?") and an attempt to recast his association with the city in a brighter light. Yet cosmetic enhancements to the local image will not conceal its underlying problems: in 2007, Hull was ranked as the 11th most deprived of the 354 local authorities in England, and throughout the decade it scored badly by most available measures.

In 2005, the city's employment rate of 69.7 per cent was significantly lower than the regional and national averages of 74.7 per cent and 75 per cent, and its educational performance is equally poor - the proportion of Hull residents with no qualifications of any kind is significantly higher than the national average, and that of pupils achieving five A* to C grades at GCSE, including English and maths, significantly lower.

The worst poverty isn't found in the historic city centre, but on the estates on the outskirts, which were built in the 1960s and 1970s under the programme of urban renewal to redress the destruction inflicted on British cities during the Second World War. Bransholme, often said to be the largest council estate in Yorkshire, was built on requisitioned farmland on the northern edge of the city, and Preston Road was built in east Hull to provide housing for the workers on the nearby docks. The rows of low-rise, semi-detached houses were laid out in four numbered zones, divided up by the eponymous main road and a narrow waterway called Holderness Drain.

In 1998, when the young New Labour government launched its New Deal for Commu­nities programme, the Hull Daily Mail said that the council had "earmarked Preston Road as the estate most desperately in need of investment or, indeed, a completely new start". Penny Rodmell of the Preston Road Community Association told me that often on her way to work she would walk past a burnt-out car, or see the police pulling stolen goods out of Holderness Drain.

Loan sharks charging punitive rates of interest to people who could get no other form of credit were another blight. "People were getting their benefits on Monday, and by Friday the loan sharks had got most of it," Rodmell said. In 2003, it was estimated that the residents were repaying loans totalling £1m to "doorstep lenders", while others depended on the pawnbrokers. "We had tales of kids running down the streets with no shoes on, and women taking their boots to the pawnshop on Monday and getting them back on Friday, when they got paid, so they'd have something to go out in."

Preston Road's rehabilitation began in 1998, when it became the beneficiary of a £55m investment, and some high-level attention. John Prescott was so involved in its fate that it became known as Prescott Road; Gordon Brown described it as a "model for the rest of the country". There was a concerted attempt to tackle antisocial behaviour and a credit union was set up to provide loans at minimal rates. Rodmell said that the creation of a neighbourhood development council gave the residents the confidence to say enough was enough, which in turn encouraged the local police and all the other agencies working on the estate.

The council began to replace and repair housing on the estate in 2007, but the job hadn't been finished when funding was cut last year, and some of the worst homes have not been touched. Many of the low-slung semis that line the narrow, speed-bumped streets are "wing-its", a form of low-cost housing with a metal frame. They are hot in summer and cold and damp in the winter, and the frames tend to rust and warp. Penny Rodmell says that they are "defective by law", and no one knows how long they will survive.

As no bank or mortgage company will lend against them, the tenants cannot exercise their right to buy. "I don't know how people can live in them," said Harold Hurst, who arrived at the community centre on a motorised mobility scooter. He used to be a builder, but is now 71 and retired. He has lived on Preston Road for 12 years. He said that many residents of the wing-its had been promised new homes; some had even packed and were prepared to move, when they heard that the funding had been cut. Even so, Rodmell believes that the residents should be proud of what they have achieved on Preston Road.

The people of Hull prize the independent spirit of their home town: they will tell you that the English civil war began here when Charles I arrived to seize Hull's arsenal and was turned away at the Beverley Gate. They are equally proud of local reformers such as William Wilberforce, who led the campaign for the abolition of slavery in the British empire, as well as the breed of serious-minded businessman that the city used to produce. Both Joseph Rank, the Methodist founder of the firm that became Rank Hovis McDougall and father of the film producer J Arthur Rank, and Isaac Reckitt, the Quaker who set up the starch business that grew into the international conglomerate Reckitt Benckiser, were from Hull. I was especially interested in the Reckitts, because my grandfather and great-grandfather worked for the family firm.

The business was established in 1840 when Isaac Reckitt rented a starch mill in a street in east Hull; it began to turn into a highly profitable concern after one of his sons discovered a recipe for soluble starch. Reckitt died in 1862, leaving the business to his three sons, and in 1868 they recruited a 19-year-old clerk named Thomas Ferens. The son of a Methodist miller from County Durham, Ferens rose rapidly in the business and joined the board of directors in 1888, the year the company was listed on the London Stock Exchange. Reckitt & Sons began to produce other cleaning and household care products and expanded into pharmaceuticals. In addition to the headquarters in Hull, it opened offices in New York and London.

Hull's advantages were obvious - its docks provided easy access to both raw materials and foreign markets for its finished products - but the Reckitts and Ferens were also devoted to the city. Ferens donated funds to establish the college that became the University of Hull and the art gallery that still bears his name. James Reckitt, Isaac's youngest son, built an area of workers' housing called the Garden Village, near the Reckitt's works. He was inspired by the example of Lord Leverhulme and the Cadbury family, who built workers' estates at Port Sunlight and Bournville, respectively, and by the principles of Ebenezer Howard's Garden City movement, which aimed to re-create the "village in the town". Reckitt declared that the aim was "to provide a House and a good Garden, in fact a better house, if possible, and a garden attached, for the same rent as is now paid for inferior houses with no garden at all". His goals were not entirely altruistic. "It was a labour-intensive business - they liked to keep their workers close," said David Copeman, facilities and contracts manager at Reckitt's.

Yet the Garden Village was undoubtedly a pleasant place to live, and my great-grandfather Thomas Platt was one of those who benefited from James Reckitt's paternalism. He joined the company in 1896, when he was 14, and became Ferens's secretary.

When he became head of the insurance department and secretary of the men's and overseas pension fund in 1912, my great-grandfather was living in a street off Holderness Road, the main axis in east Hull, but soon graduated to Reckitt's purpose-built estate. A man washing his car in a side street off Holderness Road confirmed that there was a clear division between the wide, tree-lined streets and spacious semis of the Garden Village and the narrow roads that hedge it in, but I hadn't expected it to be marked in such a solid way. The street map I consulted online suggested that I walk past my great-grandfather's old house into the Garden Village, but when I got to the end of Jalland Street a brick wall was barring the way.
My grandfather followed his father into the business. Thomas Platt wanted his son to become a professional, but he was set on becoming an engineer and joined Reckitt & Sons as an apprentice. Father wouldn't acknowledge son if he passed him in his overalls in Dansom Lane, and yet my grandfather was convinced of his vocation. He left Hull in 1929 and went to work for Reckitt's in Brazil, as works manager of a factory in São Paulo.

This coincided with the beginning of a slow local decline. Ferens died in 1930, and the population of the city peaked in 1931. It has fallen steadily ever since - in the 2001 census, it was lower than it had been at any point since the census 100 years earlier. The company that became Reckitt & Colman in 1938 has also moved away: it relocated its head office to Slough in 1970, though it maintains a base in town. The area where my grandfather and great-grandfather worked has become part of the company's private estate, and the entrance to Starch House Lane is barred by a sliding gate and a gatehouse. A plaque on the wall commemorates the building of new offices to replace "those destroyed by enemy action on the night of July 18th, 1941".

The northern half of the old red-brick building at the end of Dansom Lane used to house the Francis Reckitt Centre, where further facilities for the staff were provided, such as gyms, canteens, a swimming pool and the offices of a works council where social and welfare policy was debated. I found the building still well maintained, though the wispy grass on the ornamental lawns and the unlit rooms were signs of incipient decay. Fear of industrial espionage - or acts of contamination or sabotage such as the one that occurred in August when packets of Nurofen Plus were discovered to contain antipsychotic drugs - ensures that the site is strictly monitored.

The man who devised Hull's answer to the millennial craze for design and construction of supposedly iconic buildings that were meant to inspire the regeneration of industrial cities in the north - in the way that Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum is said to have revitalised Bilbao - was critical of the arbitrary way such schemes had spread across the country.

“These things were just parachuted into places and the locals were supposed to love them," said Colin Brown, who was director of tourism at Hull City Council in the last decade of the 20th century, when the profits from the National Lottery came on stream. "Leeds got the Royal Armouries, which might have fitted more naturally in Sheffield, where the steel was made, but Sheffield got the National Centre for Popular Music, which might have been better off in Liverpool - except Liverpool had the Tate," he said when I met him in his office in the Lottery-funded "visitor attraction" called The Deep. "We felt that it had to be something that had a reason to be in Hull, and since the sea is literally in people's blood, we decided to make it an aquarium."

Many of the millennium projects have gone bust - Sheffield's National Centre for Popular Music was open for only a matter of months. Aquariums were viable commercially, but Brown believed that no one would visit The Deep if it became known merely as Hull's aquarium, and he decided to create a "submarium" - a museum that would use live animals not as "fish galleries", but as a means of enhancing a history of the seas. He defied the millennial hype by devising a pragmatic business plan but observed the convention of employing an architect with an international profile. This was Terry Farrell, best known for the MI6 building in Vauxhall on the south bank of the Thames. He designed the structure that now stands on the site of an old shipyard, on the muddy promontory where the River Hull flows into the Humber.

From a distance, the slanted oblong looks like the shattered spar of an old Hull trawler embedded in the mud. The platform on its glass-and-steel-clad prow commands an impressive view in all directions: the spires and buildings of the Old Town gathered beyond the huge gates of the new flood barrier on the River Hull and the slim profile of the Humber Bridge lie half a mile up the estuary. But Brown was more interested in the area in the foreground. Several years ago, he secured funding to convert the abandoned dry dock on the far bank of the Hull into another museum. As the city was built on the confluence of salt water and fresh water, he hoped that the creation of a "national river centre" to complement The Deep's history of the seas would bring the two halves of the story together, and inspire the redevelopment of the old vegetable market located between the dry dock and the revitalised marina.

Hull's town planners have always been preoccupied by the vegetable market: they say it should be the city's version of Cannery Row in Monterey Bay, California - the world's best-known example of a former fishing port-turned-tourist attraction - and bemoan the dual carriageway of the A63, Castle Street, which passes 100 metres inland, separating the vegetable market from the centre of town. When I had walked through the market the night before, it had been deserted. Architects' boards held out the promise of stylish reinvention for the empty, overgrown lots but, for the time being, broken windows and barbed wire prevailed. Posters advertising pop-up cafés and exhibitions adorned the corrugated doors of the old fruit'n'veg lock-ups. Art galleries had set up in some of the empty buildings.

I emerged on the edge of the marina. Joggers circled a glass-walled office block that sat on the promontory called the Bullnose, where more than two million migrants travelling from northern Europe to North America at the end of the 19th century had come ashore. Two teenagers were sitting on a bench, drinking Strongbow and looking out across the river to the flames flickering above the refineries on the edge of the low-lying land on the far side.

There are many ways to cross Castle Street, but I had followed the path that leads from The Deep along the River Hull. The Arctic Corsair - one of the last surviving trawlers to have served in the city's shipping fleets - was moored to the bank further upstream, on the edge of the complex that the city calls its Museum Quarter, but the riverside path was blocked by a hoarding, so I turned aside and entered the quiet cobbled streets and Georgian terraces of the Old Town.

Earlier in the day, I had gone to look for the offices of the accountancy firm where my father had taken his articles. My grandparents' sojourn in Brazil had been prolonged by the Second World War. They had returned to Britain in 1949 and my grandfather had taken up "special duties" with Reckitt's (Colours) Ltd at Morley Street works, Hull. He died suddenly at his home in North Ferriby on 17 February 1954, aged 49. My father, who was 17, left school and moved back to Ferriby to live with his mother while he qualified as an accountant. The firm he worked for has since been absorbed by PricewaterhouseCoopers, and 2 Parliament Street is now home to an asset management company that announced its presence with a gleaming plaque wrapped around the white pillars at the building's entrance.

In the afternoon, the streets and restaurants had been filled with office workers and lunch­time shoppers, two of whom had confirmed Hull's village status when they told me that they had worked at Reckitt's all their lives, but by eight o'clock there was no one around. Colin Brown had told me that the Old Town was a cultural theme park, divided by a kind of "cordon sanitaire" from the rest of Hull, and I could see what he meant. Hull's real centres lie elsewhere - in the shopping streets that surround the neoclassical nexus of the Ferens Art Gallery and the town hall, around the busy transport interchange of Paragon Station, and further out, in estates such as Preston Road.

I walked back to my hotel, keeping the A63 on my left. It seems characteristic of Hull that the road that ties the city in to the UK transport network and carries most of the fre freight passing through its docks, on which it depends for its existence, also prevents the redevelopment of its most valuable piece of riverside real estate. Yet Brown argues that the obstacle can be overcome. He cites the business centre that occupies another, less ostentatious building designed by Terry Farrell on the east side of The Deep as an example. Brown believes that its facilities have induced some of the businesses that Hull continues to produce to remain in the city rather than relocating to more central places, and he says they have to be ready to "do something more for Hull" if the economic situation changes.

The glass shard on which I was standing was proof of his ability to get things done, and yet I wondered whether anything would overcome the isolation that is both Hull's strength and its weakness. As Councillor Brady said, the city has always been more in step with its neighbours overseas than with the rest of the UK. The view from the prow of The Deep confirmed its ambiguous status, insular and yet outward-looking, a provincial English city that faces out across the broad plain of the Humber to the unseen continent of Europe.

Edward Platt is the author of the award-winning "Leadville: a Biography of the A40" (Picador, £7.99) and is an NS contributing writer. "City of Abraham", his new book about Hebron, will be published by Picador next year

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