“Back in Hull eh? Gluttons for punishment,” says a woman who passes us on the street. It seems typically Hull – rueful, self-deprecating, said with a roll of the eye.
Ben and I are walking round the town centre, recognising much of it, but sadly noting how many shops are closed down, windows boarded up, doorways shuttered. In between the empty premises there are betting shops and pound shops, nail bars and phones, tattoos and loans. Things to help you survive and to make Saturday night go with a bang, the kind of gritty resilience Hull specialises in.
The spectacular minster is being restored, and the old fruit market area is full of cafés with bare-brick walls and scrubbed tables, but many of our old haunts have vanished. Beverley Road Baths is now just a swimming pool and sauna, but those doors used to lead to the old Victorian slipper baths, where we’d come once a week and sit shoulder deep with the tap running in luxuriously hot water, coming out rosy and glowing, hair steamed flat.
We’re here because of 2017 City of Culture, taking part in a spoken-word event with the poet Simon Armitage – but we’re also on something of a sentimental journey. It’s 36 years since I ran up the stairs of the students’ union to find Ben waiting at the top, and now, at the foot of those steps, is a Hollywood star bearing my name. Well, a Hullywood star.
Walking round the campus our ghosts are everywhere. Standing at that bar, sitting in a corner in the library, chucking a wine bottle into the air late one night and watching it sail into the trees. And in the town centre, those empty shops speak of neglect and hard times, but then Hull’s been struggling for a long time.
In the evening we have dinner with old friends Neil and Jacqui, who live just up the road in Hornsea. He played guitar with us on Love Not Money, and she was heavily involved in the campaign to win the City of Culture award; they understand better than we ever could what it means for Hull.
Neil works running hostels for the homeless, and talks unflinchingly about local realities: the second and third generation unemployment, and the resulting spirals of poverty and addiction. But still they are full of praise for how well this year is going, describing with pride the extraordinary number of brilliant events. Despite our questions about whether or not any of it is helping where the help is actually needed, they are positive about the future, and the investment that has been promised for regeneration and legacy.
For Hull is a survivor. No-nonsense, down-to-earth, unshowy, it helped form me. When I went back down to London I jumped straight into the role of trying to be a pop star, but something of Hull’s innate scepticism stayed with me – sometimes making things more difficult, but at other times helping steer me away from the rocks.
Next day we walk past the new pavement cafés on Princes Avenue, down to Ella Street, which has become home to an art installation, The Street of Birds and Shadows. It’s a quietly beautiful piece of public art – birds painted onto planters, quotes from poems stencilled onto garden walls. It pre-dates the Year of Culture, and reminds us that Hull was no wasteland before being granted this cultural honour.
That poetic streak and poetic heritage runs from Andrew Marvell through to Philip Larkin, and sits side-by-side with Hull’s sense of isolation; the self-containment summed up by its separate phone exchange with its cream phone boxes, and its bridge leading only to itself.
And now, the city is hosting the Turner Prize, at the Ferens Art Gallery. The room screening Rosalind Nashashibi’s film Vivian’s Garden is packed, the crowd transfixed, and yet, when the film ends, the man behind us mutters, “What was all that about then?” and I can’t help laughing in recognition of that relentless determination never to be taken in, that independent spirit of defiance, which keeps Hull alive.
This article appears in the 18 Oct 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s century of revolutions