City of Culture: poetic justice for Hull

Philip-Larkin-picTwo months after I moved to Hull, Philip Larkin died.

Larkin, librarian of the university I had just joined, was laid to rest in the local municipal cemetery

The poet was many things to many people, but to me he was a consolation. Hull, you see, was the only university that offered me a place. York, Exeter, East Anglia and Birmingham, where I now live, told me to bog off. I wasn’t good enough.

I can’t really blame Birmingham for turning me down to study English. I put this academically lauded establishment fifth, and last, on my UCAS preference form, behind Hull. In truth, it was for the best. I studied English and American Studies at Hull and I would have hated a straight English degree at Birmingham, with all that medieval mumbo jumbo, Alexander Pope and stuff.

So it was that Hull said it would take me on. I am forever grateful. In the event, I got A, B, B at A-level and would have made the grade at the universities that rejected me. Their loss.

“But Hull?” said everyone. “Why Hull? Where even is Hull?” Living in Kent, I didn’t know the answer to the second question. But my riposte to the not-particularly-oblique “Why Hull?” smear was rapier like.

“Well, Philip Larkin is the librarian at Hull,” I would say. “Philip ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do’ Larkin. That Philip Larkin. Our greatest living poet.”

Now the words “librarian” and “poet” may not have enjoyed much street cred in teenage Thatcherite Britain, but it made me feel better about my university of default choice. Hull, as they said, might be shit. But it was friendly shit, the sort of shit that liked me, and it was home to a nailed on cultural icon.

images-1I dreamed of spotting Larkin dusting off the tops of literary tomes in the university’s towering Brynmor Jones Library. In a different era, I might have crept up behind him and sneaked a “selfie.” How he would have loved that.

I never saw Larkin. By the time I “went up” in October 1985, Larkin was already seriously ill with oesophageal cancer. He died on December 2. I was probably at a student union “purple nasty snakebite” promotion, an event subsequently banned due to excessive carnal relations and vomiting in the toilets.

In terms of cultural cachet, or rather cachet as seen through the eyes of an 18-year-old, Larkin’s death was pretty much the death of everything prestigious about Hull, or so I thought.

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Pop-wise, the city had given birth to the splendidly bittersweet band Everything But The Girl, so cool they were named after a local shop. I had the same English tutor as singer Tracey Thorn. I cherish that. Hull was also the birthplace of The Housemartins, who lived round the corner.

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Funnily enough, the group, including lead singer Paul Heaton and Norman “Fat Boy Slim” Cook, “lived round the corner” from every Hull student in the mid-80s.

Other highlights of the local environs included the working men’s club near our student house that showcased the skills of a stripper and her performing snake on Sunday lunch times. My favourite supermarket, long since turned into a car park, sold grey mince beef for 25p a tray and played “I’ve got a lovely bunch of coconuts” over the PA. They were crazy times.

Last month, I returned to the city for the first time in 24 years. I took my elder daughter to the university’s open day. If she gets the grades, she might go to Hull, like her dad and her mum. Yes, I met my wife in Hull.

During a presentation on American Studies, the last man standing from the academic staff of our era told the would-be undergraduates that Hull was bidding for City of Culture status. Dr John Osborne explained that yes, there was the Larkin legacy, but there was also the artist David Hockney, who lives up the road (pronounced “rerd” in Hull). And Hockney isn’t even dead. It’s not a bad double act: Larkin and Hockney.

But then City of Culture status isn’t just about the past, it is about the future; and culture is not constrained to the high arts. Culture is life and creativity and expression. During a recent visit to Gothenburg, I watched a giant installation of a pole dancer revolving inside a gallery. It was pornography as art, titillation for cultural consumption. Maybe the Hull stripper with the snake was on to something.

The day of the City of Culture announcement, one of my old housemates, who I haven’t seen for years, emailed me to say she nearly ran over a cyclist when she heard the news. She said she felt “nostalgic and warm and fuzzy” and I know exactly what she meant. I’m pretty sure most grown ups feel the same way when they think of their old university haunts. But they don’t know what it is really like – because they didn’t go to Hull.

And although life has moved on, Larkin got it spot on in arguably his most famous poem, An Arundel Tomb. To paraphrase my university librarian of two months: “What will survive of us is Hull.”

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