Half term for Hull
It’s a warm, overcast Thursday afternoon in June, in Hull’s Queen Victoria Square. A lone guitar player sits on a canvas folding chair, picking out a tune, surrounded by his luggage. Passers-by pass by without a glance and across the square beside City Hall children play in the new pavement fountains. It’s half term and Hull is half way through its term as UK City of Culture. Has it worked?
Shortly there will be a report on how it has fared so far, and later this week DCMS are expected to announce the shortlist for its successor, the UK City of Culture in 2021. The bookies are saying it’s down to Coventry, Perth, Paisley and Swansea and we’ll know the winner at the end of the year, so they’ll be looking closely at Hull’s accounts book.
Hull is said to have raised its national profile with the designation, but there is little evidence of an in-pouring of foreign tourists, and those that there are seem to be from across the North Sea. Pubs and restaurants are chuffed to bits to see people from London.
This used to be a messy place, once grand but destroyed by the Luftwaffe and the death of the fisheries. One of our poorest cities now, it’s unemployment rate is one of highest in the country, more people die from smoking here than anywhere else, and poverty gives the place an uneasy edge.
But what the year of culture has done is give Hull back the self respect it lost three generations ago. It has looked at itself and seen at a glance where its strong points are, and the strongest of them is still the sea. The old dockside has been tidied up, speculative developments have been halted and in their place restorations of old maritime buildings have happened so that the old quarter has an enhanced charm. Humber Street, the old fruit and veg market, has become trendy with bars and cafés, craft shops, “pre-loved” clothes shops and the brilliant Humber Street Gallery, a new must see centre for contemporary art.
It was in the gallery that one of the City of Culture greeters explained that the chief benefit of the year has been that Hull believes in itself at long last. “We used to feel down-trodden, nobody came here – why would they? – and we were second class citizens. Now we like being Hull, we believe we have something to offer, that we can take our place alongside any other city”.
The city council has put £100m into the year doing up the Ferens Art Gallery, replanting and tidying the parks, putting seats at roadsides and trees on the streets, and next year there will be a new concert hall. Siemens has committed to being in Hull, bringing new jobs and money. It still feels a little unsure, in that everything appears to shut at seven and the city planners have been particularly stupid to allow themselves to be bullied by a supermarket chain into permitting a new shopping mall on the centre’s perimeter, killing the existing one next to Victoria Square, but that’s relatively short-term.
Its heritage, Hull has discovered, is what will shape its future, and how timely is today’s news that the Heritage Lottery Fund is to give Hull £15m to develop its maritime story in what HLF calls a place-making project. Hull will put in another £12.5m to expand its maritime museum and make it more user-friendly, convert the old Dock Office Chambers into a museum with a new visitor centre nearby, and do up and open two of Hull’s historic ships.
There’s no point in Hull trying to use culture to become Bilbao, Marseilles or even Liverpool. It is Hull, something that’s worth being: that is what Hull has discovered in this year so far, and what we have discovered about Hull.