Hull is far from dull when it comes to our language.

It is fair to say that spectators and speculators on Philip Larkin, from Anthony Thwaite to Christopher Hitchens, reveal in their prose the idea that Hull says more about Larkin than the other way round. This might be only partially true. For studying Hull and its literary tradition, we can try to understand how this popularly neglected, post-industrial northern Town provides a fertile establishment for some of our countries great writers.

The old King’s Town of Hull produced its earliest significant literary father Andrew Marvell in the early 1600’s. Marvell was a republican hero as well as poet and was elected into Parliament from Hull in 1659 as kind of a predecessor to the much celebrated William Wilberforce. The obscure Marvell relished in the tradition of metaphysical poetry of the love kind, developing his craft at the intellectual haven of Trinity College in Cambridge, alma mater of Newton, Russell and more recently, Stephen Hawking. He happily served Hull from the houses of Westminster for the rest of his life and created a significant legacy to those studying such periods in English poetry.

Most, if not all of the popular writers descending from Hull are not part of any scene or movement. I sometimes realise with mild annoyance that we are so decidedly out of the popular music circuit in England, apart from a brief spell in the 90’s with the Adelphi Club, and would probably be unfashionable to be so for the reasons illustrated below. None of Hull’s poets really form any meaningful collective – Motion was just starting to divulge his poetry toward the end of Larkin’s career and indeed, life – and have tended to reside at the University, a place which attracted Professor David Wheatley.

In spite of declining to host such musical endeavours, one of the wittiest and lyrically provocative songwriters in pop music, Paul Heaton also made Hull his adopted home as commander of The Housemartins and The Beautiful South. As a modern champion of left-wing causes in a Town one feels would be unwilling to propagate him otherwise, Heaton encapsulates the idea that the mundane can be beautiful and must be celebrated with a pinch of irony. Hull, it seemed, was the perfect catalyst for this spirit.

Hull certainly feels decorated by the baby boomers with its long concrete 60’s department stores, interspersed with Victorian structures like the Train Station Hotel and old theatre.  Fashion, fame and glamour somehow clash with this, being perched on the rugged coastline reaching out toward Scandinavia. Working class-ness and the blunt demeanour of the people supply ample opportunity for one learning the craft of kitchen sink realism, demonstrated through the writers I have included.  The attraction seems plausible; what else by way of art and reflection can be done but observing, writing, residing in the cocoon? Larkin sums up this unlikely breeding ground in a letter to Robert Conquest; ‘Hull is like a back drop for a ballet about industrialism crushing the natural goodness of man, a good, swingeing, left-wing ballet’. [1]

Pursuing the location further, Hull is unique because it is awkwardly positioned and so, if you come here, you come for a reason. Cold, rugged, halfway to Scotland from London, numbingly unexciting, it maintains its satisfying quirks: the cream telephone boxes, its artistic flare, approachable via the immense suspension bridge, a good University.  There couldn’t be more of a subtle place for a writer to be, particularly one desiring to be induced by their surroundings.  Interestingly, Hull is where many such writers chose to live rather than originate here, like Larkin, Roger McGough and Andrew Motion. Larkin, unlike the others, never became emancipated from the place and eventually immortalised Pearson Park in high windows in 1967.

To make sense of this, one must conclude that writers require the blank setting to fill their imagination, with deprivation of high luxuries being a familiar virtue, in particular for those inclined toward poetry. It was of course the deep isolation of the trench which lead poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen to record the tragedy they witnessed forever on paper.  Terry Eagleton says ‘The Hull setting was symbolically apt for Larkin: as the 20th Century unfolded its wars and revolutions, he cowered behind the book stacks in this remote provincial outpost’[1]. Whilst I think perhaps that last description is a little unfair, Larkin truly did create a fragile nest and often complained about Hull and the political state of his beloved England in his letters to, among others (like lifelong friend Kingsley Amis), his fellow librarians. In contrast, contemporary George Orwell actively engaged in politics, writing extensively on the Soviet revolution and WWII, whilst fighting for the Imperial Police in India in his earlier days. One cannot imagine such a ‘street fighter’ would choose Hull as an apt setting for his life’s work.

There is therefore hope that the literary tradition of Hull will continue, so that the same attractions that are highlighted bring a few more significant novelists, poets, essayists and intellectuals here. The ‘Larkin 25’ celebrations a couple of years ago officially acknowledged the importance of Hull for modern literature, but to me sent out a more profound message: there’s inspiration in this soil yet.

[1] Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere, Christopher Hitchens, first published in 2000 by Verso.

[1] Selected Letters of Philip Larkin 1940 – 1985, edited by Anthony Thwaite, first published in 1992 by Faber & Faber Ltd.


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