Apparently Philip Larkin felt at home in Hull, a city ‘on the edge of things’. I went for the first time yesterday to read at the wonderful Humber Mouth Festival, programmed by Shane Rhodes of Wrecking Ball Press. It was an Arc event (my publishers who specialize in poetry in translation). My billed co-reader was the Serbian poet Ivana Milankov (with her translator James Sutherland-Smith) but unfortunately she was ill and couldn’t make it. I was delighted to meet instead Jacek Dehnel from Poland (and his partner Peter). We read in The Other Space, an old office block in the centre of Hull, donated by the owner as a rather cool venue for cultural events.
I also had time beforehand to call in at the Ferens Art Gallery and see some of its impressive collection. I came across this striking piece by one of my favourite artists Helen Chadwick.
Looking for something to eat afterwards, we tried Ye Olde White Harte, a very traditional wood-panelled pub that’s supposed to be where in 1642 Sir John Hotham resolved to prevent King Charles I from entering Hull, which ended up sparking off the English Civil War. It was full of folk watching the rugby on TV so we crossed the road to the William Wilberforce, named after another of Hull’s legendary personalities, who campaigned so vigorously for the abolition of the slave trade.
I have to admit that before I went I hadn’t realized quite how powerful Hull had been in the past and how proud of itself it is now. It’s bidding for next year’s European City of Culture and one of the leaflets I picked up boasted ‘…our cultural landscape is crowded, noisy, refreshing, exciting – and different from anywhere else.’ It didn’t seem to be lying.
A town which by its very nature recommends the plainly human, the seriousness of what, in more glamorous places, is taken to be ordinary.
Obviously I knew about Larkin’s connection with the city, and also something of Sean O’Brien’s background there (and, via them both, Andrew Motion and Douglas Dunn) but I was interested to find out that Andrew Marvell was educated at Hull Grammar School – a fierce advocate of social justice as well as one of our great garden poets.
What I knew about Hull had previously pretty much begun and ended with Larkin. And there he was – waiting for me on the station concourse when I went to catch my train back to Durham.
(Sculpture and slate roundels by Martin Jennings)
And here’s one of Jacek’s poems (translated by George Szirtes) –
Dla A. hr J
All those unvisited cities, far off our usual routes:
metros, balconies, suns, stalls selling exotic fruits,
and that high house with garish colonnade where a strapping
young lieutenant draws on his white glove, about to ring
the bell as he does each time a ship goes down the maw
of the hungry ocean.
And nothing changes. The raw
Cities motionless, leaves that insist on hanging on
to boughs, the colonnade stock still, glued to the same sun.
A boy strolls home with his bike. A dog leads a blind man.
In the museum, the guide before Rubens repeats
the same glib phrases. ‘Those extraordinary feats
of craft, and colour, blah blah…’ The ‘gothic’ room below,
a metro carriage, an old woman, a Lazio
fan and a black guy, endlessly dashing from point A
to point B.
It’s fixed. It’s stuck. We will not pass that way
Together. We will never stand before the well-known
altar at point C or before the Vermeer on our own.
They’re doomed to mere potential, like the luminous eel
on the seabed, or the room behind a locked door: we’ll
not be at the table or by the lamp or the pictures
we were once told about. They will remain fixtures,
forever unfulfilled, like the plans we once had
for a London flat, the New York vacations, my pad
in Rome, your trip to Sweden, and how we would save
for the day in Venice when we’d share a common grave.
We’re adults now. The carriage half empty, I’m sitting
alone. The hand hovers at the bell, never to ring.