Trade of Paper

British Road Signs, Humber Street Gallery. Photo: James Mulkeen

‘Trade of Paper’ was produced as part of a Corridor8 writing residency at Humber Street Gallery in Hull (November/December 2017), responding to the Substance programme and the wider events and interventions of Hull UK City of Culture. It appears in the printed publication Occasional Residents alongside other commissioned writing and a limited-edition artist insert.


Dear After,

I meant to write to you some ages ago,1 while I felt I had a degree of understanding of you. I am trawlermen, suffragettes, poets and dockers, and you are the place revitalised and reborn, The City of Culture. You promise Hull’s future an abundant crop2 (Though in the past we have surely felt the effect of frosts): the local talent of the present.

This growth will be headed by an institution which has the benevolent purpose of restoring persons apparently dead.3 It’s been a long time coming, that’s what I think.4 We’re a deserving applicant. We’ve always had the culture, there’s always been the historic buildings, the museums, the gallery, the music, things that were only known to us Hullensians.

This institution will restore the reputation of Hull. From industrial shadows5 this charitable group will surface, in the month of April in the year 2013, to build a powerful tool to accommodate the town with a commodious place for exchange.6

Yours sincerely,
Before


Dear Before,

What’s that sorry?7 This year, what was here before this year?8 This year we’re seeing things we might have taken for granted before the award. The people here, the wonderful people of Hull, are like ghosts searching for themselves in a distant past.9 There’s always been a lot going on in Hull, packed full of festivals and events, but now we’re taking more notice of the city. We’re seeing Hull almost as a tourist would.10

Back, back, to our memories. We weathered a period of post-industrial decline, with the fishing, the industry. They had shrunk. Smaller boats! Smaller factories! There was a large smokehouse on Hessel Road, lost during the bleak years of the 1980s.11 Everything had shrunk. But the Green port is growing — energy from a deep water channel,12 a post-financial crash raft for the perfect storm.

Our little bit of home… what is it now? A cultural destination or a Fishermen’s Wharf? A gateway to Europe or a newt’s estate?13

This I don’t know.

Yours sincerely,
After


Humber Street & Humber Dock Street. Photo: Chris Pepper

Dear After,

Hull is a widening river, domes and statues, spires and cranes. There’s a unique pavement of fish, of flounders at bus stops, monkfish outside Blackfriars Gate, plaice in the marketplace and a granite shark outside Barclays Bank. There’s a dead bod, fish processing factories, the smell of fish, the smell of cocoa beans and the smell of the brewery. They were smells of success and life and we used to enjoy it.14 There’s the smallest window in England, the largest council estate in England. There’s Hessle Road and the library garden: that flame of pride.15

But for your trawlermen — for a place the size of Hull to lose 6,000 to 8,000 men in the fishing trade over the years16 — there are surprisingly few memorials about the place. We scooped up our lads so they didn’t get crushed,17 so we want to see more of the memories of them (although, this means that money which should be spent on children’s education is used to settle debts incurred by parents).18

No more larking about. The history we can’t see has a cost.

Yours sincerely,
Before


Dear Before,

Our new story starts here. We’ll start looking to the future and exploring what’s next for us. We’re proud of Hull’s history, of the medical history, the suffragette history, the industry. But we can’t see. Like the tidal movements that govern our rivers we’re buffeted by outside influences19 beyond our control: international partners, media coverage, an uneasy blend of innocence and corruption. It’s now, is now, I now, litter now, establishment now, right now, cafes now, galleries now, our city, now? And now others?20

We’re hoping to shake off the doldrums and break our block.21 Locals are forgetting, forgetting the reputation of the past. The city of culture and its transformational power, will it help us to remember? It may prove difficult as our modern and ‘more-informed’ attitudes22 leave us with amnesia — a labyrinth which leads to the precipice of dreams and nightmares.23

I just hope that they can keep the dreams going.24

Yours sincerely,
After


Raft of the Medusa, Lucy + Jorge Orta, Humber Street Gallery. Photo: Sean Spencer / Hull News & Pictures

Dear After,

Were we much too far out all our lives?25 Perhaps away, but away from the slavery on the West coast, towards emancipation. And imagine seeing the Humber Bridge for the first time in sunny, Autumnal weather! And now we’ve been put on the map. It’s shown us in a new light. Oh, people know now that Hull is a heck of a great place. People want to come to Hull.26

Is loneliness a contributing factor with regard to hard-to-reach groups? Er, no. Managed decline is giant hogweed.27 A toxic plant, one not lavished upon the worthless and the wicked; on the contrary, it has accelerated the sinking of benevolent and good persons.28

We’d never met people who wanted to restore to society our beloved Hull as much as we did, or rather, those who had the capital to do it. We want to show it off, show off the nice buildings, the eateries — Gino DiCampo is opening a new prosecco and pizza place in Kingswood you know, so it’s made him think “Hull? Oh I’ll ‘ave a go”.29

We will excavate its successes to date and let the skilful gard’ner annihilate all that’s made to grow a green thought in a green shade.30 And when that immediate moment passes we will have to ensure we can transform our city forever.

Yours sincerely,
Before


Dear Before,

The property market may be benefitting thanks to the feelgood factor surrounding the City of Culture but regeneration is a fickle mistress. She’s nationwide, beautiful yet so dangerous, bringing accusations of gentrification. Record levels of investment thrown at only the most fashionable places to live.

And for the ‘forgotten’ BHS community?31 Slums, years, have buried them. Flattened cardboard boxes like the Haughton Building, cloaks of scaffolding, carrier bags; an entirely mobile infrastructure.32 Often the poor An escape or a lift of the deep mossy root connecting them to the city? Perhaps for them it is just the middle of a lonely country, and an ugly sundial that nobody wants.33

Yours Sincerely,
After


Dear After,

Not a sundial but a sculptor’s sweet commissioned grace. There is no better time or place to be making art than in the North of England and it’s important that the Northern Powerhouse is much more than just an economic conversation. We will make Hull a cultural destination for must-see events.

One day a year like this would see us right in this dynamic place that excites, inspires and surprises. I mean you can’t flipping move in Hull for Crimbo lights!34 And can you imagine it, Elvis turning up on a bike on King Edwards Street.35 The cultural deluge — ballet, ferociously groovy bass playing,36 poetry, festivals, Hull silver, theatre bills and vintage cars continue the list. By these, we are all quite enraptured and claim their healing benefits along the pleasant, tree-lined boulevard.37

Yours Sincerely,
Before


COUM installation, Humber Street Gallery. Photo: Mark Blower

Dear Before,

Will it not disappoint? It’s great to see visitors appreciating all that Hull has to offer. But we were disheartened by all the work going on around the centre of Town. How can anyone with limited mobility find their way around?38 We went to the light show and it were buzzing, but you couldn’t move. You had to walk on heads to get anywhere.

The old white heart of Hull is undergoing a massive transformation again to forge a strong and lasting creative legacy — try again and fail again?39 The industrial roots and veins of this blanket bog are unfolding through the barriers of the pavements to form a new suspension bridge between the city centre and the outside communities. For those people, in those areas, for those projects – there’s wheelchair access, hearing loops, touch tours, BSL interpretation, captions, exertions from the institution to support them. We’ve tried to give everyone a bit of a journey through this flux.40

Yours sincerely,
After


Dear After,

Oh yes, well, it’s very nice and flat:41 the town lies on a level tract of ground. But we’re identifying what the gaps are locally and where there are access problems. Existing cobbles and historic rail tracks were lifted, cleaned and re-laid, and new walkways and crossing points created. (Though a tidiness perhaps at odds with the fearsome reputation of notorious groups like COUM and Bête Noire,42 who champion an art — and a city — at the end of its tether, openly confrontational and subversive, and none too sleek, but honest.)

The delightful banks of the river Hull, the inviting harbour, makes an advantageous situation of this hitherto neglected and obscure corner43 – wild yet captured, wild yet captured,44 spiritually not geographically speaking. A port city and seaside town, watching from a bluff the tiny, clear sparkling armada of promises draw near.45

Yours Sincerely,
Before


1) Letter from Margot K. Juby. She was a poet and part of Bête Noire – I can’t seem to find out when she gave up poetry but now she’s more interested in doll-modding, from what twitter and her website offers. Tried to email with no response. 2) This is actually about Cottingham, a large village outside of Hull, which historically seems to have supplied the city (then town) with vegetables. Oddly, I have never found much to suggest that Hull stands on particularly fertile ground, but then the focus has always been on its much more lucrative position on the river. 3) J. G. Cragg Guide to Hull, referring to a prototype lifeguard group, where people would be reimbursed varying amounts for rescuing those who are drowning, drying them, or taking them home to give them somewhere to sleep. This existed since 1800, not as old as China’s Chinkiang Association for the Saving of Life, but still an incredibly old organisation for lifeguards. 4) Conversation with a retired man in Humber Street. He was very full of pride and thankful for the award. He didn’t think he was going to live much longer, but was happy to have lived long enough to see Hull’s rebranding (which he finds simultaneously uplifting and depressing). 5) Philip Larkin (of course). Can’t talk about Hull without at least mentioning him – even if everything he said about the place was pretty dreadful. 6) Cragg once again, talking about Mr. W. Bell, a businessman, who built ‘the exchange’ for merchants to make money. Cragg is sceptical of Bell’s motives, but shrugs them off. 7) Woman in gallery who couldn’t hear me because I was mumbling and the gallery was very busy. She wouldn’t let anyone talk over her. 8) Girl from Leeds on a trip — had never visited, couldn’t imagine Hull without the city of culture banners and branding and such. 9) From an interview with COUM. I wish I had managed to go the exhibition at Humber Street Gallery. 10) Interview with James McGuire, City of Culture’s Audience Engagement Manager, whose generosity and sincerity was infectious. Almost encyclopaedic knowledge of Hull’s communities and CoC’s community engagement. 11) From hulltrawler.net, a forum where people share their memories of Hull, with a focus on trawler history. 12) Hull’s Green energy scheme (hullcc.gov.uk). 13) Regeneration was halted because of the discovery of great crested newts. According to the BBC the residents felt that the newts were being treated better than themselves. 14) Interview with gallery goer. She has lived in Hull her whole life, and spoke with a great deal of reverence for the past, its industry (and had as much reverence for all the new restaurants coming into town too). 15) Referring to a woman called Tracey who lives on Hessel Road. She took over her local library’s garden when it became clear they could no longer take care of it. She hosts events and workshops for local families and is a real delight. A very strong and caring woman. 16) From a really amazing blog called Hull and Hereabouts. 17) The letter is trying to refer to the women who protested for trawlermen’s rights, although the writing comes from a facebook comment about an article in hulldailymail.co.uk. 18) Referring to the difficult rhetoric that spending money on culture instead of infrastructure is irresponsible, but comes from a letter from the Stockwell Primary school, Hull, to parents about school dinner debts. 19) From the Hull CoC bid document. 20) A collection of the many ‘nows’ mentioned throughout my sources, things people are associating with the present. 21) From Margot’s letter again – she was struggling with writing her own poetry (and I wonder if this is the point where she lost the urge to write?). 22) Actually quite sarcastic tone, from Hull – Now and Then, lamenting the loss of historical buildings which were knocked down because they were seen to be impractical. 23) www.hull2017co.uk. 24) Another chat with a gallery goer, although variations of this phrase were offered by pretty much everyone I spoke to. It was like the official tagline for the locals. 25) Reference to Stevie Smith’s Not Waving but Drowning. 26) Phrases used by multiple residents in celebration of the award. 27) Giant hogweed taking over unmanaged areas, such as the walk to KCOM stadium, Hull’s football ground (www.hulldailymail.co.uk). 28) Cragg discussing the opening of a hospital in Hull, and managing to be incredibly generous with his description of locals at the same time, something he’s managed much better than I. 29) Another quote from the lady from [7]. She was really thankful for the industry of Hull and the smells and the visceral experience of living in that time. She was a bit upset by the Martin Parr exhibition as it didn’t show off the ‘nice’ (read: middle class) eating places, just the bog standard ones. 30) Quote from Andrew Marvell, poet from Hull whose writing romanticised nature over industry, and who, according to one person I spoke to, is a much more interesting poet than Philip Larkin. 31) Referring to a part of town where people who are homeless congregate for safety and shelter, that is, in the middle of town and very heart-breaking to see. 32) Quote from an environmental group in Hull whose ‘mobile infrastructure’ addresses a very different need than that of the homeless. Difficult to reconcile cultural and environmental change with the need to help these people. 33) A very disenchanted teenager outside the youth centre The Warren who was not a fan of the sculpture in Queen’s Gardens. 34) Again, from Facebook, a group called One Hull of a City. The sincerity and engagement of the active members is really sweet. It makes me nostalgic for a sense of pride in my hometown that I’ve never felt or been part of. 35) An older gentleman in Humber Street telling me about a street performer who he found very amusing – especially the bicycle. 36) Guardian article about the Spiders from Mars (from Hull), something not mentioned much in the city’s branding or cultural memory. 37) Hull city centre was pedestrianised making it a much nicer place to walk through – apparently before that it was not a very inviting space. 38) A comment on a travel blog’s review of Hull, a very upset person who felt that the disruption was very unforgiving for those with access issues. 39) From Hull and Hereabouts – the writer is very suspicious of regeneration, and references failed attempts in the past. 40) From interview with James McGuire – he described the lengths that CoC went to make events accessible, which were significant. 41) Only nice thing Philip Larkin had to say (about anything???). 42) A poetry journal published by Margot K. Juby published, alongside many others). 43) Cragg right at the beginning of the Guide, where Hull is an undeveloped patch of land and the King decides it’d be a good spot to build an arsenal. 44) Stevie Smith once more, repetition intended. 45) And Philip Larkin sounding quite optimistic.

Devon Forrester-Jones is an artist and writer based in Liverpool and writer-in-residence at Humber Street Gallery in 2017/18.

Published 27.03.2018 by Lara Eggleton in Explorations

2,801 words

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