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In praise of Hull

06 October 2017


Fishy story: Hull 2017: Contains strong language (Radio 4, Saturday) fea­tured an anthology of verse in honour of this year’s UK City of Culture

Fishy story: Hull 2017: Contains strong language (Radio 4, Saturday) fea­tured an anthology of verse in honour of this year’s UK City of Culture

IT IS a city that “smelt revoltingly of fish” and whose one redeeming feature was that it was flat for cycling. Thus Philip Larkin spoke of his adoptive home of Hull. When he spoke more lovingly of the city, it was because it was a place that reflected back to him his sense of melancholy and loneliness. As a poster-boy for the cur­rent European City of Culture, Philip Larkin is a distinctly ambiguous presence.

But that seemed to deter nobody during last weekend’s Hull-based radio festival on the BBC. “Oh! Hull is a wonderful Town O” ran the refrain of an 18th-century ballad that was declaimed with increasing en­­thusiasm during Hull 2017: Con­tains strong language (Radio 4, Saturday), an anthology of verse in honour of the city.

While it is incontestably the fishiest city in Britain, it is harder to verify Peter Porter’s claim that Hull is “the most poetic city in Britain”. Lindsey Chap­man, with her readers Jeremy Irons and Julie Hesmond­halgh, made a good fist of proving it.

We heard poems ranging from Andrew Marvell to Stevie Smith (she was born in Hull). But perhaps the greatest testament to Hull’s deep-rooted literary culture is the influ­ence that poets had on one another: Philip Larkin, for instance, on Doug­las Dunn, and he, in turn, on a generation of writers, many of them featured here.

The City of Culture status has given us a glimpse of a rich, sustainable cultural micro-climate far away from the nurturing rays of south-eastern patronage.

If the library at Hull University provides one cultural hub, another is Hessle Road, the centre of the fishing community, and, at one time, pos­sibly the greatest concentration of fisher­men in Europe. The Spirit of Hessle Road (Radio 4, Thursday of last week) was a “montage documentary” beautifully constructed by the producer Hanna Walker-Brown from fishing songs, the sounds of the pub, and reminiscences.

The strands knit together into an account of the 1968 “triple trawler” disaster, in which three vessels sank and 58 men lost their lives. The re­­sulting demonstrations led to wide­­spread reform in the industry. We heard from women who lost hus­bands and fathers; and of the casual approach taken to safety, which meant that some boats did not even carry radio operators.

For this listener, the climax of the weekend came in unprepossessing form: a music-theatre version of A Clockwork Orange (Radio 3, Sunday). The violent, troubling narrative of delinquency was here transformed into a music-hall-style morality tale.

The history of this hybrid is telling: Anthony Burgess, apparently exasperated by ham-fisted theatrical adaptations of his novel, produced his own A Clock­work Orange: A play with music, in 1986. When per­formed, it generally lacks the rich score that Burgess composed; but, for this rendition, Iain Farrington re-orchestrated the music, which was given rousing and ribald treatment by the BBC Phil­harmonic. Burgess’s invented lan­guage of Nadsat never sounded more poetic.

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