A Hull of a Time | Living North

A Hull of a Time


Acrobat performer with fireworks in Hull
Hull’s year as UK City of Culture continues apace, with plenty more to look forward to before the year is out. Rosie Millard, Chair of Hull UK City of Culture 2017, first came to the city more than 30 years ago – but still holds a soft spot for it

‘It was very different,’ says Rosie Millard, recounting the first time she set foot in Hull as a fresh-faced, first year undergraduate in the mid-1980s. ‘I’d grown up in Wimbledon and turned up in Hull; the fishing industry had just collapsed and it was a dark time for the city.’ But in the darkness there was light: ‘It still had its own splendid sense of independence,’ she recalls, ‘and I just thought it was great.’ Some people take time – weeks or months, perhaps – to settle into a city, overcoming homesickness and embracing new surroundings. Not for Rosie. ‘It won me over immediately,’ she says. ‘I really loved it.’ At the time Hull was a small university city, with around 4,000 students. ‘Because of its size it was a very intimate place and you had to love it,’ she says. 

There was more to Rosie’s love of the city than a sheer sense of stick-it-out-and-you’ll-enjoy-it, though. Even then, the city was a throbbing cultural hub, its university drama department (where Rosie was taking classes as part of an English and Drama degree) putting on thought-provoking work, and Hull Truck in the first flourishes of its time under John Godber, thought to be Britain’s third-most performed playwright (behind only Shakespeare and Alan Ayckbourn). Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt – better known as Everything but the Girl – were drama students a couple of years above Rosie at Hull University. ‘There was a real sense that this was a groovy place to be,’ says Rosie. A former faculty member at Hull University called Anthony Minghella had just left the drama department to go down to London to direct plays in the West End.
Rosie’s interest in journalism was inspired by Dame Jenni Murray, who has presented Woman’s Hour, since 1987, and who travelled the short distance from Barnsley to Hull for university before graduating and becoming one of the country’s most famous broadcasters. She was just one of a long list of names in arts, culture, journalism and politics, who had trekked up Beverley Road to the university campus, then found fame and success elsewhere.

What makes Hull such a breeding ground for successful, tenacious thinkers and doers? Rosie reckons that Hull’s remoteness – a city Philip Larkin once memorably said was ‘on the edge of things’ – plays a big part. ‘Because of its geographical placement away from everywhere else, you can really make a go of it on your own,’ she says. ‘You can use it as a petri dish for experiments and you won’t be bothered by anyone, because you’re there.’

Circumstances and the city’s culture also bolstered more innovative thinking. ‘It’s a very independent and radical place, somewhere formidably left-wing,’ she explains. ‘It builds this idea that you need to be challenging things, looking away from the establishment and questioning it.’ It changed the young Rosie, who had a small-C conservative upbringing, and a self-admitted easy time in life up to that point. ‘To turn up in Hull and realise that life was different – that my experiences to date were not the only experiences one could have – started me asking questions.’

Rosie’s rationale was simple: ‘If you’re going to be a journalist, you have to have an idea of how the nation lives,’ she says. ‘It’s probably not a good idea to live in hermetically-sealed positions of privilege. In Hull in the 1980s you were seeing people who lived on a very low income, for whom life was tough. If you look at people living in that environment, you take a different view of social services, of people who do not live with a huge amount of money coming in, and how they get on.’

Though Hull has been steadily improving its lot since Rosie graduated and became a critically-acclaimed journalist (her first story for a national newspaper was about the Humber Bridge), the fact remains that for a great many people in the country – and in the county – Hull was until recently an also-ran. ‘If you’re a local, I think you’re living in the most unknown city in the country,’ says Rosie. Famously, it didn’t even feature on the weather maps until recently. One part of London – Islington – can lay claim to more Arts Council-funded enterprises than the entire city of Hull.

‘When I was a correspondent at the BBC I used to have to say the word “Hull” twice when people asked where I went to university,’ she says. ‘They’d never heard of it, and didn’t know where it was.’

Things have now changed, not least since Hull was announced as the UK City of Culture for 2017.

It’s an accolade given to a city that has an interesting, independent culture of its own, but lacks the mainstream oomph to be heard by the rest of the country. ‘Hull has both,’ reckons Rosie. ‘It has this extraordinary culture, but also it needed to be rebranded and boosted.’ Since 2013, investment in the city centre has increased to £2.5 billion. ‘Billion,’ emphasises Rosie. Thousands of people are experiencing world-class culture who never before would have stepped foot in an art gallery or a theatre. Four in every 10 people seeing a play in Hull Truck this year have never been to the theatre before. The number of people through the door at the Ferens Art Gallery on one weekend in May topped 10,000, compared to just 560 visitors on the same weekend in 2015. ‘The work hasn’t changed; it’s the same collection of work that has been there a long time. What has changed is that people feel it’s for them. It’s profound,’ says Rosie.

World premieres of plays that take place in Hull are reviewed in national newspapers; the Proms is arriving in July, the Turner Prize touches down in the city, a Rembrandt original painting will follow the artist, who spent a year in the city in the 17th century, back up to Hull, and the Royal Ballet are coming. ‘I’m not suggesting it’s going to happen every single year, but the relationships have now been made,’ says Rosie.

Now, she says, ‘if you’re in the arts and haven’t been to Hull, it’s embarrassing. If you say you haven’t been up to Hull yet, you look like you’re late to the game, because everyone in London is talking about it. That’s terrific; like a tsunami of reference, a huge acknowledgement from the cultural world.’

It was something that Rosie never thought would happen – ‘not in a million years. All my friends who went to university, we all knew that Hull was a great place, but it was like a secret society.’ However, now the world is watching as Hull parades its culture for everyone to see, she’s keen to ensure that the focus doesn’t drift away.

‘Obviously this is a national event, but what we really care about is people living in the city,’ says Rosie. ‘The core of it is addressing and engaging children and young people. That’s our mission. If the rest of the country wants to join in, have a laugh and see a few shows, that’s brilliant, but it’s not my mission. My mission is for the young to be engaged with art and see it – to have their lives changed by it, to see it as something they can participate and engage in, they can work in or have in their lives.’

Quick Fire Questions

Where’s the first place to go in Hull? 
‘Have a look at I Wish To Communicate With You, which is a light show on every night on the Thornton Estate, a big housing estate right next to the station where every person has chosen a light gel to put on the balcony of their flat,’ says Rosie. ‘It has been one of the most moving and amazing community works of art which has been designed and installed. The whole estate – several big housing towers – is lit up in a myriad of rainbow colours.’

Where’s the best view of Hull? 
‘My favourite has to be from the Promenade,’ says Rosie. ‘I go running there, by the enormous Humber Estuary. It’s beautiful: it’s been redone and repaved, beautiful railings and sculptures, and you look towards the New Dock which is where the Siemens wind turbine factory is, a great sign of new investment here, and you can see about eight miles down the Humber Estuary, the Humber Bridge. If you’re lucky you see it in early morning, as the sun hits the bridge. It looks like a tiny Christmas decoration, a piece of jewellery, absolutely beautiful. That is my favourite view of Hull.’

Where’s the best place to get food? 
‘Fish and chips at Bob Carver’s is absolutely fantastic. It’s where the Archbishop of York came to have lunch when he came to rededicate the Minster. There’s a very nice restaurant called 1884 in Hull Marina and next door to that there’s a lovely Indian restaurant called Tapasaya which is where I’d go. That or Thieving Harry’s, a really groovy burger place.’

Where’d you go for a drink? 
‘There’s a bar, Furleigh’s Bar, on Princes Quay, or the Lion and Keys which is a pub on the High Street and also has delicious fish and chips,’ says Rosie. ‘Otherwise I like having a cup of tea at the Royal Station Hotel, which was immemorialised by Philip Larkin in the Whitsun Weddings, and where his journey to London began.’

Dates for Your Diary

Venues across Hull 
‘The Freedom Festival will be amazing, some fantastic speakers and great performers,’ Rosie reckons, buoyed by an independent spirit and bringing arts and culture to the masses. 

Hull New Theatre
 ‘The Director of the Royal Ballet comes from Hull and principal dancers for the Royal Ballet and many other ballets – like the Mariinksy Ballet – come from Hull,’ says Rosie. ‘They’re all coming back to dance in Hull for one night and we are giving half the auditorium to disadvantaged children who love ballet.’

Ferens Art Gallery 
‘The Turner Prize happening in Hull is going to be a big deal,’ says Rosie. The world’s most exciting contemporary art prize – and one of the most prestigious awards – arrives at the Ferens Art Gallery in September. 

Published in: August 2017

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