Despite convincingly winning the UK’s City of Culture 2017 award (sorry Leicester et al.), Hull’s new status was greeted online with widespread shock, derision, and a readiness to stereotype (Google still suggests ‘Worst Places to Live’ when searching for ‘Hull’). A cringe-worthy reference to the Housemartins from David Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions prompted further media coverage, and the interesting revelation that FatBoy Slim was their bass player.
A look through the papers the day after the announcement provided a shopping list of reasons to visit: with white phone boxes, rugby league, and a couple of bridges cropping up most frequently. Personally, having only heard of Hull as the birthplace of metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell and leading abolitionist William Wilberforce, chosen home of post-modernist Philip Larkin, and stomping ground of John Prescott, I was initially among the sceptics. But on closer inspection, Hull has a lot to offer, especially for historians. Hull boasts an impressive museum quarter which focuses mainly on the city’s maritime history, with Wilberforce House as the centrepiece, but I think that an overview of the Hull’s wider history offers a better route to understanding the culture of the place. A strategic port and stronghold in the north of England linking to Northern Europe, Hull featured heavily in early wars against Scotland and was besieged by Charles I in the early stages of the English Civil War.
Hull industrialised rapidly and became a centre for maritime industries, being bombed especially heavily for this reason during the Blitz, and following the ‘Cod Wars’ with Iceland in the 1970s, suffered as a result of deindustrialisation.
But, as was the case across the country, deindustrialisation bred radicalism and cultural revolution against the establishment. Eventually core parts of the city were replaced as sites for new business and culture – like the old docks, as in Bristol and Liverpool. A new stadium for Hull AFC coincided with spells in the Premier League, with sporting success proving both a cultural and economic boon for the city.
But Hull, like many places tend to, will centre the City of Culture year on one of its most famous sons, Larkin, with the biggest event of the £15 million budget focused on his poetry. But there is something deeper about Hull’s bid which is reminiscent of the London Olympic, promoting the cultural diversity and welcoming nature of the city – which is certainly worth celebrating.