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Brexit heartland and City of Culture Hull remains in dangerous waters

The Three Ships glass mosiac mural in Hull was commissioned by the Co-op in 1961 and was desinged to reflect the city's maritime heritage. Anthony Clavane - Credit: Archant

As Hull relinquishes its title as the UK’s City of Culture, ANTHONY CLAVANE​ visits and finds a Brexit heartland ​looking to the future – with trepidation.

On my way to the light-firing robots, I pass a statue of Philip Larkin, mid-dash, notebook clutched under an arm, overcoat flapping open and hat swinging from a hand. What would the great poet, I wonder, make of the final – and most spectacular of all – City of Culture 2017 public artworks?

It was Larkin, after all – or rather the festival organised to commemorate the 25th anniversary of his death – who convinced the local council to bid for an accolade which, as the authority anticipated, has boosted the local economy and reversed the image of a dilapidated, post-industrial port struggling to move on from its past.

The answer is, as all the writers and artists I talk to admit, not a lot. It is one of the many ironies of Hull’s year in the spotlight that the reclusive librarian has come to symbolise a forward-thinking, outward-facing cosmopolitanism totally at odds with his own persona. And, indeed, his own version of Hull – which he tended to view as a backward-looking, fairly dull, insular place isolated by vast tracts of flat land.

At best, he saw his adopted home as ‘very nice and flat for cycling’. At worst it was ‘a hole’ populated by ‘witless, crapulous people.’ Neither description has featured heavily in the City of Culture publicity.

Hull has, in the past, topped every nefarious list going: crap towns,
teenage pregnancies, obesity, bad schools and low wages. In an infamous editorial, written after visiting its deserted high street, disintegrating warehouses and rotting docks, an Economist correspondent infamously deemed it an ‘urban ghost town’ suitable only for abandonment.

According to Martin Green, who has overseen Hull’s mammoth year of spectacular cultural events, the city has ‘refused the narrative’. Moreover, it has ‘refound its identity in the world’ and proved that it is, in fact, a forward-thinking, outward-facing bastion of cosmopolitanism.

There are now hipster cafes in its Victorian arcades, falafel stalls in its markets, award-winning art galleries in its town square and sculptures by Icelandic artists overlooking Larkin’s old library.

A light has been shone on its influential cultural scene – Hull Truck theatre, Ferens Gallery, Skelton Hooper dance school, 75 metre rotor blades and, er, pattie-throwing competitions – and, as Green points out, nine out of 10 Hullensians have attended at least one event.

He is also aware that almost seven out of 10 Hullensians voted to leave the European Union.

Two weeks ago he delivered a keynote speech at an Engage conference promoting diversity in the arts. One delegate tweeted: ‘Paradox that 68% of Hull’s population voted for Brexit just before City of Culture year.’ Another noted: ‘Hull is an outward looking international city but voted overwhelmingly for Brexit. This is a dilemma.’

‘Yes, there probably are contradictions,’ concedes Green. ‘But Brexit doesn’t stop cities being interested in the world and outward-looking. In my view you have to look at what was beneath the vote.’

Once the country’s third largest port, the city has suffered not only the loss of its fishing industry but also decades of neglect by the political class. It still hasn’t quite recovered from the battle over cod fishing with Iceland in the North Sea some 40 years ago.

The then-Labour government, under pressure by the Americans – who needed the Nordic country as a bulwark against the Soviet Union – allowed it to impose a 200-mile fishing limit, allowing swathes of Hull’s staple industry to rot and 15,000 jobs to disappear.

At the end of the rail network, and the beginning of the long crossing to northern Europe, Hull has, historically, flicked two fingers up at London. It revels in its oppositionalism, independence and sense of apartness.

It’s the only British city to possess creamy-white phone boxes. The English Civil War was triggered in 1642, when its governor refused Charles I entry to the town.

‘It’s a proud and independent city,’ says Green. ‘But the EU vote was about disenfranchisement. When Hull voted to leave it felt unconsidered and unloved. Within 12 months, that position has utterly changed. If there was another vote, I’m not sure it would go the same way.’

Could it be that, as its year-long reign as the UK’s artistic hub comes to a close
– and it passes the City of Culture baton to Coventry – it has had a change of heart?

Filmmaker Dave Lee is not so sure. He is giving me a quick-fire tour of this city of paradoxes, starting with the last
major commission of 2017: the six giant robots casting light signals and big shadows on to Old Town buildings. Entitled Where do we go from here? the installation will, according to its internationally-renowned designer Jason Bruges, ask ‘important questions for Hull and the nation’.

One of the questions won’t be: ‘What’s an internationally-renowned designer like Jason Bruges doing in a Brexit stronghold like this?’

‘We just crack on,’ says Lee. ‘We don’t blow our own trumpet. We lost all our industry in the 1970s, but we just cracked on. We got on with it.

‘If this year had been an abject failure we’d have just carried on as we were. We’ve had theatre and music for decades. We’ve had poetry for centuries. It’s nice people have realised.

‘But it hasn’t improved us in any way. The city’s in finer fettle than it was but I don’t know if that’s a temporary situation. On a Brexit level it’s going to be f***ing shit. On a cultural level, who knows?

‘It’s done a very good job in changing perceptions. If there was a vote tomorrow there might be less in favour of leaving, but it would still probably still be for out.’

Writer Russ Litten has taken an active role in the year, both as a performer and a punter, and has ‘enjoyed it immensely’. His favourite part was the 28-tonne blade in Queen Victoria Square, a temporary artwork made by Siemens, a German technology company employing around 1,000 people locally.

‘Why would the City of Culture change the vote?’ he argues. ‘Because they’ve seen some fireworks? Because they’ve been to a gig? Because there’s a statue of Iceland on the marina?

‘I don’t think people equate entertainment with politics. There is still a general negative belligerence and a dissatisfaction with what they perceive as the political status quo. It’s the same reason Trump got in in America. Facts don’t matter now. We’re in dangerous waters.’

These facts include a staffing crisis in the region’s care sector, with EU workers leaving both residential and domiciliary care jobs.

A recent survey of 2,000 local newspaper readers found that faith in the Government’s handling of Brexit was draining – but also that there was little support for a second referendum.

The look of the city might have changed, and the public realm works might have showcased it as an open, welcoming, aspirational place, but it remains typical, emblematic perhaps, of the much-discussed ‘left behind’: the working-class communities that remain economically deprived and anxious about social change.

Hull has the highest proportion of people on jobseekers allowance – 6.6% – in the country. More than a third of children live in poverty.

‘There is a serious problem with homelessness,’ says Joe Hakim, who joins us at the Three Ships Mural, which contains over one million tiny cubes of coloured Italian glass and is thought to be the largest mosaic of its kind in the country. There are several people sleeping rough in the doorway and, notes Lee, ‘the problem has seemed to get worse over the past year.’

Hakim is a performance poet who works for the Warren, an independent charity offering guidance, training and counselling to marginalised and vulnerable young people. ‘In Hull we have some of the worst rates of smoking-related deaths and households debts in the country. Up until recently we had the worst rates of teenage pregnancy. As good as the City of Culture has been, these problems haven’t gone away.

‘A lot of funding into Hull has come from Europe. Brexit was a con job. The young people I work with think that. But they don’t see any consequences. No-one is getting pulled up about hijacking this issue, which leads to more disillusionment, more disengagement with politics. Instead of anger and protest you get apathy.’

His friend Mez Green, the lead singer of rising indie-punk band Life, nods his head. ‘Brexit is awful. At the Warren we encouraged young people to vote. If 16-year-olds could have voted in that referendum it may have been different. Young people are so far removed from the decision-making process, it’s hard to engage them. Do young people get a voice in this country? No. They are falling through the cracks in society.

‘The Warren has benefitted from the EU. I work there and part of my wages are funded by the EU. I love this city. Culturally it will continue to thrive.

‘For that we have to be grateful. More people have got involved in things. The creative element is one of the pillars of this city and has been there for a long time. But Brexit has been a complete disaster.’

• Anthony Clavane’s Moving The Goalposts: A Yorkshire Tragedy, published by Riverrun, is now out in paperback

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