Hull was to be my last destination. I’d chosen it for two reasons. First, this was where I learnt to busk, 16 years ago when I was dating a young lady at university here. I really had no money at all, and always busked for my train fare home. The people of Hull never let me down, and so there seemed a pleasing circularity in bringing it all to an end in this splendid Yorkshire city.
But there was a second reason for coming here. My paternal grandparents had grown up here, on opposite sides of the city, surviving the Second World War as teenagers, un-evacuated and exposed to the blitz that hit Hull so hard. There would be bits of my family history scattered all around to find.
I re-acquainted myself with my former busking pitch. I think it was a Woolworths when I’d last been here, but was now three smaller shops, so I picked the disused entrance to a closed down Marks and Spencers opposite and picked up where’d I’d left off those years before.
Whitefriargate has lost its sheen now, with so many closed shops. It’s half empty, and much of what remains is popup or cheap remainders. People head through on their way, rather than being engaged in the act of shopping. A lady came past and shouted something derogatory. I ignored it, but another shopper found a coin for me and apologised on Hull’s behalf.
“I think she might have a few issues. Don’t worry about it.” She said. “Hey all those notes, if it was a guitar I’d called you a fretwanker!”
“But I don’t have any frets, so I guess that makes me a…” I continued,
“A wanker!” she concluded for me gleefully, “Yes, but it’s good stuff. Don’t be so hard on yourself.”
I made a respectable £25 in a couple of hours and wandered around towards the river Hull, the dividing line between East and West Hull, a navigable trench, sweeping in ancient arcs under so many lift colourful bridges. The Manchester arms had a sandwich board outside that proudly announced that this pub was ‘The home of ‘Shit on the Grass”, without making it clear if this was a band or a cocktail, or something else altogether. I didn’t go in to enquire further.
A bedraggled man barked “What time is it?” at me as I walked along the riverside walk.
“3.45pm.” I answered.
“Fuck me, wasn’t sure if it was morning or afternoon.”
I met my host for the trip, Steve, in HOME, a dinery and bar he runs on the Beverley road. After a bite of dinner, we decided to take a walk through the industrial fringe of the Hull river and possibly visit a couple of bars along the way.
Veering off the Beverley road, you pass a number of tanneries as you head towards the river. They stink, big old brick buildings where huge drums tumble slowly, over and over, and a tangible white mist of stench sits in the hollows between the walls. At the end of the street is a Jewish graveyard, disappearing into the brambles, gravestones hidden in trees. A sign, rising from the thicket gives the name of the road, ‘Air Street’.
The Hull is still fringed by industry all along. With tall concrete slabbed walls and fences, the area is known as the bankside gallery, and graffiti artists have coloured every suitable surface. It’s a semi formal arrangement now, and certain buildings have signs on saying things like ‘Listed building, no art please!’. Banksy left a picture here, on a disused and raised drawbridge, now covered in a stiff and see-through plastic sheet to protect it from the elements and the jealous.
We made it to the Whalebone, a pub on the verge of surviving its context. I love pubs like this, where the world that spawned them has gone, demolished, redundant, redeveloped, and suddenly they’re the only remnant of a time past, decontextualised and strange, surrounded by modernity. The Baltic Fleet in Liverpool is a fine example, a sailor’s pub left architecturally lost amongst the contemporary urban accommodation that sprouted with such vigour when the warehouses came down. Or the Peveril of the Peak in Manchester, all green glazed tiles, a two story city pub from another age, base out of alignment with the feet of the huge new buildings all around, a subtle clue to the shifting flow of the city streets.
The Whalebone is half way there. Industry is on the way out here, but the Whalebone persists, and perhaps even thrives, a rare bright light in this dusk, a glowing beacon of life amidst the lifeless brick and graffiti sprawl of post-war industrial Hull, bombed out and rebuilt on the cheap to get the place going again. Development is coming. Further down towards the Humber, warehouses and industry have become flats and museums, quirky bars, and the wave is slowly lifting itself upstream. There’s an outlier, a single warehouse already flats, developed ahead of time by some forward thinking Hull resident with the cash to do it and finger to the pulse of the city, surrounded by factories and garages, recycling centres and scrapyards. The air smells of processes, and the views are of rubble and the gentle end of eras, but when the wave reaches this street, somebody stands ready to cash in.
“My mate bought an old mill and rented it out to artists for a while.” Said Steve.
“They bloody love a mill, artists.”
“It’s like catnip to them, they just can’t resist one.”
The garages and scrapyards will turn into popup bars, little kitchens, galleries, squats, then houses, then flats and trendy bars, and finally the artists and free spirits that arrived as the first colonisers will be economically and socially displaced and move further upriver and the area will become boring again, as achingly dull people evict the cultural life that drew them here, wanting to feed off the vibe without the slog of being one themselves. The next fifty years were already determined for this street. And the Whalebone would sit there right through it, an unbroken link to a past that will seem so far away and mysterious.
The Whalebone is a homely place, good beer, clean and considerately lit, tidy but busy with sporting mementoes and history, including framed photographs of Clive Sullivan, Hull’s most famous adopted son, the rugby league player who led Great Britain to victory over Australia in the 1972 world cup. He played for both the city’s clubs, bridging the divide that rugby league represents, and was the first black man to captain any British sporting side. It says a great deal about Hull’s openness that their greatest sporting hero was a black Welshman who moved to the city to try his hand at the northern code. He died of cancer aged just 42.
We tried another pint a couple of streets on, at a big, lonely sort of place called ‘The County’. It was 9pm and already the landlady was closing the curtains, peach and lilac patterns than matched her clothing so well that when she stood in front of them, she entirely disappeared from sight. There were two darts boards at opposite ends of the bar, suggesting at least the historical existence of both an ‘A’ and a ‘B’ team. Such numbers seemed hard to believe on a night like this, and we took our pints of Chestnut Mild (“Tastes of nowt!”) to the back of the room, and watched as the landlady flitted between following the 80s crime drama on the TV over the bar, and feeding pounds into the fruit machine during the adverts. All around the deep picture rail were huge vintage chocolate tins, a reminder of how large ‘Roses’ and ‘Quality Street’ used to be before the era of austerity shrank them to their current tragic sizes, a sort of economic island-dwarfism effect.
It was too melancholic to stay here for long, so we found the old White Hart instead, which had rather more life about it, including a man having a loud phone conversation about the history of Formula one. He continued without break during our time in this pub, and I started to entertain the suspicion that the person on the other end of the line didn’t quite hold the same interest level. The pub was ancient and wood panelled and somewhat worn out. The door to the toilets suddenly took you into a long white panelled corridor lit by fluorescent tubes and so out of keeping with the rest of the establishment that I wondered if I’d been abducted by aliens.
We concluded our adventure in ‘Dive’, a bar a little out of town, set up by a couple of young lads who’d wanted a bit of autonomy in the pub business. So many of the pubcos have exploitative models of tenancy that any smart youngster looking to run one has generally concluded it’s better to set up as an independent, and unable to buy out the larger houses, there’s been an explosion of little bars all over the country. They probably don’t make any more money here, but at least its theirs to do as they please, without the pubco accountants working out exactly how much rent to chisel them for this year. It’s a microcosm of the wider economy, really. Without the same career progression and security of the old jobs market, if you’re in the service sector and have a bit of youthful ambition, you might as well do your own thing, be that coffee shops, hairdressers, bars.
Dive is run by a couple of young lads, and Steve was doing what all good landlords do, keeping a polite eye on the competition. It was a dive too, but that made sense. Nail a bar together out of chipboard and paint it, get a smattering of mismatched furniture off freecycle and just get the place going. Make a point of getting to know your customers, build it up as time and money allow, but just get trading. You can’t afford perfection.
The lad behind the bar was controlling the music through a tablet and I asked him if the system took requests.
“No.” He answered, having clearly weighed me up as the sort of person who would probably ask for something daft or unsuitable.
There were two young ladies at the bar next to me, towards the end of a good night out.
“I’d better go home, I have to lead a yoga session 8am tomorrow morning.” Said one, somewhat worse for wear, and stumbling out.
“Good luck with that!” I said, and I meant it.
They were replaced by a skinny and heavily bearded man who ordered a Guinness. He was full of opinions, but very hard to follow.
Later on Steve said;
“He was a musician you know.”
“What did he play?”
The next morning I walked back down the bank of the Hull. The tanneries were still at it, firedoors open for ventilation. Dereliction was being torn down, machines with claws reducing the spent parts of the city to rubble and scrap. Buddleia is the flower of Hull. It lives in every crack in the brickwork, grows through crumbled brick and concrete. Pushes out of stock left fallow for too long in yards. It finds a way high up in unwashed gutters on careworn warehouse and mill, and even in the Autumn of the year, the scent is in the air, mixing with the many other smells of the city.
Hull is a city of smells. It doesn’t stink, that’s too easy a denigration. It smells of processes, natural and industrial. Chemicals, solvents, pollen, and a fresh layer of mud dropped on the ebb tide. Once it smelled of fish as well, but that industry is long gone, never to return, the trawlers no longer passing right across the face of the city to the Hessle road, returning from what was regarded as the most dangerous job in the world. It produced outspoken, clear headed people, like Lillian Bilocca who in 1968 led a successful campaign for mandatory safety improvements on trawlers. Her actions saved many lives and she was rewarded by being blacklisted from the industry, never working with fish again, being in some sense perhaps scapegoated for the rapid decline in the trawling trade in the decade that followed.
Outsiders still perceive Hull as a city of fishing, even though that’s now long gone. It’s changed hugely since I was a regular visitor, becoming far more bohemian and cultural. Being city of culture certainly helped, although it’s proving hard to keep that momentum up.
Hull has a bit of everything. The road followed the ancient curve of the river, and I came upon a nest of skips, arranged like occasional tables, like a Feng Shui expert had fulfilled a brief and left.
In town I chose to busk on King Edward street, wide and spacious. After a slow start, I began to do ok. I was then interrupted by a street sweeping machine. He’d passed me by yesterday as well, a once round Whitefriargate, but it seemed the centre of town was his focus. Up and down he went, the rowdy drive-on hoover, sometimes on the far side of the street, sometimes coming right at me and veering round my case at the last second. ‘They must pay him by the ton’ I thought to myself as he came by yet again, spoiling a good tune.
As he went round the corner for a while, I resumed my playing. Two heavily armed policemen came by, with large guns slung across their fronts, pacing slowly, a little distance apart.
“You having a good morning?” Said one to me, with measured professional politeness. I didn’t know how to answer, their weaponised presence disconcerting, so I just blanked him. Not out of rudeness but I found I couldn’t hold a conversation like that with a man carrying an automatic weapon. Why were they here? Did they know something I didn’t, or is this just how things are now? Far from reassure me, they troubled me a great deal. The sweeper returned again, roaring past the other way. Hull must have the most diligently swept streets in England.
I bought some lunch and allowed myself to gently meander towards the old fruitmarket part of town. This had been a ghost town 15 years ago, recently abandoned, but empty at night, frontages of a different age and uncertain future. Now it had been redeveloped, and I looked forward to seeing it brought back to life. It was a disappointment. Like a film set it looked great from certain angles, but entirely false when you knew where the joins were. It was stiff and inorganic, a vision foist upon a street full of history, as insincere as the highbrow shops that filled it, empty and over-priced. The only one that looked like any fun was called ‘Dinosaur experience’ but it was closed, intriguingly, for ‘Staff training’.
At least the Minerva was still there, the last pub before the Humber. It had been an outpost of welcome sanctuary, beyond the forgotten town, warm, almost cramped, but homely. It hadn’t changed at all, and looked out over the estuary, its back to all the nonsense behind. On the pavement outside was a worn brass plaque with the single word ‘Haddock’ on it. I couldn’t find any others.
Back into the city, I stumbled upon the minster, somehow hidden away in an old part of town, squat and tucked under the wind. A lady was leaving and finding herself walking alongside me asked about my fiddle. I said I was a busker.
“You should try outside the minster in a bit, there’s a lovely concert on later, lots of people going.”
I said I’d consider it.
“It’d be good to hear. Now why don’t the homeless play something like you do?”
I flashed white hot. I am rarely an angry man, but a year of pent up frustration suddenly boiled over. Several times previously I’d been given this ludicrous equivalence between my busking and the plight of a rough sleeper, and on each occasion I’d been so surprised and shocked I’d not had the words to explain the difference, playing what I should have said over and over in my head after the event and wishing I’d been erudite at the time. This time, then, I was ready and angry, I stopped dead in the street and fired back;
“The homeless? Where are they going to get an instrument from? How are they going to get the years of tuition? How are they going to find the energy when they’re sleeping out in this weather? When their fingers are cold and sore?”
“Well, they could bang a drum or something.” She replied, surprised I’d not taken the initial intended compliment as expected.
“They’re starving and dying on the streets and you want them to bang a drum before they’re worth your charity? What a complete an utter lack of empathy. Disgusting.”
“There’s no need to be like that.” She finished, heading into a shop she didn’t need to go in to get out of my way.
But there was. There exists a large group of people for whom it could seemingly never happen. They have good friends, families, second chances, safety nets, strong networks of support and care. And some of them draw the mistaken conclusion that therefore rough sleeping could only occur to someone who deserved it. They must be lazy, taking the piss, irredeemable.
They’ve made mistakes, the people I’ve met on the street, often big ones. They have problems that are hard to solve. But then I think of the times in my life when a relative or a friend has held out a hand and stopped me making a mistake, or where the support of those around me allowed me a second chance, a recovery, and I count my lucky stars it’s not me there. I came from the right sort of family, had the sort of background that meant that mistakes are learning opportunities rather than insurmountable failings that follow you for the rest of your life. Had this woman ever sat down and talked to them? I doubted it. Given her route through my day had come from inside the church, I couldn’t help but feel that certain important teachings had fallen on deaf ears.
I was still furious as I set up for another play. I was soon cheered by a skateboarder who dropped off a bag of cheese quavers as he raced past. The street sweeper was still at it. Such devotion to duty. Maybe he was just incredibly passionate. Perhaps his mates had to find him at 5.30 and say “Come on Dave, that’s enough for one day, let’s go for a pint now.”
A rough sleeper came by, smiled, and dropped off a smattering of copper coins. It was enough to break your heart. He’d never be able to save up for a drum to bang if he carried on like this.
Rain ended it. It had been coming for a while, you could taste it, hurrying across the plain of East Yorkshire, a freshness driving dust and tiredness before it. Fat drops came all in a hurry and I packed down. I’d made £40 across the day, enough, perhaps. I handed dollops of it to the needy as I headed out again, back up the Buddleia road, past the gravel warehouse and back to my accommodation.
That night I played a concert for Steve in HOME. It was a strange sort of thing, as the place was sold out with diners who regarded the entertainment as a nice extra. “When’s the singer on?” I heard, more than once, thinking ‘They’ll be disappointed!’. But it worked, people bought into it, questions were asked.
A few of us ended up back at Steve’s later. He’s been putting on gigs in the city for decades, and has had dozens of artists pass through.
“You’ll be sleeping in a bed that once had Mr Methane in it.” He told me.
“Something to live up to.” I replied.
On my third day, I headed out for other parts of Hull.
Bransholme was the vast new estate built after the war to replace the housing that had been demolished in the bombing. The shopping centre was busy and basic, and I bought a very old fashioned heavy woollen jacket for £3 from a charity shop. There were no modern shops at all, no fancy coffee shops or eateries. It was a shopping street from the 1990s, still thriving. I was on my way to visit the estate my grandmother had grown up in, back in the 1930s and through the war. We’d visited it together a few years ago, me driving her over the M62 in my knackered green Ibiza with flame decals down the side, an unlikely pair of fellow travellers. She’d made a packed lunch and we set out to see the world of her youth. The estate had been tired and run down, but we found her old house, and the fellow had let us see the back garden which still contained her air-raid shelter, a sturdy brick built unit. I found it an emotional artefact to encounter, to think that my grandmother as a child had sat in there so many nights, waiting for the all clear. It’d brought back memories for her too and she told me a great story.
“One night the siren went off, so we went to the shelter. My grandparents lived next door so they shared the shelter with us. Dad was at sea. Then an incendiary bomb landed in the back garden, so my granddad ran out and buried it with his spade. In the morning, it turned out it had landed in the potato patch and cooked them all! I remember carrying a basket of hot potatoes down the road to see who wanted one.”
It was a remarkable story that blended the horrors of war with the mundanity of life carrying on. I arrived on the estate to find it missing. The whole lot had been demolished, save a small number of single houses boarded up and graffitied. The streets, the lights, the speed bumps, the signs were still there, but the plots were flattened and grassing over, an open expanse.
It’d been a smart new estate in the 1920s, built for the growing population of Hull, better homes for working families, but time and expectations had changed and it had grown tired and too worn out, and the council had ultimately demolished the lot. A few had resisted, refusing to leave. It must have been strange and fearful to see every house around yours torn down and the closed world of the estate opening up into a new urban parkland. Most had given up now, and only two showed signs of life, the other half dozen or so gutted and boarded and awaiting the final blow.
A bus wended through the silent streets, following a ghost route. Small children and their teachers were collecting conkers from the mature trees that lined the edge of the estate.
“Yeah, they demolished them this year, in waves.” One teacher told me. “Started in about March, most recent just a couple of months ago.”
Elsewhere in the desolation, two lads from the demolition contractor were repairing the pavement.
“Council are making us mend it after the demolition. No idea why. It’s fucking shit.”
“Will they be redeveloping it?” I asked.
“Don’t know, probably. They’re waiting for the ground to settle down.”
Leaving the lads to their Sisyphian labours, I walked all round it again, taking far more photos than I normally do. It was compelling, bizarre, uncanny. I wondered how my grandma would feel to know her road had been demolished and erased. How would I break it to her? Eventually I rang up.
“Oh yes, it was knocked down earlier this year wasn’t it?” Even at 89, she doesn’t miss much.
Our trip here those years before had finished at the chapel at Marfleet where she’d married, and never returned to until that day. The church is surrounded by gently humming industrial estates, an island of an older Hull where the beeping of reversing lorries carries gently through the foliage of the graveyard. I took one more look here, with the gravestones of ancestors in the mosses, and quietly declared my trip a done deal. There would always be another town and city to visit. There was so much more I could have done, but it felt like time to stop, here before the front of the church, with the warden keeping a worried eye on me through his window across the road. Confusing and unwelcome, I’d finished as I’d begun.
This is the end of a year and a half of busking around England. I could easily do it all again and find another 50 towns and cities with completely different stories to tell. But at some point I have to stop and write the book and the album that follow on so naturally from this process. That time is now. That isn’t to say I won’t add further blogs in the future. In fact, I’ve enjoyed this so much I would very much like to keep adding the odd one as time allows.
But for now, other work has to be done. If you’d like to support me, please have a look at this Kickstarter campaign, and perhaps pre-order the book and the album.
Thank you for following Busk England. It’s been the most extraordinary 18 months of my life.
Here’s the archive of blogs as well.