2017 finally arrived in Hull this week. It is now officially the UK’s City Of Culture for the next 12 months. It’s been an incredible first week. You had to be there to see it. It has been a phenomenon. The launch firework display with the gold dust free tickets actually, in the end, an incidental sideshow quickly forgotten alongside the main event of the Made In Hull public art installations around the city centre with the projection in Queen Victoria Square as its impressive centrepiece.
I went with my son on the first night. We walked round all the installations. We saw the fireworks. I was impressed. Deeply impressed with Queen Victoria Square in particular. The overwhelmingly positive online response that evening was obvious.
And then things started to get a bit weird.
4pm the next day & there was the huge crowd again in the square waiting for day two to begin. And it didn’t stop. The crowd grew each night. Until Saturday when a crowd the size of the population of China (based on official figures) turned up.
To be honest, by the end of the second day I’d lost interest in the actual art. It was the people, the crowds that I found fascinating. The numbers of them but also the atmosphere. This slightly, strange, hushed shuffling atmosphere as people slowly followed each other round in a mass throng – when they weren’t waiting in long queues for chips. And the weather was cold. Stupidly cold. Every night. But there they were. With more layers than Kurt Russell in The Thing. Some of them trailing along their fairly bemused, tired, frosty children. I’ll wager most of those kids had the same reaction to all of it that my boy did – broadly meh.
There’s loads of positives to take from this week. People came out. There’s a captive audience. They want to see what’s going on. They want to be involved. They want this year to be a success for Hull. They are interested. They want to be impressed. They want to feel proud of the city they call home. All of that is excellent news both for the city & the organisers.
For me, this week raised a lot of questions too. People came out for free public art – which I always thought was crucial for this year, the city has to feel like there’s something going on when you walk the streets. Will they come out for the stuff they have to pay for? Tickets are still available for the vast majority of events as I write. Noticeably the higher the brow the lower the ticket sales. Ziggy Stardust shows sold out immediately as did the RPO playing the music of John Williams. And the aforementioned fireworks.
How actually engaged were people with what they were seeing this week? Online hyperbole aside, I saw & spoke to a lot of people this week, I have to be honest I thought they were mostly whelmed rather than over or under. There was an excellent projection on the side of The Deep about the city’s history with migration & what it has brought into the city. A city that voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU. Surely the irony of that couldn’t have been lost on those 1000s of people who stood watching it being impressed every night. Statistically, many/most of those voted Leave (I know I know, it wasn’t all about immigration blah blah blah).
There was a short film showing about club culture. Well really it was about raves & ecstasy. It was about 10 minutes of folk gurning their faces off. But there was the crowd with their anoraks & their backpacks & their children dutifully watching. Most of them with little awareness or interest in what they were watching but they stuck it out. It was on, it was free & they were going to see it. And that was that. It was weird, man.
So then there was the continued online response through the week. Moving more each day towards people trying to define what was happening. Why people were there, what it means for the rest of the year, what it means for the city. For the record, although I suppose I’m trying to do a little of that here, I don’t think any of those questions can be answered yet. No one knows yet if this week has been a unique phenomenon or the beginning of a trend. There’s another pertinent question, where have they been? In a city notorious for rarely selling out many of its cultural events.
I’ve also been reading a lot of what people think this says about Hull, & its people, as a city. Lots of “This Is Who We Are”, “This Is What We’re About” stuff. I’ve read We Look After And Support Our Own a lot. All of it meant positively but that sort of thing always leaves me feeling uneasy wherever it comes from, sometimes it’s cities, sometimes it countries. It usually features fairly universal generic human qualities. To my mind it often fails to recognise that wherever we live, wherever we are from, we are all more alike than we are different. Civic pride is all very well but I can’t help feeling it emphasises difference when what is most needed is to be inclusive. It’s what this city needs. Probably needed a little more widely too.
All cities are a little different to each other though. Hull is different to Leeds or Manchester or Glasgow. I’m just not sure it knows in what ways yet. I’m very fond of Hull in lots of ways. Mostly, I like living here. I think collectively it hasn’t quite figured out what it’s identity is though. Perhaps this year will help. When people talk of “looking after our own” though I go back to the issue of the Leave vote I mentioned above. What is Hull’s “own”, what does it take to qualify? I’m not sure Hull has answered that question yet, or perhaps it has & I’m just waiting for a different answer. Hull probably does have a feeling of being left out, of being on the periphery. If it wants that to change then it truly has to allow the world in. I don’t think it’s there yet. I hope that’s going to change. I hope this year will help.
It may not read like it but I really want this year to be a massive success in Hull. I want it to be enjoyed by as many people as possible, particularly within Hull. I want it to be for the people from the housing estates, the people from the avenues, the people from the East Riding & for the people with English as a second language who call Hull their home. I want as many people as possible to feel they were lucky to be here while it was going on. I want it to have a positive & lasting legacy in this city. I want it to be remembered for the rest of people’s lives. I’m just erring on the side of caution for now, hoping desperately not to be disappointed.
And finally, especially for a friend of mine, I want there to be stilts. Lots & lots of stilts.