Hull and high water
In or around 1942 my class at primary school presented a Christmas play. Despite hiding under the desk (I was terrified that kissing might be involved), I ended up being cast as the Christmas pudding. My long-suffering mother made a costume designed to maximise my embarrassment, but the killer blow came with my lines. I had to learn and recite the following stanza:
Ho ho I’m such a merry chap
Without me Christmas would fall flat
So here I am and here’s my chance
To have a jolly little dance!
Then, hands on hips, I had to hoppity skippity around the Christmas tree, played by a little girl called Margaret. Her long-suffering mother had made the tree from a green taffeta dress on to which she had sewn such fragile glass toys that had survived the Blitz thus far. If you breathed on her another one would break and, careful as I was with my hoppities and skippeties, most of the others littered the stage in tiny glittering fragments by the end of my dance. It was the most humiliating experience of my life up to that point but what rankled the most was that verse. Even at age six I knew it was terrible. “Chap” and “flat” do not rhyme and never will.
I knew in my heart of hearts that I could do better and it was probably that day that a writer was born.
The early 1960s were a formative period. I’d sold a couple of radio plays (not very good) and was knocking on television’s door with work that, in retrospect, I now see was mostly about what a tough job it was being a struggling young man in a place very like Hull. On the whole, television wasn’t very interested.
Some years before Screaming Lord Sutch launched his Monster Raving Loonies on the world, a group of harmless anarchists in Hull started the Get Stuffed Party and ran several candidates at the local elections, one of whom, I recall, was Mike Waterson of the legendary folk-singing family. They won a lot of public sympathy, several column inches in the press, a few healthy laughs and hardly any votes.
But they are a good example of the subversive element that recurs in the history of the city. Holding hands with the subversion runs a lovely, laconic sense of the absurd.
In the window of a shoe-shop on the Holderness Road I saw a sign reading:
“BUY ONE – GET ONE FREE”.
On the terraces at Boothferry Park when Hull City were having one of recurring bad spells, a man stood with a small, home-made sign bearing the single word: “BOO”.
But perhaps shops and shop windows are the keys to a city’s soul. Maurice Lipman, father of the blessed and beloved Maureen, had a tailor’s shop on Monument Bridge. It had two rooms with a connecting archway and a sign reading: “Ready To Wear Department – Downstairs.”
One day a customer plucked up the courage to ask him: “Maurice – why do you have that sign up when there are no stairs? The place is all on the same level.”
Said Maurice: “Well, Burtons were throwing it out and it seemed a pity to waste it.”
And a lovely guy called Norman Beedle, who worked in PR but in his spare time wrote jokes for people like Bob Monkhouse and Ken Dodd, told me he once saw a cat lying on a side of ham in a Co-op show window but, he added, “The cat was washing itself at the time”.
But my all-time favourite example of the city’s gift for subversive one-liners cropped up in a television interview when, on one of those rare occasions when we made the national news, the interviewer – a sharp suited young man with a full set of teeth – made a marginally slighting remark about Hull to his chosen spokesman for the common folks.
Came the reply: “It’s all right for you, flower. You want to try living here.”
Let me clarify the chronology of my life. I was born in Jarrow in 1935 and the family moved to Hull in 1938 when my Dad got a job in the city. I’ve transformed this into a cheap gag that runs: we waited until the Depression was over then headed to Hull to be in good time for the Blitz.
Aside from four years at university in my beloved Newcastle, I then lived in Hull until 1984, when I moved to London with my second wife, Shirley Rubinstein. According to my arithmetic, that means I lived in Hull for approximately 42 years, which has to be a fair basis on which to be opinionated and dogmatic.
One of the many paradoxes surrounding the city is that despite my obvious affection for the place, it isn’t a view shared by the world at large. Every so often, media folk with nothing better to do mastermind a survey or opinion poll asking the question: what is the lousiest place to live in the UK and Hull generally comes in the first three. Sometimes we win.
I have no idea how many people are consulted, who they are and frankly I don’t give a damn: but I will concede a couple of flaws in the demi-paradise. The first is half-way between an inferiority complex and a chip on the shoulder.
This, I believe, has its roots in the Second World War when Hull, proportionately, was the most bombed city in the land – right up there with Coventry and London but crucially nobody knew about it, apart from the citizens, obviously.
On the BBC news we were always identified as “a North-East coast town”. This was apparently for security reasons, which implies that the Germans didn’t know where they were dropping bombs. We thought it was very odd and a bit unfair.
There was a parallel situation during the great floods of 2007 when the network news concentrated on the West Riding, with the nation’s ace intrepid reporters striding around in thigh boots.
Our floods were less dramatic visually, but the long-term effects are with the city to this day. Hull only made the network news when the council hired a PR firm to kick in a few doors of the relevant newsrooms.
In these circumstances, a small chip on the shoulder is totally understandable.