'The air had a very strange smell, the kind that one only finds in Hull.'
I was struck by this line from a novel I am currently reading, Gary Dexter's All the Materials for a Midnight Feast. Firstly, because it incited a little chuckle, reminding me of those (not overly frequent I must stress) mornings I would leave the house in Hull, raise my nose to the sky and detect a familiar, somewhat less than pleasant scent. I never did learn what that was. Some suggested the docks, which made sense, others, curiously, dog biscuits. Where the giant dog biscuit factory is along Newland Avenue, I have no idea, but I would love to know if anyone can enlighten me.
More poignantly, however, Dexter's phrase provoked a deeper, much stronger reaction within me by capturing, in some way, an essence of the unique bond I feel to Hull. That 'strange smell' is for me, an odd, but all consuming air about the place that gripped me from my very first visit. This, interestingly enough (or perhaps not, I don't really expect you to be interested) was at a University Open day for my sister, some 8 years before I began my first year. The reassuring feeling of the place stayed with me. That first amble I took along Newland Avenue with my Mum on that day, glimpsing higgledy piggledy second hand shops- an image of a single knock-kneed wooden chair in a window is an image that stays with me -sat, hibernating, for a long time as a very comfortable memory.
This pull to Hull I feel quite clearly emerges in my reading of this book. I can unashamedly say the only reason I chose to read it is because I discovered it was a story about a man reminiscing on his time at University in Hull during the 80s. Within it he maps certain familiar geographical spots, reflecting on his meetings, or more precisely, almost-meetings with Larkin. It is this 'almost-ness' about Hull, a land on the cusp of something wonderful, but never really aware of it, which I love the most. Although I cannot say the novel as a whole grips me, everytime I come across something Hull-related, my eyes light up just slightly, a little crackle of warm familiarity surging through.
I realise this feeling may be diagnosed as merely a longing for the joys of my now-passed University days, as of course it is University life I most associate with the city. Perhaps it may not be Hull at all I am so drawn to, but the experience itself. Had I studied anywhere, I feel sure I would maintain a certain attachment. Does everyone feel like this? Perhaps. But it cannot just be that.
Hull of course is now quite a different place to the one I spent three years in, now that so many of the people closest to me during that time are no longer there. Although I am profoundly aware it is the people, I of course miss the most, I can confirm it is actually the place I miss too. When I go back now, I relish that first glimpse of the Humber Bridge as I approach on the train, its dominating stance overlooking the flat landscape beneath. The bridge, to me, represents something of the world's outlook on Hull. There stands this overriding and dominating concept many people have of the city, more often than not unfortunately leaning towards the negative, overpowering the appealing realities beneath this misconception. Presumptions are often made about Hull (often deriving from its name's unfortunate rhyming potential) when people have not even visited it. It is the action of crossing the bridge, indeed physically, but equally mentally to overcome any preconceptions, that allows Hull's charm to be felt.
My favourite spot in Hull, and quite possibly of anywhere (grand claim I know!) is at the very tip of the water front. Here I have felt at my happiest, most free, most comfortable, most inspired. It is the openness of the water in front of me, but also of the city behind which I like. Although I have experienced standing at this spot in the bleakest of conditions, face attacked by the icy wind, shivering madly, my every sense is always directed towards a feeling of bliss I have rarely felt quite so powerfully anywhere else.
I realise this entire spiel will probably be read as a foolish rose-tinted reflection on a place I should really move on from. Perhaps writing about it will be cathartic and finally unleash me from its grip. Yet I am not sure I really wish to be unleashed. Though physically I have moved on, I cannot believe I will ever be able to quite find again somewhere with 'the peculiar charms of Hull.'*
*From Dexter's All the Materials for a Midnight Feast again.