Monday, 13 November 2017

Week 58: (6th to 12th November 2017) or 'Lost at Sea'

It was high tide in Huddersfield; a tide of ghostly silver mist rolled out across the moorland. The houses of the industrial north were smoking their first pipes of the day, sending small clouds into the air, to lose themselves in the mist. The tall necks of factories hung above the grey slates like brick giraffes surveying a savannah of drainpipes and gutters. In this country shed of its colour by a blanket of suspended water, a medieval spirit as old as the peaks themselves came alive. I half expected an army to come marching down to seize the town.

One of the wrinkles set into the heart of the industrial north is a stretch of metal that sends trains from Manchester to one of England's famous cul-de-sacs: Kingston upon Hull. It is difficult to believe, as one weaves through the heartland towns of Huddersfield, Leeds and Selby, that there should exist a coastline at all. On and on, the train gobbles up miles, pulling us through a seemingly endless map of England. Horizons come to meet you, new horizons are born; new and exciting possibilities, coming and going, coming and going. The sounds of a conversation between sea and sand here seem gagged into a silence of implausibility. The sea? Here?

That shawl of mist, which England wears with Shakespearian mystique, is really a promise; a promise of crisper and brighter hours to come; a promise of sunshine that smiles through whimsical clouds. And as the mist rolls back out, a promise is fulfilled. Willows become fountains of light frozen in time and the Beeches stand golden as if drizzled overnight by demerara. I read a quotation recently from Albert Camus who described the British Autumn as "a second Spring where every leaf is a flower".

I caught glimpses of farm workers, wielding their spades through the soil, a lone horse in a farmstead, a robin carolling from a street sign, and far off into the distance, eight or nine dull grey vases boasting, not flowers, but thick and sluggish blooms of steam. The rugged country, the wild moorlands of the west, which had occupied most of one's view, were now distant horizons themselves, and now we rolled out across the flat stamp that sits on England's right. Elevation here is represented by the occasional farm mound or molehill.

I was writing when I suddenly gazed up to see water. A vast bath of glistening deep-blue had swallowed up the land. Small shapes were sitting at the water's edge on the far side, and as our train moved westwards still, a town began to raise its brow above the Humber.

 *** 

He sat on a street corner, and I stood from the opposite. His greying beard seemed to be pulling him towards old age whilst his brown leather jacket was tugging him back. With dexterity and unfathomable speed, his fingers were exercising themselves across an accordion, parcelling up notes into small melodic bundles and delivering them to his passing traffic. I admired the sheer ease with which he seemed to impregnate joy into the lives of strangers. Not one child passed him and failed to become absorbed by this great wave of notes. Even the teenagers (whose self image is often guarded with unparalleled focus) broke out of the rhythms of their own world to let themselves be pulled into his. I went over at a fitting conclusion to what could have quite easily been an incessant tune and raised my hat.

"Fran├žois?" I suggested, pointing towards the accordion.
"No, Romania," he corrected.
"Ah, you play in Romania?" I pursued.
"Nah, Germany... no good in Romania."

Why he had to travel close to 1000 miles to pick up his instrument was never to be answered as he pulled out a phone - that great conversation warden - and tapped out some numbers, perhaps to Romania, perhaps to Germany, perhaps to someplace else. Further up the street, a market trader was dishing out Dutch Pancakes. Beyond this floated a faint tune on a Spanish guitar. And there, projected on to one of the city walls, the words which verified all of these first impressions: "Hull, the city of culture".



Hull's playground has not one blade of grass in sight. Neither for that matter does it have any of the accustomed pleasures: no swings, no slides, no roundabouts. It consists simply of a trio of large circles which are constantly drawn, erased and re-drawn on the concrete by a series of underground fountains. With a graceful and reassuring regularity, columns of fresh water leap into the air, each seemingly attempting to out-jump the other, before they descend back down to make their meeting with the tiles. Occasionally, the ensemble breaks out in a series of elegant solos or a Mexican wave, before they unite in symmetry yet again. Sometimes they flirt low with the tiles, only to ascend back into choreographed dance. In the glorious sunshine, as an old man recalls familiar melodies on a Spanish guitar, I gaze at these fountains - these aqueous ballerinas - and the townsfolk who play with them. This is, as I say, a playground.

I watch as young children approach the spaces of temporarily absent fountains, small holes in the ground that would soon spout unannounced geysers, their faces painted with unwavering concentration as they calculate their vault across. Some enjoy many successful flights, and with boosted confidence, begin to jump in gay abandon and without premeditation. Some have clear disinterest in staying dry, and attempt to stamp out the gushing water, only to find the water ascending in ferocity through the voids uncapped by their shoes and boots. Occasionally a friendship, albeit transitory, strikes from within one of the circles, as an impenetrable wall of water forces unacquainted youthful eyes to meet and then, before names and schools can be exchanged, the ground swallows up the water and they run out of each others lives. Pigeons meet to wash down their lunch of breadcrumbs and pastry flakes, some perching close to one of the showers to wash the dust of their wings.



Choose the right cobbles and you find yourself gazing up to Hull Minster. It's not the grandiose Minster of York, but impressive nonetheless. An organ was playing somewhere from within when I arrived and with the curiosity that piggybacks on the conscience of the solitary traveller, I wandered in. The air inside these holy sanctuaries is often unlike any air one can encounter anywhere else; it's weaved together by an unseen, untouchable splendour and it doesn't wait to be inhaled; it rushes to you, through you. I started to become the Minster. I smelt nothing but that antiquarian, sweet comforting aroma that ascends to the nostrils from ancient books when you open them. I heard nothing but the triumphant bars of the organ, which became no less grand no matter where I took myself within the church, as if the organist was sitting on a stool from within my very soul. Shimmers of bright light beamed through glass, turning a window into a story, and down at my feet were stones under which were the remains of a Hull past.

I ambled around this contained peace, thinking what would happen if the walls were removed. Would the peace float out to dispense itself around Hull? Around England? What radius could the peace adequately cover? Like dropping an inkwell into the ocean, would it soon dissolve away? Is it the state of being quelled within these four ancient walls that ensures its strength and its eternality? Later, when escorting myself around the exterior, I happened upon an open window. Drifting out were the voices of what sounded like angels preparing for evensong. I leaned against the wall underneath this extractor fan of peace, and listened as the voices rode upon a wintery air. I expected them to become fainter and fainter as I moved away and on through the rest of Old Hull, but they didn't and I realized that, standing beneath the open window with welcoming ears, the voices had found, in me, a new sanctuary of peace.

***

At the fingertips of Hull, the mouth of the Humber sits gaping wide, as if in permanent awe of the sea. A raft in the far distance is the Lincolnshire coastline, over which seagulls gather in the afternoon sunlight. As I write, a lonesome sailing boat is drifting just beyond the marina. It gyrates around, like a lost soul might search an unfamiliar space to seek lost friends. It seems to be searching for a fleet, but the fleet - once an emblem of Hull - is absent.

You have to use your imagination at Hull Marina. You have to imagine the men with foam in their beards, grappling thick rope with their beaten hands. You have to imagine the men who jumped ashore to marry their ships with the large, iron hands that stick out of the decking. You have to imagine the cheese from Stafford, the corn from Cheshire, and the butter from East Riding bidding farewell to their fatherland. You have to imagine the tobacco and sugars arriving on early mornings from the West Indies, and the crews saluting a Halibut ship that pulls away for a week out at sea. You have to imagine the grain ships, the wool ships, the vessels laden with coal and the triumphant crafts escorting machinery, that skated so freely across miles of foam, congregating just beyond the marina, like an anthology of epic tales bound together for the first time.

The tides of change have swept across Hull, bringing a wave of international culture, but its seafaring days are sadly lost at sea.





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