Several commentators were unreasonably amused by last week’s revelation that Hull has been designated the UK’s 2017 City of Culture. It was rather cruelly suggested that, once you took away the titanic figures of Andrew Marvell and Philip Larkin, the place was pretty much devoid of this desirable quality.
Meanwhile, the reaction from at least one city father seemed oddly muted: my colleague John Walsh, writing in The Independent, provided a transcript of the curiously laconic tones with which this triumph was received by Councillor Stephen Bayes, when interviewed by John Humphrys on the BBC’s Today programme.
By chance, this confirmation of Hull’s cultural éclat, or at any rate its cultural potential, coincided with an appearance by the novelist Kazuo Ishiguro at the University of East Anglia’s autumn literature festival. In the course of some edifying remarks on the relationship between literature and film, he observed that culture was “on the back foot”. I assume that Ishiguro meant “high culture” of the Booker novel/Verdi opera/Radio 3 kind. All of which raises the question of what sort of culture Hull will be promulgating in its forthcoming jamboree. The elevated kind? Or the type of eye-catching but essentially imported spectacle embraced by previous winner the city of Derry/Londonderry, which, as Mr Walsh sadly observed, attempted to assemble “the greatest number of Little Orphan Annies ever seen together in one place”.
In Hull’s defence, it has a proud history of high-cultural celebration. Many of the Victorian novelists who embarked on provincial tours in the 1850s and ’60s found it worth their while to stop off on the north side of the Humber, and in 1921 the city staged a series of lavish events to mark the tercentenary of Marvell’s birth. These included an address by the distinguished critic Augustine Birrell at the Guildhall with mayor and corporation in respectful attendance. There was even a memorial volume which, while it contained photographs of decorated corporation floats, also ran to an essay by “T S Eliot MA”, intended, as Eliot put it, not as an act of piety but to prompt “a little serious thought about Marvell’s poetry”.
Will Cllr Bayes and his tribunes be encouraging a little serious thought about Marvell’s poetry? Or will they have an entirely different agenda in mind? No one should automatically assume the latter, for outward cultural appearances can be deceptive. On the last occasion I went to Hull, for example, I first sat in the lounge of a large and somewhat ramshackle hotel through which shirtless revellers tracked back and forth, listening to the novelist Robert Edric lament just how calamitously both hotel and locale had gone down hill.
On the other hand, this was followed by a talk where the questions – most of them posed by ordinary people rather than the usual literary festival habitues – suggested the influence of Richard Hoggart, author of that pioneering study of working-class cultural life The Uses of Literacy (1957), and a former lecturer in the local university’s adult education department, was still being felt half a century later.
In an age which tends to assume that “culture” is synonymous with people in dinner jackets daintily picnicking on the Glyndebourne sward and English dons talking about “sequential narratives” when they mean “stories”, it is easy to forget that abiding Marxist principle – one of the most enduring remarks Marx ever made – to the effect that culture is “ordinary” and that, by implication, much of what passes for cultural history is imposed on it from above.
My home county of Norfolk has an official culture based on such mighty figures as Nelson, Parson Woodforde, the Pastons and George Borrow, and an unofficial one founded on obscure customs and extra- ordinary local dialect merchants such as “the Boy John” and the Singing Postman. The most effective specialists at work in the field are those who manage to unite these two coigns of vantage – the linguistics expert Professor Peter Trudgill, for instance, who once wrote an essay about Norfolk dialect and the Counter-Reformation, in which he demonstrated that many of the Dutch contributions to local speech were originally filed by Huguenot refugees fleeing the Inquisition.
Given these separations, it is hardly surprising debates about “culture” and the feelings it might be supposed to inspire in the breast of the average play-goer and TV-watcher are horribly confused. Some of this confusion, naturally, is a consequence of the fact that what used to be known as “popular culture”, which ordinary people created for themselves beyond the media glare, has, for the most part, been swept away by a mass-cultural tide of Hollywood movies, consumer products and vocal styles whose emphasis is universal rather than local. But a decent percentage of it has to do with the air of snootiness that even now attaches itself to the majority of high-cultural interventions and the very common feeling that whenever Shakespeare, Rimsky-Korsakov or Britten are introduced into the cultural dialogue one is somehow being talked down to.
More depressing even than this is the hint the “culture” one is being invited to consider has a social basis, in which whatever is on offer is being entertained for essentially non-cultural reasons. I can still remember being taken as a teenager to a recital at Norwich’s St Andrew’s Hall, half-way through which I was pounced upon by a terrifying woman in evening dress who enquired “And is this your first concert?” To which the voice inside me wanted to reply: “yes, and my last as well, if the price of entry is dressing up in silly clothes and strangulating your vocal cords into the bargain.”
Meanwhile, to go back to Hull and the year-long cultural hootenanny that awaits its expectant populace, its savvy hotel-keepers and its eager-eyed business people, it would be nice if there were no further mention of Philip Larkin’s name. Larkin, after all, came from Coventry and never seems to have held any great opinion of his final resting place. Equally, you hope there will be no Orphan Annies, rap competitions for disaffected teenagers or Miley Cyrus lookalike contests. And in light of the news that Sam Jordison, co-editor of the celebrated guidebook Crap Towns, has declared himself anxious to witness this new-found “regeneration”, there ought also to be a moratorium on journalistic comment. For what Hull really needs – an opportunity that scarcely any institution or individual gets in the mass-cultural bear-pit we now inhabit – is the chance to be itself.