A Humber Mouth Special Commission 2012. Copyright of individual poems, stories and images resides with the writers and artists. Humber Mouth 2012 acknowledges the financial assistance of Hull City Council and Arts Council England, Yorkshire. British Library Cataloguing in Publications Data. A catalogue record for this book is available from the British library. First published 2012 Published by Kingston Press All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without prior permission of the publishers. is book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired or otherwise circulated, in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published, without the publisher’s prior consent. e Authors assert the moral right to be identified as the Authors of the work in accordance with the Copyright Design and Patents Act 1988. ISBN 978-1-902039-22-0 Kingston Press is the publishing imprint of Hull City Council Library Service, Central Library, Albion Street, Hull, England, HU1 3TF Telephone: +44 (0) 1482 210000 Fax: +44 (0) 1482 616827 e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org www.hullcc.co.uk/kingstonpress
We are pleased to present Sketches, Dispatches, Hull Tales and Ballads, the latest collaboration from the Humber Writers. Here you have an anthology of words and images responding, sometimes directly, sometimes more obliquely, to Dickens, as we celebrate the bicentenary of his birth. The book is a Humber Mouth Special Commission which echoes and plays variations on the themes of Hard Times, Great Expectations — the watchwords of this year’s festival. The Humber Writers is a group of poets, fiction writers and artists associated with the University of Hull. Over the years members of the group have collaborated on a number of projects specifically focusing on Hull and its neighbouring landscapes, often resulting in books, performances and film for the Humber Mouth Literature Festival: A Case for the Word (theatre performance, 2006); Architexts (art book, 2007); Dri (book and film, 2008); Hide (book, 2010); and Postcards from Hull (book, postcards and art exhibition, 2011). 2012 has been particularly productive as this book follows hard on the heels of Under Travelling Skies: Departures from Larkin, which won the first Larkin25 Words Award, and featured a book, a film and an exhibition of paintings at Artlink in Princes Avenue, Hull. Dickens, of course, is most immediately associated with London and so our ‘departures from Dickens’ often reflect our own city through his themes. Dickens did visit Hull: several of the pieces here refer to an incident which involved him buying silk stockings, presumably for the actress Ellen Ternan, and giving the shop assistant who served him a ticket for one of his readings. There is some doubt as to when (or even if?) this took place. As editors we have sought an imaginative response, and have allowed our writers sufficient leeway with Gradgrind’s facts to make what they will of anecdote, false report, misremembered date, or for that matter history itself. It has been a great pleasure editing this anthology and we would like to thank Hull City Arts who generously supported the project. Mary Aherne and Cliff Forshaw, Hull, June 2012.
Painting: Nude with Top Hat 1 by Cliff Forshaw
Contents Maurice Rutherford.............. Apology for Absence............................. Valerie Sanders...................... Dickens and Hull: An Introduction.... Mary Aherne........................... Imp........................................................... Malcolm Watson.................... Silk Stockings......................................... Carol Rumens.......................... e Gentleman for Nowhere................
4 5 12 14 16
Aingeal Clare.......................... e Man and the Peregrine and the
Chimney................................................. 30 Cliff Forshaw.......................... A Trinity of Genomic Portraits for Charles Darwin...................................... 32 David Wheatley...................... Cat Head eatre................................... 38 Wanna Come Back to Mine................. 40 Cliff Forshaw.......................... A Season in Hull.................................... 42 Ingerland................................................. 43 Ray French............................... Insomnia................................................. 48 Cliff Forshaw.......................... Two Ballads from the Bush................... 62 David Wheatley...................... Northern Divers..................................... 71 Guns on the Bus..................................... 72 Carol Rumens.......................... Beware this Boy...................................... 74 Aingeal Clare.......................... from Wide Country and the Road...... 75 Kath McKay............................ Hull and Eastern Counties Herald March 1869............................................. 83 Aer the Silk Stockings......................... 84 Aer Abigail Finds the Letter............... 89 Malcolm Watson.................... A Christmas Carol................................. 94 David Wheatley...................... Interview with a Binman...................... 95 Visitors’ Centre....................................... 96 Vacuous and Unknown......................... 97 Jane Thomas........................... Charles Dickens and Hull..................... 98 Mary Aherne........................... Hope on the Horizon............................ 104 birds......................................................... 110 Maurice Rutherford.............. Second oughts....................................112
Maurice Rutherford Apology for Absence Dear Editor, Moved by, and grateful for your invitation to present a script – something of expectations, great or small, hard times, health, poverty, philanthropy, of which Hull’s known its share, both good and bad – I have to say my contribution would entail recourse to reference books today and here’s the rub: I’ve given them away. Cerebral palsy, surely blighting births when Magwitch stirred the marshland mists, still does, so, heeding a request to donate books (whose small print now lay fogged beyond my reach) chancing a bicentenary salute to one who wrote life as it was, backlit with love, and left a legacy of hope, I bagged my Dickens paperbacks for Scope. Two feet of empty shelf, some disturbed dust, Pickwick and Nickleby – both hardback gifts from absent friends taken before their time – remain, reminding me of kindnesses that came my way, like this approach from you I can’t feel equal to. Forgive me when with gratitude and, yes, resurgent grief I must, ungraciously, decline this brief.
ps. May I append the shortest gloss: no giving’s worth its name where there’s no loss.
Valerie Sanders Dickens and Hull: An Introduction The Hull people (not generally considered excitable, even on their own showing), were so enthusiastic that we were obliged to promise to go back there for Two Readings! (letter, 15 September 1858)
What did Dickens know – or care – about Hull? As a ‘southerner’, born in Portsmouth, but popularly regarded by most people as a Londoner, he might look like the last person to have anything interesting to say about a provincial town on the Humber estuary. As the opening quotation shows, however, he came to Hull in September 1858 on one of his famous public reading tours, and was an instant success. His letters record that he made ‘more than £50 profit at Hull’ on his first reading, and returned by popular demand a few weeks later. However strapped for cash people were clearly willing to turn out twice to hear the nation’s best-loved novelist perform favourite extracts from his works, as they did on his return visits in 1859 and 60. He was back again in 1869 for his farewell reading tour, when he stayed at the Royal Station Hotel, and regaled an audience at the Assembly Rooms (later the New Theatre) with another round of his old favourites, including ‘Sikes and Nancy’ and ‘Mrs Gamp.’ We know the people of Hull loved Dickens on tour, but apart from these performance pieces, what else in his novels suggests they might have struck a chord with the audience he entertained? And given today’s ‘hard times’ what can we still find in Dickens to speak to our own experience of austerity and hardship? The most obvious link between Dickens and his Hull audience, both past and present, is their shared familiarity with rivers, estuaries, bridges, the flat, featureless landscape, and the varieties of shipping which ploughed up and down their muddy waters. A Victorian commentator on Hull, the Revd James Sibree, dated his letters home to his mother as ‘From the fag-end of the earth.’
Reaching Barton after an exhausting twenty-six hour journey from London in 1831, he remembered how the ‘flatness of the country palled on my spirit’ – and there was still the river crossing to make by small steamboat, loaded with cattle as well as his fellowpassengers and their luggage.1 Much of this apparently dreary landscape might have reminded Dickens of the Kent marshes, which he had known from childhood when his father worked in the Navy Pay Offices based at Sheerness and Chatham, towns which feature in several of his novels including e Pickwick Papers and David Copperfield. At his least charitable, he nicknamed the Kent towns of his childhood, especially Rochester, ‘Dullborough’ and ‘Mudfog’, while in Great Expectations (1860-1) his hero Pip overhears a convict recall the marshes as ‘“A most beastly place. Mudbank, mist, swamp, and work; work, swamp, mist, and mudbank”’ (Ch. 28). The banks of the Humber in a dripping November mist might be similarly described. The Humber might have reminded Dickens of another, grander river estuary which became an integral part of his life when he worked at Warren’s blacking warehouse on Hungerford Steps. The Thames is a murky and fairly sinister presence in many of his novels, from Oliver Twist (1838) to Our Mutual Friend (1864-5), which opens with the image of ‘a boat of dirty and disreputable appearance, with two figures in it,’ floating between Southwark and London Bridge on an autumn evening. Given the perpetual brown sludgy appearance of today’s Humber it is easy to recognize Dickens’s references to the ‘slime and ooze’ of rivers, though what chiefly interests him in these watery landscapes is the human traffic. Gaffer Hexam and his daughter Lizzie are here shown trawling not for fish, but for dead bodies, and when the river features in Great Expectations, it is in relation to human cargoes of convicts. Opening in the Kent marshes, the novel plunges the reader straight into knowledge of the ‘Hulks’ or holding vessels for prisoners ready to be shipped off to Australia. ‘By the light of the torches,’ Dickens’s young autobiographical narrator Pip recalls, when he sees the
terrifying convict Magwitch handed over to the authorities, ‘we saw the black Hulk lying out a little way from the mud of the shore, like a wicked Noah’s ark’ (Ch.5). When Magwitch risks his life returning to England over a decade later to visit the boy whose education he has been secretly subsidising, Pip and his friend Herbert Pocket concoct an elaborate plan to help him escape before he can be caught a second time. Their intention is to row him down the Thames to where he can catch a steamer either for Hamburg or for Rotterdam: destinations he could also have reached from Hull, whose grim prison (1865-70) on Hedon Road was built in the same decade as the publication of Great Expectations. Typically for Dickens, who rarely allows wrong-doers, however well-meaning, to escape scotfree, Magwitch is rearrested before he can board either of the European steamers, and dies peacefully in jail, instead of being hanged as a returned transport. Even when Dickens opens a novel by describing the London streets, as in the famous foggy opening chapter of Bleak House (1853), they seem to blend with the Thames, in one continuous haze of grey shapes and adjacent counties – the Essex Marshes and the Kentish heights, ‘fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats.’ Why does Dickens so often evoke these misty maritime scenes at the beginnings of his novels? Does he want to convey the common mystery of cities and rivers as places of human traffic so complex and multifaceted, seething below and beyond human vision that only gradually can he begin to pick out faces and personal histories from the general blur? In this passage from Bleak House, he also notices ‘Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.’ This reminds us that bridges, too, fascinated Dickens, both as landmarks in themselves, and places where people pause, take stock of things, and arrange secret assignations, as Nancy does at London Bridge with Mr Brownlow and Rose Maylie, Oliver’s protectors, in
Oliver Twist. Despite its grandeur, the Thames at nearly midnight, looks as muddy and marshy as the Kent landscape, with its riverside buildings , the old ‘smoke-stained storehouses on either side,’ rising ‘heavy and dull from the dense mass of roofs and gables,’ the ‘forest of shipping below bridge’ almost invisible in the darkness (Ch. 46). London Bridge makes another fleeting appearance in Great Expectations, as Magwitch is rowed down river, past the kind of waterfront scenery which clearly fascinated Dickens in novel after novel. However urgent the pressures of plot, he always takes time to note the maritime clutter of dockyards, which Pip recalls as ‘rusty chain-cables, frayed hempen hawsers and bobbing buoys,’ down to the level of miscellaneous surface rubbish as their boat momentarily collides with ‘floating broken baskets, scattering floating chips of wood and shaving, cleaving floating scum of coal’ (Ch.54). There was clearly little about rivers, or dockyards, which Dickens failed to observe throughout his life. David Copperfield, on his way to stay for the first time in Mr Peggotty’s wonderful upturned boat-house in Yarmouth, notices every scrap of nautical debris which builds his excitement as they near the beach: the ‘lanes bestrewn with bits of chips and little hillocks of sand,’ ‘the gas-works, rope-walks, boatbuilders’ yards, shipwrights’ yards, ship-breakers’ yards, caulkers’ yards, riggers’ lofts, smiths’ forges, and a great litter of such places’ (Ch. 3). In rhythmic, lilting lists like this Dickens is half way towards a poem, sharing his hero’s excitement about everything to do with the sea and rivers. The strange sound of the technical terms – ‘caulkers’, and ‘rope-walks’ – fascinates him, removed as it is from the language of everyday life, and redolent of places where men do real work in tough physical conditions. His late series of essays, e Uncommercial Traveller (1860-9), takes this further in a chapter on the bustling life of ‘Down by the Docks’: in this case, the Rochester waterfront, where he lists in dizzying detail the food, drink, oysters, fishy, scaly-looking vegetables, public-houses, coffee-shops, drunken seamen with tattooed arms, sausages and saveloys, hornpipes, parrots, waxworks, and poetic placards rhyming: ‘Come, cheer up
my lads. We’ve the best liquors here, And you’ll find something new In our wonderful Beer’ (Ch. 22) – poetry of a lesser kind, but still inspired by a sense of place. Dickens, in a word, for all his associations with London, was steeped in the liminal, perpetually unsettled, restless world of river and sea traffic, with all its shoreline dramas, failed escapes and fatal encounters. The creative writers who have contributed to this volume have drawn much of their inspiration from two of the shorter Dickens texts: Hard Times (1854) and Great Expectations. Significantly different though they are, they share certain themes which still speak to today’s readers, not least through their interwoven motifs of money and poverty, work, aspiration, ambition, and education, which troubled Dickens throughout his career. A pervasive concern of Dickens’s writing remains the unbridgeable chasm between rich and poor, and the ways in which impoverished families scrape together a basic subsistence. Broken homes and families feature in all his novels, as do the reconstituted ‘families of choice,’ where people with no biological connection share lodgings and food, as in David Copperfield, where Mr Peggotty’s eccentric, but all-inclusive household numbers – besides his orphaned niece and nephew (Little Emily and Ham) – the sorrowful Mrs Gummidge, widow of his partner in a boat. The Peggottys’ ‘ship-looking thing’ (as David calls their home) is a healthier place to live than the overcrowded city tenements, like those of Hull when cholera epidemics struck the town in 1832 and 1849. James Sibree recalls how the streets ‘were ill-paved, and unfrequently swept’ (p. 10). Unlike the uniform streets of Dickens’s Coketown in Hard Times (based on the Lancashire mill town of Preston), the houses of Hull ‘were irregularly built- scarcely any two alike’ (Sibree, p. 10). Sibree was disappointed by the lack of grandeur in the public buildings, only Holy Trinity Church, the Infirmary and Public Rooms standing out from the monotonous townscape, making them little better than those of Coketown, where ‘the jail might have been the infirmary, the infirmary might have been the jail, the town-hall might have been either, or both, or anything
else (Book the First: Chapter 5). The Hull workhouse – that archetypal Dickensian symbol of social protest – had existed since 1698. Though Victorian Hull had its fair share of distinguished visitors, including Queen Victoria, who in 1854 stayed (like Dickens) at the Station Hotel, and was moved by the sight of hundreds of loyal Sunday School children assembling to greet her, it was, by all accounts, essentially an earnest workaday kind of place, sustained economically by the whaling and fishing industries, and spiritually by more than its fair share of churches and chapels – not unlike Coketown’s chapels built by members of eighteen different religious sects. Though cotton mills briefly existed in Hull2 the Coketown of Hard Times conveys the sense of a more mechanical and deadening industrial landscape than Dickens would have found here. Even Coketown has its off-duty moments, however, in the form of Sleary’s Horse-Riding, which shares features with the Victorian version of Hull Fair: an assembly of market stalls, freak-shows, and circus acts as well as the new steam-driven roundabouts. Displays of horsemanship, such as those performed by Mr Sleary and his troupe, are known to have been staged in the Market Place in Hull, where visitors might also be treated twice-daily to shows of ‘Dancing, Singing, Tumbling, Learned Ponies, Feats on the Wire.’3 Dickens was always a great advocate of popular entertainment, epitomised in Mr Sleary’s famous lisping insistence that ‘“People must be amuthed, Thquire, thomehow,”’ and ‘“can’t be alwath a working, nor yet they can’t be alwayth a learning”’ (Book the First: Ch. 6). Hence the Gradgrind children’s desperation to escape from the ‘mineralogical cabinets’ of their great square lecturing-castle of a house, and peep inside the circus tent for a glimpse of ‘but a hoof of the graceful equestrian Tyrolean flower-act’ (Book the First: Ch. 3). When the novel ends with another secret mission to ship a criminal abroad (this time the hapless Tom Gradgrind who has robbed a bank), the circus people conceal him first in comic livery, and then disguise him afresh as a carter, so that he can escape without attracting notice. One of Dickens’s shortest, most succinctly-written novels, Hard
Times starkly contrasts the monotonous routines of the factory with the bizarre unreality of the circus: a wild zone on the edge of the town where for a brief spell the imagination can be indulged and the workplace forgotten. The greatest satisfactions, for many Dickensian characters, come from imaginative reading, such as the nursery rhymes and fairytales the little Gradgrinds are forbidden to read, or from the real-life experiences of going to fairs, circuses and Punch and Judy shows, which feature in so many of Dickens’s novels – but these are only intervals in a life of work, poverty and aspiration. Together, Hard Times and Great Expectations create landscapes of frustration for their leading characters. Monotony and limited opportunity in each place crush the life out of anyone who wants more from existence than the rhythms of routine, or an education that never recognizes the individual potential of every child. In crazy Miss Havisham, jilted at the altar and determined for evermore to have her revenge on men, or Stephen Blackpool, the dogged factory worker saddled with a drunken addict of a wife he can never divorce, or Louisa Gradgrind, married for convenience to the bumptious banker, Mr Bounderby, Dickens acknowledges the hopelessness of the mundane domestic tragedies which afflicted Victorians of all classes and in all parts of the country. Every life is important to Dickens, just as each piece of maritime flotsam catches his eye. The people on the bridge matter, as do those rowing down the river to another life, and those staying at home to spin cotton, or carve something wondrous out of whalebone brought home from the distant seas.
James Sibree, Fiy Years’ Recollections of Hull, or Half-a-Century of Public Life and Ministry (Hull: A Brown & Sons, 1884), p. 8. 2 David and Susan Neave, Hull (Pevsner Architectural Guides) (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2010) , p. 15. 3 See http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/v/victorian-circus/
Mary Aherne Imp ‘I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.’ Michelangelo
The day is fading, dusky shadows creep between pillars, whisper in the crypt, caress the chancel’s chiaroscuro. Tucked away, hidden in half-light he bides his time, keeps watchful guard outside the door, hovers out of sight of pious priests and the shuffling horde of tourists. They sense a presence in the air a curse or promise left unsaid. Someone, something else is there. An other-worldly presence skulks, torments this sacred place of prayer. Crouched beneath the pillar’s bulk, gurning through cracked, mephitic teeth, a hacked-out, hunchback takes you by surprise. Terror tempered with a grin set free yet harnessed for eternity its evil mutterings locked in stone.
Malcolm Watson Silk Stockings ‘Mr CHARLES DICKENS, the eminent novelist, gives “readings” in Hull.’ Hull and Eastern Counties Herald, March 10th, 1869
And on the previous day, he signs the register at the Royal Hotel, pleased by his reception, pleased by the respectful glances of the porters and the waiters glancing off the mirrors at his side, in front, behind. The mirrors he can never pass, in which he views himself as spectacle, his smiles, his scowls, his countenance, his eyes, his carriage, cast, demeanour, diorama, the second-by-second reflection of that vaudeville of himself he scrutinizes all his life. Mirrors that surround him, watching, when he dies. Later, he takes a glass, a small glass, an abstemious glass (as is his habit) of brandy and water before the survey, the very careful survey, of the venue for the reading at the Assembly Rooms tomorrow night. Stage and seating, flat-topped desk and crimson cloth, maroon carpet, maroon screens, gas lamps in shining tin reflectors lighting up his face amid the shadows. Acoustics, props, gold watch chain, geranium for his buttonhole. Nothing less than perfect. Exactly right. Next day, he searches out a fancy haberdasher, Hull’s leading silk merchant, and buys six pairs of stockings for his Nell. He asks the shop lad (who has failed to recognize this mystery shopper) what does he do in his spare time? And when he says ‘Why, I read Mr Dickens’, he offers him a ticket for the evening show. At 8 o’clock, exactly 8 o’clock, the haberdasher and the folk of Hull witness the miracle of the master’s metamorphosis, the raising of the spirits he becomes, the blazing eyes, the terror in the dark, the charge, 14
the shuddering, the rasping then the piping voice, ‘…the pool of gore that quivered and danced in the sunlight on the ceiling… such flesh and so much blood!!!’ The killer and the killed. Killing himself. The more himself for being someone else. After the awestruck silence and frightened faces come the roars and cheers. A single bow before he goes back to his rooms, his dripping suit thrown off, to walk and walk and come back down and come back to the world. He lies prostrate. His voice has gone. His temples ache. Dreams and visions. His swollen foot and rheumatism, facial pains and stomach pains torment him. Less than the memory of ghosts, his father, mother, brothers, daughter, friends... And Mary. The laudanum to make him sleep begets more dreams. Of the horse that savaged him, the dog he had to shoot, of his pet raven, Grip, that died (soon to be auctioned off with his effects after he dies). He aches for Ellen, feels the stockings slide between his fingers, cascade away and hiss like water to the ground.
Carol Rumens The Gentleman for Nowhere As Nella and I walked down the Euston Road (I’d insisted we get off the tube at Baker Street) King’s Cross Station appeared on the horizon with more than usual ominousness. The twin engine-sheds, in my opinion, embodied Victorian railway design at its functional best. But today they seemed to turn their back on London, and their glum, slumped look was disheartening. Who’d believe their claim to be a gateway to an idea as vast as the North? And was the North vast any more? I worked there now. It was my first proper job: Assistant Lecturer in Victorian Literature, Faculty of Arts, Ludology and Social Education, University of Hull. Hull had been the last resort. I’d wanted to teach Dickens in Dickens’s city. I got as far as interviews, but my approach to literature was judged by the metropolitan grant-rakers to be insufficiently theoretical. At UCL, for instance, I was told by the muslin-bloused female chairperson that my monograph would have made an interesting contribution to Dickens studies had it been published in 1912, but for 2012 it was decidedly retro. The panel had laughed merrily, and so had I. A compliment, then – but not a job-offer. I’d come home for the holiday, still on probation. Now I was going back to Yorkshire, having learned from a headed letter from Human Resources that my contract had been renewed – it seemed, indefinitely. I shouldn’t have told Nella, but, in a moment of feeble self-congratulation, I had. We were still ridiculously early, and it was my fault, so we looked around that monstrous folly, St Pancras Station. Nella approved the idea of a cocktail in a glitzy bar, but I dissuaded her. We finally found an almost-empty bijou Costa looking out over the new concourse at King’s Cross. Ever willing to blur the absurdly trivial distinction between railway-station and airport, Network Rail had labelled this smaller folly, Departures. I called it the Phantom Limb. Shiny, inessential
shops formed a horseshoe shape under a high, branching tree of slender veins which glowed at various intensities of pinkish-purple. It had cost five hundred and fifty million pounds to assemble this Olympic fantasy, this corporate candy-floss-machine, spinning dross where the British Empire used to spin gold. The Victorian equivalent would have been the Great Exhibition. At least there was a certain mad grandeur to complacency and self-congratulation in those days, Nella hadn’t seen the phantom limb before. While she pretended to deplore its vulgarity, she loved it. It made her feel skittish. She had even taken a picture of the sign saying Platform 9¾. ‘You will look at those riverside apartments soon, won’t you?’ she coaxed as we sipped our Americanos. This was her favourite topic, her conviction that the riverside was the brightest, trendiest prospect for young marrieds in Hull, vastly preferable to the sedate Avenues, which settled older colleagues persistently recommended. Nella’s idea was fundamentally humane: it was the painless combination of our alien desires. She simply wanted a notional urban elegance – and a nice little hall for the pram. Mine, of course, was the foolish desire, the Dickensian fantasy, as she called it. But she was a brand manager, after all, and Dickens was inarguably my brand. To her credit, she understood how much He mattered, as fellow academics never understood. She knew how helpless I was in the grip of my mania, how little of the detached scholar informed my work. My devotion to Dickens was gut-brain stuff, visceral, based on childhood moral indoctrination, and, later, rivalry, profound and aching – my nine-year-old yearning first to be Master David Copperfield, and then to be the writer of David Copperfield. Nella knew of this last ambition, too – though she no longer took it seriously. I said I would look around, and she squeezed my hand. ‘I’m told those riverside apartments reek of whale-oil,’ I added, mischievously. I’d been re-reading Mugby Junction, a collection of linked short stories by Dickens and four other writers. The eponymous hero of
the first tale, Barbox Brothers, gets off the train at a stop before his destination. Wandering round the deserted station, he meets Lamps, whose job is to clean the many station lights. The little room where his noble toil is based smells, Dickens says, like the cabin of a whaler. I’m still investigating whether he refers to whaling anywhere else. The analogy between Lamps’s oily room and the whaler has been a comfort to me from the instant I’d thought about applying to Hull. Nella’s too-small blue eyes had become cold, and I saw the edges of her smile droop. Then, as the smile-muscles bravely hitched up that tiny but immense weight of disappointment, I imagined I could smell air-freshener. The perfume was somehow the colour of the lights above our heads – a lilac, rose, hyacinth, violet chemical cloud possessing that spacious, airy pent-house overlooking the bloodless water. She kissed me goodbye without a tear, in fact with a joke about academic wars and brave soldiers. She choreographed our pose to resemble the giant bronze study of embracing lovers in St Pancras – she could do these ironical things sometimes, and I appreciated it. My war – my work – was no threat. She would have her flat, her air freshener and her faux oil-lamps, and then, in less than a year’s time, she would have ‘our’ baby, and so complete the process of weaning me from Dickensian to drab. With that unhappy thought in mind, I approached the ticket barrier. I still had twenty minutes till my train. An over-helpful guard, evidently a graduate of an Olympic Games Customer Service Initiative, twitched open the disabled access gate. ‘There’s nothing the other side,’ he warned, having glimpsed my ticket, and showing he was magnanimously prepared to let me exit in the grand manner with which I’d entered. I ignored him and went into the grimy, darkened shell that had been the main concourse. Nothing was what I wanted. I remembered when enormous docile queues would wind themselves several times around the hall, inching towards invisibly distant trains to
Newcastle, York, Edinburgh and, no doubt, Hull. I’d tack myself onto a queue with a combination of deep reluctance and deep resignation that I supposed made me a truly British citizen. My trips in those days were driven by my pursuit of novelistic material, ‘seeing the world’ as I thought of it. Later on, I was a bright, over-aged PhD student at Goldsmith’s, eager to give careful little papers on Dickens and Premonition, or Dickens and Alcohol, in cities I knew He had visited. The last Flying Scotsman had left a decade before I was born, but there was still a certain atmosphere about the station, a lingering moodiness of steam. I walked carefully among the shades and shadows. Underfoot, the brown-grey, semi-shiny stone resembled skin, strangely dimpled in places, patched here and darned there. A rich smell of old waiting-rooms drifted over me, of damp, soft wooden floors, impregnated with dirt. I tasted smoke. And then I saw Him, at the end of the platform, a darting human genie made of fire and mist, surrounded by a fiery-misty crowd of fellow-actors, including pretty teenaged Ellen and her sly mama, their mass of bags in the care of fiery-misty, cap-doffing porters. He shouted orders and jokes, he hurried everyone along, he blew kisses to Catherine, the donkey-wife he was already leaving behind. My elation died as the Pendolino nosed in. The Pendolino is a moulded-plastic Disneyland, nursery-school, health-and-safety train, a pretend airplane-train, a train that can’t sing, even when it manages to reach forty miles per hour, a train whose wheels never go der-der-der-dum over the rails, a train which, when it stops precariously in the middle of a viaduct, has no furious steam to gush forth, not even any batteries to re-charge with a reassuring, patienthorse whinny: a train gloss-coated and uneventful as a banker’s conscience. And here it was, trying to look important. I queued briefly to get into the Quiet Coach. The backs of the seats had great orange ears sticking out, like some cartoon elephant’s. I hadn’t made a reservation. Apparently, no-one had. The little information-screens overhead were innocent of information. I sat
down in an aisle seat in the middle of the coach, away from the ungenerous luggage racks, focus of a panicky scrum at every station, and away from the horrible unventilated toilets, which tainted the local environment with stale nappy-smell, and made noises like an old tea-urn whenever their pumps delivered minutely-measured two-second squirts of water and hot air. The airline-style seats were the only thing I liked about the Pendolino. I thought of them as autism seats – high functioning autism, of course, for those who could cope with the world provided they didn’t have to strike up conversations with it. Facing a chairback in such a cramped space was curiously reassuring, provided the inside seat remained unoccupied. I switched off my phone, obedient to the Quiet signs on the windows. No-one joined me. I opened my ragged, much annotated paperback copy of Mugby Junction, then closed it. I didn’t want to think about Barbox. When he gets out of the train, he doesn’t know where he is or where he’ll go. Mugby Junction is his mysterious portal to transformation. Whereas I know all the stations, cities and towns en route to Hull: I could get out at any one of them and not abolish my past or discover my future. Tracy-our-train-manager was announcing them now, each one, from Milton Keynes to Brough, a hammer-blow to the imagination. The train moved off at last, and I craned over to my sliver of window, ravenously hungry for old brick houses, out-buildings and redundant iron ladders, pulleys and pipes, desolate ancient wagons and rusting rails. And I felt a tremendous pang, almost sob-like, and the repressed thought swelled up chokingly: London, London, I’m leaving you, I’m leaving Him.
No, not so. He had given recitations in Hull. He’d been there three times, in fact: all in the autumn of 1858. The first occasion was on September 14th. The next two performances were on consecutive evenings, the 26th and 27th of October, when he stayed at the Royal Station Hotel. Both times he had been on tour, and Hull wasn’t much more than a dot on his itinerary. It seems that he’d travelled down from Scarborough for the first reading, and had returned to the Royal Hotel in the seaside town the same night. The next time he had travelled to Hull from York, and then gone on to Leeds. His performances had taken place in the Assembly Rooms, Kingston Square, now, the New Theatre. What consolation there is in those pale Ionian pillars, like a section from the façade of Buckingham Palace, still exactly as he’d seen them in 1858! The theatre’s Victorian interior had been stripped in the 1920s. But you could still sense an atmosphere, a tingling of the sensations. The Assembly Hall audience was not inhibited. Among the wealthy and protected were men and women whose rough, river-side and seagoing trades stained their hands with life and death. They still shuddered, laughed, wept in the fine traces of Victorian dust. I knew exactly the kind of figure He made on stage, a thin, intense, fierce-eyed, elegant figure but a short one in stature, a speciallydesigned low reading-table in front of him. The table was covered
with baize: green baize, he favoured at first, but later on he had it refitted, and the new cloth was a startling blood-red. Behind him hung a sheet-like screen, intended to help project his voice into the audience, but which must have had a magic lantern effect, his movements repeating in a shadow play behind him. This would have contributed eerily to his more Gothic performances. His lighting was provided by two 12-feet high gas-pipes. A gas-man and other roadies came along with the equipment, while he travelled in firstclass Pullman. He was like a celebrity on tour – an analogy I’d tried to impress on the students, asking them who their favourite popgroups were. Their friendly answers confused me. I didn’t know any of the names. If their imaginations had been fired by my comparison, I couldn’t smell the burning. In the last five years of his life, when the big reading-tours took place, Dickens hated trains. The Staplehurst accident had nearly killed him. Some rails across a 42-foot drop had been removed for maintenance-work, and hadn’t been replaced. The foreman consulted the wrong time-table. He thought the train from Dover, Dickens’s train, wasn’t due for another two hours. Dickens’s coach hung suspended over the River Beult, saved by the coupling which attached it to the second-class coach behind. Ellen, Mrs Ternan and he linked hands so that, in Ellen’s words, they would die friends. Once freed, he went among the wounded and dying with his brandy-flask and a top-hat filled with river water. He couldn’t bear to look at some of the injuries. He was never again sure of the iron monsters he depended on. He’d take a long gulp from the flask at the start of each trip, but sooner or later he began to sweat, and to count out the passing stations. Serialised horror! Sometimes, he jumped out at an earlier station and tramped the last miles. It was quite likely he’d walked from an intermediate station the day he went to Hull from Scarborough – Beverley, perhaps, or Cottingham. I was going to try it for myself one day. I trawled around the documents on my laptop, entering the
forbidden regions where I still deluded myself I was a novelist. A man got on at Crewe, irritatingly occupied the aisle seat across from me and tried to start a conversation. I ignored him. I’d scrolled up my sketches of Gaby and Angela, the novel’s love interest. They were flaccid characters, I feared, although drawn from so-called real life. Gaby was based on Aimee, a student from some local housing estate, ditzy and tiny in black tights, a flared miniskirt and those useless little fur-topped boots the Hull girls were wearing. Angela was Laura, a mature student, keen in a vague, placid sort of way. She was unhappily married in my story, and my protagonist was going to have an affair with her, if his author could muster the required energy. I gave her some perfectly constructed sentences, but the idea of her didn’t excite me. I was bored and my calves ached. Blood-clots formed in my veins like points failures. I got up, stretched and took a walk down the orange plastic coach. It became steadily dimmer and narrower, lit only by faintly gleaming wood. I was standing in the corridor outside the saloon where He and his male companions had a great table to themselves, lit with pink-shaded oil-lamps. The men were playing cards. He wasn’t playing: he was in the corner, cushioned, asleep. He rolled from side to side with the train and I thought I could hear him groaning. I gathered my courage, slid open the door, and went in. No-one noticed. I saw his eyelids were those of an old man, thin and purplish. I pushed through into his dream. It was a small miserable room with a table and chairs, a bedcurtain, and a shelf of liquor bottles. Of human occupation I could see only an arm stretched back, a hand gripping what looked like the stave from a broken cask, and a woman’s curly hair, like a wig thrown onto the tiled floor. It was His arm, I knew from the shirtcuff, the sham wedding-ring. I felt a sensation like the beginning of a big wave or a gust of wind, some natural force, full of exuberance and heartlessness. It gathered in me with a silent roar, and I felt his joy as he brought the stave down into the mass of curling hair.
The shirt-cuff instantly turned from white to wringing-wet crimson. I heard a chorus of screams, and saw lolling, bloody heads and faces, among them the white moulded-looking features which I knew were those of the woman whose skull had been smashed with such joy. As this hellish vision faded, I saw the card-players were still engrossed. The sleeper had opened his eyes, and was staring, in glassy terror, at the scene I’d just left. I leaned over and touched His shoulder, noticing the dark cloth of the sleeve and the whiteness of the shirt-cuff. He felt my touch, shuddered, looked at me. The train slowed into the shadows of a station. ‘Get off here,’ I said, ‘I’ll drive you. I’ve a cab waiting. It will take no more than an hour longer, and you’re not short of time.’ My voice sounded very young and uncertain in pitch. I’d become a boy of 14 or 15. My hands were sweating. ‘Please, trust me. I’ve read all your dreams. And I’m a writer, too.’ He stared at me with a strange, cold expression. ‘If you can read my dreams, perhaps you ought to be.’ His words thrilled me. I began stuttering but he interrupted. ‘I like killing her. Of course I do. You can surely understand that?’ I whispered yes, and he smiled. His movements were slow and stiff, but I know he intended to get up and follow me. My body jerked with a sweet sensation near orgasm. It vanished quickly and I found I was in my seat, looking up into a lean and wellmade-up young female face. She was staring back at me. ‘All tickets and rail-passes please,’ she repeated in a loud Yorkshire voice. ‘Are you intending to go all the way?’ ‘Yes. No. I don’t know,’ I said stupidly. She waited for me to fumble out my ticket. ‘Change at Bartonbyle-Wold for ᾽Ull,’ she said, handing it back. ‘I thought this was the direct train.’ This was the man sitting across the aisle from me. He looked about 70, and seemed dressed for a walking-tour rather than a business appointment, but he sounded
highly indignant. ‘There’s been an incident and we’re not going all the way now. Change for ᾽Ull at Bartonby-le-Wold, and remain on the platform.’ I wiped my palms furtively on my trouser-knees. ‘What sort of an incident?’ I asked, dreading the reply. ‘Protestors or rioters or sommat, chucking girders on t’line. Plain vandalism, in’t it?’ Tracy-the-train-manager walked away, with a gleam-catching movement of her pony-tail. The old fool was excited. ‘Protesting about what?’ he shouted, but Tracy strode resolutely on. ‘I used to be a protestor! CND. We used to march to Aldermaston, I remember…’ I put my finger to my lips as another voice, the driver’s, perhaps, came over the intercom. It was the same announcement, though garbled and choked by poor amplification. I’d never heard of Bartonby-le-Wold. It sounded remote in time and place. How far from Hull it was I didn’t know; but it was far enough. I’d need to make certain phone calls, tell certain white lies, but it could be done. My heart raced. I zipped up the laptop, packed away Mugby and my unread newspapers. I saw myself arriving at the tiny rural station. Instead of staying on the platform in the jostle of disgruntled passengers, I walked resolutely away and turned down the little approach-road, hearing birdsong, staring around me and storing everything I saw, as I had in the days when I meant to write David Copperfield, in the days when I went all over the British Isles because I needed material, needed to see the world. I smiled to myself. Not the world, but the wold. A peaceful place, a room in an old pub, the kind Nella would call Dickensian, and time stretching around me like the unassuming countryside. It wasn’t too late. Nella planned to fall pregnant soon, but I was pregnant already. My infant was only a few chapters long, cradled in a rarely-updated Office Word document, but it was going to live and grow, now that He trusted me. I could read His dreams. I ought
to be a writer, if I could read his dreams. The train crawled slower and slower until it stopped. Weed-hung embankments rose on either side. It was impossible to see where we were. How far was Bartonby, I wondered impatiently. Even the old man didn’t know. He didn’t believe the announcements, anyway, they were all idiots on Humber Trains. He was pretty sure Beeching had shut down Bartonby in the sixties. Perhaps we were waiting for some ancient stretch of rail to be weeded, oiled and otherwise made safe, he joked. Oh come on, come on, I thought. My resolve wouldn’t last for ever. After an incalculable rest-period, the train decided to crawl gingerly onwards again and Tracy’s voice came triumphant over the intercom. ‘Humber Trains are pleased to inform passengers that the obstruction to the track has now been cleared, and we will NOT making an unscheduled stop at Bartonby-le-Wold. We will be arriving at Doncaster in approximately seventeen minutes. We apologise for the late running of this service and any inconvenience it may have caused to your onward journey.’ The old fool across the aisle from me applauded in a frenzy of satirical glee. ‘Any inconvenience, any inconvenience!’ he shouted. ‘Any inconvenience it just may have caused? Any inconvenience it just may have caused to my onward journey? My onward journey is an abstraction, it can’t suffer from inconvenience. Whereas I most definitely can, and do!’ Once again, I hushed him. I listened hard as the message was repeated. In a moment, my pulse-rate returned to normal, my hope evaporated. An hour and a half later, the last false apology had been uttered, and we were in Paragon Station, Hull. I headed across the forecourt towards the back entrance of the hotel. It was where I always stayed. I have never let on to Nella, because we’re supposed to be saving for the darling riverside flat. I told her I stayed in the university lodgings in Tunny-Fish Grove.
I felt shaky, as if I’d just sat an exam and knew I’d failed. The rather ethereal bronze of Larkin’s statue met me mid-run; he was, as usual, late getting away. But getting away he was. His image cheered me up, a little. As I walked across the great barn of the hotel bar towards Reception, I heard my name. I turned, and there, shipwrecked but surfacing from a deep oxblood sofa, were my student-prototypes of Gaby and Angela, waving with exaggerated, and, it seemed, ironical gestures. I raised my hand to them vaguely, and proceeded to the desk. As I waited to get the clerk’s attention, Aimee came to my side. ‘I wasn’t sure if you saw who it was. You know, us,’ she said, a bit breathless. ‘You’d be welcome to have a drink with us, Chris, if you’re not too busy or nothing.’ She grinned at me boldly. Chris. I always insisted my students call me Dr. Stretton. Her short black ringlets danced. Her eyes were dilated with alcohol – or perhaps some other vicious substance popular with her strangely self-abusive generation. I told her I was going to be busy, and asked if she’d started reading David Copperfield yet. She wrinkled her nose. ‘Don’t ask. I’m really trying. Some of it’s dead wordy.’ ‘You’re right. It is. I’ve decided to change the set text to Oliver Twist.’ She seemed unaffected by my news. ‘Haven’t you ever seen it serialised on TV? Or Oliver – the musical?’ She shook her head, mystified. I ploughed on. ‘It’s a shorter book, very dramatic. Lots of issues to discuss. You’ll like it. But of course you do need to persevere with Dickens. He wrote for readers with a long attention-span. The attention-span is rather like a muscle. Exercise it and it will get bigger and harder.’ Aimee brought her hand to her mouth. There was a shiny metal ring on every finger. Bling, I think it’s called. She shook with suppressed laughter.
‘Good evening Dr Stretton, how are you tonight?’ The young clerk came over at last and handed me my key. He winked at me. ‘The Charles Dickens Suite, as usual.’ Aimee stopped gasping for breath beside me. She uncovered her mouth. ‘Is this where Charles Dickens lives?’ ‘Dickens died in 1870, Aimee.’ ‘I mean, like, in the olden days?’ She had blushed prettily through her make-up. Her bling sparkled. Her eyes were lustrously wet and wide. ‘No. He stayed at the Royal Station Hotel on a visit. I’ve got his old room.’ ‘You’re kidding! Can I come and see it?’ ‘It’s nothing special. But if you’re interested in places associated with Dickens, I can show you a wonderful spot.’ I took a deep breath as I risked the name – for all I knew, her family might have raised sheep or cauliflowers there for generations. ‘Bartonby-le-Werld,’ she echoed, dubiously. ‘Is that in France?’ ‘No, but it’s a glorious little place. It was where Dickens’s other girl-friend lived. Not Ellen Ternan. Another one, originally from Hull. A girl no-one knows much about – well, except me, and now you. There’s a lovely Victorian pub there – it’s the pub where they used to meet. We could have lunch outside, if it’s sunny. It’s not far – I can drive you. Let’s exchange numbers.’ ‘Mint!’ Her eyes shone at me. But the other eyes, behind hers, seemed to form sharp points of ice. They had a dazzle which hurt me. He was challenging me. I didn’t know the nature of the challenge, but I would find out. I stayed calm, kept my voice and focus steady. ‘I’ll give you a ring early tomorrow, Aimee.’ Briefly, I touched her hair, feeling the shine and softness and depth, feeling the idea of the North and its infinite vastness. She was happy with that, and so was He.
Image: Malcolm Watson
Aingeal Clare The Man and the Peregrine and the Chimney There once was a man who lived in the chimney of a great empty factory. At night he could be heard singing the melancholy songs of his youth. On the very top of the chimney nested a peregrine falcon, in an acute state of fertility. No-one knew exactly the number of chicks it had reared, but it was a great many. During the day, the bird could be seen circling dramatically above the tower; but it was never seen to hunt, for this was an activity reserved for darkness. Sleepless children who preferred their windows open at night were intimate with the man’s songs, as were the streetwalkers of Dagger Lane and the dockside nightwatchmen. The drunks who made beds of wire benches knew him, as did the hacks and editors whose periodicals were soon to go to press, and who had stepped out onto balconies to light a late night cigarette and think. In his songs, the man often referenced his friendship with the peregrine. Hidden somewhere in the vast and unruly and sometimes desolate landscape of each ballad was the bird’s secret name, and it was a kind of game to find it. Listeners had discovered the bird tucked inside an old oak tree, where two lovers now parted had once pleased to meet; quarrelling with a farmyard cat, while in the barn a duel was being fought; drifting near the core of some dark cloud, whose rumblings betokened a ruined harvest; and reflected in a young woman’s iris as she stands alone at the edge of a lagoon, aware she has been poisoned by her jealous cousin and will die (these are the songs the man sang). If the peregrine was not present in name or body, her eggs would be: in baskets dropped by frail girls or hurled by urchins at funeral carriages; in tainted omelettes and in foxes’ jaws.
‘What if the peregrine’s nest on the factory chimney is just another hiding place within a bigger song?’ an editor who thought himself very clever remarked to a hack as they stood smoking on the balcony after a hard night’s proofreading. Terrific beauty and depth were in his songs, but the most curious thing about them were these puzzles all who listened learned to solve. The quickest solutions were found by children woken from nightmares, who listened at bedroom windows in stiff poses, because their concentration was the keenest. Insomniacs were in love with the man, especially during power cuts. Then one day, the peregrine left the chimney, never to return. Her name gradually faded from the man’s songs. It was sadder than all his saddest songs taken together. By and by, another name replaced the peregrine’s, around the time one of her grown chicks took to roosting on the chimney grate. Many months passed before the first child discovered what this new name was. The hacks, as usual, were the last to catch on. The streetwalkers of Dagger Lane were the most moved by this development, who grieved and rejoiced all at once, almost frenziedly, reminded of their own lost children, their own lost mothers. Inside the mouth of the factory still crouched its old organs: giant mangles, looms, and saws. These were the fossils of industry, the terrible works. Hunched on the banks of a mud canal, the factory, though menacing to most, was not without charm to this one art student whose expensive camera swung always at her hip. But even she ran away when she saw the machines. Perhaps the man was a ghost?
Cliff Forshaw A Trinity of Genomic Portraits for Charles Darwin Marc Quinn’s ‘genomic portrait’ (2001) of Sir John Sulston, a key figure in the development of the analysis of DNA and the definition of the human genome, consists of the geneticist’s DNA encased in a frame which mirrors the observer. Here 23 couplets represent the 23 pairs of human chromosomes.
1. In the Name of the Father This kind of portrait’s just your name with DNA in a metal frame. You look into the glass and see reflected back, both you and me. Long molecules of the human race hold mirrors up to the voyeur’s face. From Genesis, here’s Revelation: Creation’s mostly Information. Magnified, they’re twisted crosses: X marks the spots of gains and losses. Each gene projects just what it means upon the human plasma screens. State-of-the-art, sharp resolution in byte-sized, digital Evolution. Conceptually, now re-creation’s a pigment of the imagination. Skin-deep, cosmetic − paint betrays the made-up thing that it portrays. The stuff that paints eyes brown or blue’s no medium for catching you. The family portrait’s now replaced: ID’s conceived to be defaced. Your skin’s tattooed, your hair is dyed, both painting and the camera lied.
Your nose is trimmed, your breasts augmented, your eyes in contacts look demented. With sculpted cheeks and capped white teeth, God only knows what lies beneath. Not just the skull beneath the skin, we want to see what’s deep within. We want to see what’s really dark − survival earned through each black mark. Now, paint-by-numbers DNA with radioactive markers, say, might, as the Geiger ticked away, catch your half-life, hint at decay. This is the sequence marked down through time − those narcissistic couplets rhyme. But duplication’s not so great: the verses limp, the genes mutate. Like chromosomes, your tiny doubles, each wriggling pair now looks for trouble. Each chromosome’s a mirrored X, which, naturally, goes wrong with sex. Y is one at such a loss: three-legged beast, or broken cross? 2. The Son X kisses X, or does it lie? Twenty-two times, then maybe Y. This snapshot of your DNA can’t really catch you here today. Genetic stuff is so abundant that most of it is just redundant. Point one percent’s what makes you YOU, suspended here in living glue. You’re stuck into prehistory along with the dinosaurs and me. 33
Ninety-nine point nine percent of your genes are no different to Hitler’s, Stalin’s or Pol Pot’s: to draw yourself, just join the dots. Dot each ‘i’, but write it small, trace the ego to the Fall. Most genes within the double helix are shared with Rover, Mickey, Felix. But not just cuddly, furry friends: the snake and fish have shaped our ends. You share the stuff that sculpts your features with a billion loathsome creatures: those genes that make a frog or toad are scanned to form your own barcode; the genetic code which seals your fate’s just digits away from the primates. You stand upright, although you limp: you’re 98 % a chimp. Your kids may lack a shaggy coat, but if they’re yours they’re still half-goat. Your sister-in-law, you see her now, not merely bovine, but truly cow. A chance mutation makes you strong: a broken gene that copies wrong. Relentless pressure’s really grim, the future of most species dim. And even those who do survive, must journey on, no one arrives. No intervention from the gods will save an ape or change the odds. O Tech-Fix desperate Hi-Hope junkies, no god appears to give a monkey’s. Genomic portraits intimate the accident of birth that’s fate
while Nazi Nature’s Final Solution − Oblivion − ’s what drives evolution. 3. And the Wholly Ghost No god creates a brand new species: the future teems in bogs and faeces. No Creator ticks them off his list, there is no bio-alchemist. A zillion misses, then a hit: a chance mutation transforms shit. The whole thing is a sort of Zen: can gods exist if there’s no men? It never stops, nothing remains, we’re tangled up in endless chains. All change! All change! No time to think: Goodbye, you are the weakest link! Survival of the fittest, sure, but then the rules tell us much more. It’s A Knockout! and every round grinds the weak into the ground. It’s not so much the fit survive, but that the weak aren’t left alive. Then Man stood up and changed the rules: he used his brain, invented tools. He learned to cut his hair and talk, to wash his hands and use a fork. Top Dog sits down to Nature’s feast, dog’s off the menu − he’s no beast. How like a god! So worldly-wise, his mission’s now to civilize. But the problem with increased survival is that his brother’s now his rival. ‘Darwinian’ as a term now means economics more than genes. 35
Painting : e River Hull is Here by Cliff Forshaw
If bees evolved producing honey, is there a gene for making money? You’re what you drive and what you wear; you’re what you buy − Suits you, sir! Gold Amex cards flashed on a date proclaim the new eugenic mate. The peacock with his fine display, the ostentatious way to pay: both proclaim a sort of health − in modern terms, we’re talking wealth. Old bodies, once fit for only worms have cloned their youth and banked their sperms: genetic engineering can turn frozen-rich to SuperMan. See Lazarus rise from the body’s tomb: the lab’s the modern virgin womb.
David Wheatley Cat Head Theatre On YouTube I watch a short ‘Cat Head Theatre’ clip of Hamlet, in which an animated feline gives a passable performance as the Prince of Denmark. Guildenstern and Rosencrantz also feature, alternating between speaking their lines and chasing flies in the background. Cats are a large part of my life, and if called on to create a Cat Head Theatre clip of my own I know all too well both the play and the felines to which I would turn. The play would be Waiting for Godot and in the role of Vladimir I would cast Percy, sage and sleek, while Estragon would be his heavier and earthier helpmeet-brother Sam. Pozzo would be recreated (from beyond the grave) by our neighbours’ cat Rimmel, a large-bottomed and often bad-tempered beast still to be seen on Google Earth, where she perches on a recycling bin outside our front door. Lucky would be Hobo, a feline who died at the estimated age of 25 in 2011, but who up to very shortly before his death was still coming in through the flap to devour the treats and pouches with which he would be ceremoniously presented, for how could we refuse him anything, estimable old gent that he was. There was something of the toilet brush about his appearance in later life, it must be said, and to touch his fur was to be left with a peculiar amber-like residue, to be no more specific than that. The boy can be a cross-dressed Fifi, Rimmel’s equally fat-arsed replacement. As for Godot, he is Snowy, otherwise, Mr White, who sits in another neighbour’s window, stalks the tenfoot, appears suddenly and shockingly on downstairs windowsills, and on rare and treasured occasions appears in the kitchen. Being deaf, Mr White inhabits, I imagine, a profoundly solitary and private universe. He is perhaps the most elusively beautiful creature on the street. I go to the window and a cat is strolling among the bins. I go to the garden and another is lolling on the bench. I leave the house and another is on my step, and yet another sitting in a bush. Two of the cats I mentioned above are dead
but this remains their place much more than mine. Hull will not have me alive or dead, but Hull is all these cats will ever need. For which reason it occurs to me there may be a problem with my choice of Waiting for Godot after all: these cats may appear to be waiting for something, but there is nothing they lack, nothing that could make their lives any more sheerly replete than they are.
David Wheatley Wanna Come Back to Mine A word about phonetics. When Northern speech is rendered phonetically the word ‘fuck’ is sometimes spelt ‘fook’, which irritates people who point out that no one says ‘fook’ with an ‘oo’ as in ‘moo’. This is a misunderstanding. The ‘oo’ is as in ‘look’ rather than the southern [Λ] sound in ‘luck’. As per the Tony Harrison poem, it’s ‘Them and [uz]’, not them ‘Them and [ΛS].’ And just you try saying the word ‘Hull’ to an Odeon Cinema telephone booking system with that northern vowel, by the way. ‘I’m sorry, can you repeat that?’ Northern speech has a knack of not quite lodging in a southern ear. I cherish the moment in a reality TV show featuring the Duchess of York when she informed a family of East Hullites that they would now be eating healthy food, and was this a problem? One man informed her that he could always eat ‘owt’, which she took to mean that he might be adjourning to the nearest Michelin starred-diner, but that wasn’t quite what he meant. Other characteristics of Hull speech include the shortening of long ‘i’ sounds, so that a glass of Chardonnay becomes a ‘drah whaht wahn’, the replacement of the vowel in ‘work’ with an ‘e’ (common to Scouse too), and the ‘goatfronting’, as I’m told it’s called, whereby a long ‘o’ acquires positively a Scandinavian twang. I’ve thought of doing a Tom Leonard on Hull speech, and writing a poem full of croggies, nebbies, neshes and nithereds, but the salty vernacular needs no spray-on dialect words to earn its keep. God is a shout in the street, Stephen Dedalus said, and what is this Hull life if not a teenage boy inviting a girl on the other side of the road back to his place? ‘Wanna come back to mine?’ he shouts. He has beer and an x-box. And there’s more: ‘I ehn’t got no diseases or owt.’
Cliff Forshaw A Season in Hull
Wine-dark sea? Think beer: let fish-finings load your pint with light. Is that clear? * Hear you play croquet, John Prescott. Why? You could be King of the Oche. * New kennings for sea: container-road; salt-sown field; salted wound; cod-free. * From pier you see fishhook haiku; hear muddy tongues: Estuary Eng. Lish. * From sewer-reek, piss, puke, rise perfumed, air-conned malls. What fresh Hull is this?
Cliff Forshaw Ingerland An Angelic Conversation or Psychical Curiosity Transcribed, which the Author hopes may be of passing interest to Alienists, Etymologists and the Like. Dr Quodlibet, Renowned Psychopomp, en séance, makes the acquaintance of Divers Others, from whence we know not (perhaps some Ancient Pagan Realm?) and transcribes their strange Enochian.
Coming in. Coming in. See them in their bold effrontery, these Meteors, Gloworms, Rats of Nilus, with their lingos, winks and elbow nudgery: slinking through this city without a skin, jiving greasy guns. O the blatant cockery of these Nightshades, Chameleons, and Apparitions. Hoodie-boyos, chaveris, adipose hussies with their open purses, the Scally jazzing with Blunt and Redtop till beer o’ clock and time to slop stilton tattoos along brass-top or naugahyde; his proud shout drilling the barkeep’s dischuffed dial, unenrapt without pourboire or promises thereof; then on, with Latvio-Lithuo-Sengali-Ivrorian cab-driver (PhD in Astromomy, Agronomy, Homiletics or Dark Matter). Drop him the change from one lonely deepsea diver, then on, always on, to badly-packed kebabs or bacon banjos. Takeaway. Takeaway. Graze on the hoof. 43
Another blunt, a toot, another blow on the bugle: hoovering the kermit for the last of the Devil’s dandruff − confuzzled in the karzy, gone completely hatstand. Carking it on the big white telephone to God, in technicolour prayer. Thou art translated to some new Beast. Behold the Bog Ostrich! Here come the Silicon Valley girls, well not quite: their figures lardily imprecise, but they got chips all right and corned-beef legs. And beer tits! beer tits! Muffintops, piercings, builder’s crack: cankles and arsewag and the requisite cantilevered quondam of cleavage. O beerbosomed Blowsies, all Brastraps, and Chipsauce; O Denizens of the Deep-Fry, all Moon-Face and Bling ─ I am torn by the Manichean Schism of thy Thong Cheeks. O Chlamydia, banged up with Arsehats, and Losers; O Minger sat on your Bahookie down the Boozer; O lardy lardy ladies growing into the Sofa, With skanky Ankle-Biters, sugar high, remote lost down your Backside, Up there the Gob, ‘cos she’s worth it, the skinny Ho All Vogue on the outside and vague on the in. O Rhadamanth! O Callipygous! Wrap, Surf ‘n’ Turf, Taco, Panini. Supersize that with fries on the side. O Aphrodite! O lewd Britannia! Her Lips are glossed, her Breasts are pert: Britannia Spice rips oﬀ her Skirt. See Toad-Skin, Warts, Buboes, Scales; Foul Underparts, a slimy Tail. 44
Ingerland: Foreskin of a Friday night. DJ, eyes worn by distance, smoke, eavesdrops the future down the bone, thumbs the next track into the stripper’s zip, wastes imported vinyl on the drongos of this Dead Zone. Thud and blunder from the back-room. Click of a black rolls the last pony into the pocket. You trouser what you can of the chink, stand your wingman a chaser, and one for the bludger, stuff a brown lizzie in the burly-gurlie’s biscuit. Out into the bladdered, the Filth with their hoolivan, faces like bulldogs licking piss off a nettle. Everyone, everywhere’s angstin or bustin for knuckle. And it’s a jive life. Jive life. Jive life. ‘Mondays we wuz bug hunting down near the cemetery, buzzing the bonies, no need of chivvin the pigeons, but a little dip and dab. Was near a deadlurk, when…’ You hear the little twoats dunting the street, rotwiled by schnauzers nicknocked Asbo and Kewl, wonder, in a vaguely Mallarméan way, how to purify the dialect of this tribe. But we’re rolling out and heading up, counting zero-sum and mission creep; taking a reality check and going forward, One Hundred and Twenty Percent Iconic. How quick your rug-rat’s become a little twagger, got a Desmond from the Academy of Cant.
The whore wore a perfume called Slut, a short skirt with a meaningful slit: knackered and knickerless; Aviation Blonde by the look of her black box. The mad joker’s eyes, quick sticks from jack and danny to her rack. Body off Baywatch, face off Crimewatch. The rest were all rammy, radged real bad. You’d of ralphed or prayed to an Old Testament God, to jimmy you out, drop you back on your tod in the pustular choky of your cold-water sock. Fading…. Fading…. Over and out. Over and out. Transcript ends.
Painting: e River Hull Flows Elsewhere by Cliff Forshaw
Outside in Sticksville, garyboys burn rubber, gunning kevved-up GTs, ferking twocked Zondas. You go down Manors icky with gum and spilt claret, rug like a pub floor that sticks to the sole. Past face-aches, blue-rinsers, tranked Neds and jellied Nellies, the liggers, lounge-lizards, the prannets with previous; over the vom, coffin-dodgers, pavement pizzas, past Halal taxi, Polski Smak (Scag? S&M? Happy-slappers?). Through carparks, ruinous estates, urinous underpasses carpeted by bozos, piss-pants and crusty-white rastas. It’s all argument, argot and grot; booze, palaver and pants. Give me your piss-poor, your pilchards, your pillocks.
Ray French Insomnia The weather turned the instant Gerald left the restaurant, hail spraying Newland Avenue like buckshot, thundering on car roofs and rattling shop windows. He hunched over, scuttled to the waiting cab, wincing as the icy pellets raked his face and hands. His laptop bag slipped from his shoulder as he struggled to open the door, when he ducked down to retrieve it he cracked his head on the handle. ‘Balls!’ ‘Gerald Lauder?’ Gerald looked up, saw a tall, powerful-looking man with piercing blue eyes, the faintest hint of a smile on his lips. He wore a black denim jacket over a tightly fitting red tee-shirt, a discreet gold chain circled his neck; he didn’t appear to notice the hail lashing his face. Under his penetrating stare Gerald felt acutely conscious of his flabby torso and thinning hair. ‘I’m Mick Hanson, your driver tonight. Here, let me take those for you.’ Before he could respond, Mick grabbed his laptop bag and the backpack hanging awkwardly from Gerald’s other shoulder, placed a large hand on his back and guided him gently inside the cab. He stood outside, holding the bags until Gerald located the seat belt and strapped himself in, then passed them to him. ‘Thank you so much,’ said Gerald, though Mick’s actions had in truth felt like an elaborate parody of customer service that he’d found a little unsettling. Mick winked as if he was in on the joke, shut the door firmly with a flick of his hand and got back in the driving seat. Gerald told him the name of his hotel and they set off. ‘You been giving a talk at the University?’ ‘Yes, that’s right.’ ‘I thought so. That restaurant is usually where they take the speakers afterwards – I drove another speaker to the same hotel last week.’ He was much more talkative than the cab driver who’d taken
Gerald from his hotel to the University earlier in the day. He had asked where Gerald wanted to go, then told him how much it cost when they’d arrived, a total of nine words escaping his lips throughout the entire journey. Gerald’s talk had gone well, he’d knocked back three glasses of red wine in the restaurant and was feeling quite chatty himself. ‘You’re very observant.’ ‘You get bored. There’s not much to this job, so you remember anything different, it helps pass the time. This woman I drove to the hotel, she’d given a talk on the police strike of 1919. Now that I remembered – I never knew the police went on strike, did you?’ Gerald admitted he did. Mick smiled ruefully. ‘That’s why I’m driving a cab and you’re giving talks at the University.’ He waved away Gerald’s feeble effort to object. ‘I don’t plan to do it forever, it’s just a means to an end. As a great man once said, all things must pass.’ ‘Was that The Dalai Lama?’ ‘No, George Harrison.’ Despite his rugged appearance Mick obviously had an enquiring mind. Gerald would enjoy telling Alison about the rough diamond he’d unearthed in Hull when he got back to London tomorrow. He glanced out of the window. The narrow road, speed humps and rows of small, unappealing shops reminded him of Plaistow or Bow; the people had the same pinched, hungry look. ‘What do you make of Hull?’ Gerald knew he needed to tread carefully here. ‘Well, I’ve hardly had a chance to see it properly, so I can’t really say.’ He explained how he’d gone straight from his hotel to the University, then to the seminar room where he’d set up his Powerpoint display. ‘I do plan to have a look around tomorrow, before I catch my train. Is there anywhere you’d recommend?’
‘No.’ ‘Oh, I see...’ ‘It’s a shithole. If I were you I’d head straight for the station after your breakfast and get the first train back down south. You do live down south, I take it?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘London?’ Gerald nodded. ‘Thought so. Do you know that old folk song, ‘The Dalesman’s Litany’?’ ‘No, can’t say I do. I’m not really a fan of folk music.’ ‘I hate the stuff – how many verses about the clog workers’ strike of 1782 can a man listen to? Anyhow, the first line goes like this: “Oh Lord deliver us from Hell and Hull and Halifax.” Never a truer word. I don’t know who’s done the most damage to this place, the Luftwaffe or the bloody council.’ Gerald struggled to think of a suitable reply. They stopped for some traffic lights. The hail had had been replaced by driving rain; a bedraggled middle-aged couple clung to a tattered umbrella as they crossed the road in front of them. ‘So, what was your talk called?’ Gerald hesitated, he doubted that Mick would find the subject as interesting as the police strike. ‘The Long Dark Night Of The Soul.’ There was the slightest flicker of irritation on Mick’s face. ‘What’s that about?’ ‘Writers and insomnia.’ ‘Insomnia?’ The change in Mick was instant and startling. ‘Insomnia,’ he repeated, eyeballing Gerald in the mirror. ‘Yes, that’s right. Um, the lights have changed.’ The car behind started beeping. Mick took his hands from the wheel, slowly turned round and stared at Gerald. He seemed to be in a state of shock.
‘You study insomnia.’ Gerald nodded. The driver behind overtook them with a squeal of tires, giving Gerald the finger as he passed. ‘Writers who suffer from insomnia, to be precise.’ ‘Do you believe in fate, Gerald?’ ‘No, not really.’ Mick nodded to himself, as if Gerald had unwittingly confirmed something, then turned back round and drove on, though more slowly than before. He searched out Gerald’s eyes in the mirror. ‘I believe in fate. I have felt its workings.’ Gerald looked away, he was finding Mick’s stare a little disconcerting. ‘Tell me, have many writers suffered from insomnia?’ ‘Yes, quite few.’ ‘Which ones?’ Gerald, who was never comfortable with discussions about fate, god or the meaning of life, eagerly seized the opportunity to introduce some solid facts into the conversation. He leant back, assumed a scholarly tone. ‘William Wordsworth, Shelley, Sylvia Plath – now she wrote a poem called ‘Insomniac’, where she describes sleep as a kind of death-wish, the only possible cure for the white disease of daylight and consciousness.’ ‘The white disease of daylight,’ Mick savoured the words like a man discovering fine wine for the first time in his life. ‘I interrupted you – go on.’ ‘That’s quite all right. Then there was Franz Kafka,’ Gerald laughed, ‘Naturally, I mean you can’t really imagine Kafka as an eight hour a night man, can you?’ Mick looked at him blankly. Gerald cleared his throat. ‘Then there was Thomas de Quincey, Charlotte and Emily Brontë.’ ‘The two Yorkshire lasses?’ ‘Yes, that’s rather a tragic story, actually.’ ‘Go on.’
Image: Malcolm Watson
Rarely had Gerald encountered such rapt attention when talking about his research. Mick was now driving at twenty miles an hour. ‘According to their biographer, Elizabeth Gaskell, Charlotte and Emily used to walk in circles around the dining room table until eventually they were tired enough to sleep. After Emily died, Charlotte walked alone around the table on her own, hour after hour, night after night.’ A terrible sadness appeared in Mick’s eyes. ‘The poor bloody cow. Any others?’ ‘Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Margaret Drabble… but the most famous insomniac of them all, the veritable poet laureate of sleepnessness, was Charles Dickens.’ There was a strangled cry, then Mick slapped the steering wheel. He shook his head, began laughing. ‘What is it? What have I said?’ He looked at Gerald triumphantly. ‘And you’re the man who doesn’t believe in fate.’ ‘You’ve lost me.’ ‘Charles Dickens has been my constant companion every single night for the last ten years.’ ‘Ah, you’re a Dickens fan.’ ‘Fan doesn’t begin to describe it. If it wasn’t for him I’d have gone stark, staring mad.’ Gerald, startled by this outburst, laughed nervously. ‘I see.’ ‘No, you don’t. You’ve no idea. How can I make you understand?’ Mick looked round in desperation. ‘Hang on, here we go, just the thing.’ He indicated, came to a halt opposite a grocery shop called Polski Sklep. ‘See that?’ ‘What exactly am I supposed to be looking at?’ Mick pointed at the shop, ‘In there.’ Gerald gazed at the shop’s stark interior, the harsh lighting, white
tiles and neatly stacked piles of drab-looking produce. ‘I haven’t had more than two hours sleep at a time for twelve years. at’s what your head feels like – the inside of that Polish shop. Go on, look again, imagine feeling like you’re trapped in there at three in the morning.’ Gerald felt he had to say something. ‘Now I know that some people feel that the Poles are taking British jobs, but – ’ ‘No! You’re not listening to me, Gerald. I’ve got nothing against the Poles. They had it tough, but they never gave up, they’re fighters, I respect that. What I’m saying is that’s what it feels like when you can’t sleep. It’s as if you’re locked in an empty building in the middle of the night, all the lights blazing, no one there.’ He paused, then muttered, ‘The white disease of daylight.’ The haunted look on his face reminded Gerald of a Gulag survivor, someone from whom every last scrap of hope had been brutally extinguished by years of unrelenting misery. Very difficult, looking at that face, not to imagine some traumatic event triggering the condition. In fact Gerald could well imagine Mick having served in the armed forces, doing a tour of duty in Afghanistan or Iraq. But insomnia could also be triggered by stress, psychiatric or physical problems, or substance abuse – less dramatic alternatives, but more likely, statistically. ‘So Dickens suffered from the same thing as me. You don’t know what that means to me, Gerald. From now on I’ll feel like he’s actually there with me when I’m reading his books. Does that sound mad?’ ‘No Mick, it doesn’t.’ Gerald felt a wave of compassion for the man. In all those years of giving papers and presentations to other academics he had never once produced such a profound effect on any of his listeners. It was invigorating. He was reaching out beyond academia, having an impact on the local community. ‘In fact C.S. Lewis put it very well when he said “We read to know that we are not alone.”’
Mick looked delighted. ‘That’s the most beautiful thing anyone’s said to me for a long time. That is…’ He shook his head, unable to continue. Gerald felt quite humbled. The rain was no more than a fine drizzle by now, and he was in no rush to return to his hotel room. ‘Tell me, what did Dickens do when he couldn’t sleep?’ ‘He would walk the streets in search of inspiration. I suspect he was unable to ever stop his brain working. But he made good use of his insomnia, for example he absolutely dreaded having to write a particular scene in Bleak House.’ ‘Which one?’ ‘Do you remember Jo, the poor urchin who sweeps a path so people can cross the filthy street?’ ‘Yeah,’ said Mick, his voice hoarse with emotion, ‘The poor little sod.’ Gerald noticed a hoodie scuttling round a corner, clutching a plastic bag tightly to his chest; there appeared to be something moving inside. ‘Dickens hated the thought of killing him off, but he knew it had to be done. So he lay in bed wide awake till five in the morning, in a state of great agitation, then rose and wrote the scene in a burst of pent-up energy. And of course his inability to sleep resulted in one of his most interesting books – e Uncommercial Traveller.’ ‘I don’t know that one. I thought I’d read everything by Dickens.’ ‘It’s a collection of sketches that grew out of his long walks through London at night. That went so well, he took to travelling all over the country and recording what he saw.’ Mick took out a pen, and Gerald watched him painstakingly write e Uncommercial Traveller on a blank receipt in a childish scrawl. ‘Dickens was so desperate to get a good night’s sleep he carried a pocket compass to make sure that his bed faced due north – he believed he would sleep soundly that way.’ ‘Did it work?’ ‘Of course not – the Victorians had all kinds of supposed cures for
every malady. He also tried mesmerism.’ He noticed Mick’s puzzled expression, ‘A kind of precursor to hypnotism.’ ‘But that didn’t work either.’ ‘No.’ Mick mulled this over. ‘I can understand him, though. When you’re desperate, you’re ready to try anything. I know, I speak from experience.’ They sat without speaking for a while, listening to the rain pattering on the roof, the soft rumble of the engine, the intermittent drag and scrape of the windscreen wipers. ‘Tell me Mick, how did you get into Dickens?’ ‘Someone said why don’t you try reading, that might help get you through the night. But I’d never been a great reader. I didn’t know where to start. So I walked into a bookshop and asked which authors wrote the longest novels.’ A cab drove past on the other side of the road – the driver obviously knew Mick, tried to attract his attention by waving, but he failed to notice. ‘That’s how I got into James Michener. I read them all – Hawaii, Caribbean, Chesapeake, Alaska, Iberia, Centennial, e Source. His books are at least 600 pages, some of them are nearly a 1,000 - those ones would last me a month. Oh yes, I was quite happy with Michener.’ He gave Gerald a meaningful look. ‘But then fate intervened.’ That again. ‘One night ten years ago someone left a copy of Great Expectations in the back of the cab. I’d just finished my latest James Michener, and I had nothing to read. I wasn’t impressed when I saw it lying there on the seat, it was only 400 pages. But like I said, I had nothing else to read, so I gave it a go. That was it, I never looked back. I read every one of Dickens’s books after that, one after the other, and when I’d read them all I went back to the beginning and read them all again. And that’s how it’s been for the last ten years, I start at the
beginning of the shelf – I’ve got all my Dickens books on one shelf – and read my way through them all, and then, by the time I’ve reached the end, I’m ready to start all over again. Why read anyone else? All human life is there. The man is a genius, an absolute genius. If you offered me a James Michener now, I’d laugh in your face.’ ‘You’ve read nobody but Charles Dickens for the last ten years?’ ‘Correct.’ They felt silent again. A white van shot past, sending up a stream of spray. Mick looked at the shop again. ‘It’s always like that when I drive past at night, the lights are switched off in every other shop but that one is lit up like No Man’s Land.’ Gerald was determined not to see this as symbolic. ‘Did you know that Mr Dickens gave a couple of readings here in Hull, Gerald?’ ‘Yes, at the Assembly Rooms I believe.’ Mick nodded to himself, ‘You know your stuff, don’t you? It’s called Hull New Theatre now. Have you seen the blue plaque?’ ‘No, I was hoping to go have a look tomorrow, before I catch my train.’ ‘Would you like to go now?’ Gerald wavered. ‘It’s only five minutes away. I wouldn’t charge you – it’d be a pleasure.’ Gerald thought of the alternative – go back to his hotel, make himself a cup of tea, watch Newsnight. Why not, what harm could it do? Hull New Theatre was near the end of a street of elegant Georgian houses. Gerald never suspected such a charming area existed so close to the centre, given the hideous buildings confronting him as he left the station. Mick parked the car, then opened the glove compartment, took something out; it was only as they crossed the street that Gerald noticed Mick was clutching a book.
The entrance was an attempt to echo a Greek temple, its white front dominated by four huge pillars; Gerald pursed his lips at the clumsy municipal pastiche. Forthcoming attractions included High School Musical, Calendar Girls, Horrible Histories and Grease. ‘Lovely building, isn’t it?’ said Mick, ‘One of the few touches of class in this place.’ Mick led him to the left hand side of the building where the plaque was located, just beyond one of the pompous pillars. The blue paint was peeling away in a number of places, but with a little perseverance it was possible to make out the inscription. In this building in 1859 and 1860 the novelist Charles Dickens gave selected readings from many of his works. ‘It’s an absolute disgrace. I don’t know how many times I’ve written to the council. Can you imagine a blue plaque in London being left to rot like this?’ Mick muttered something, then collected himself and handed Gerald a copy of Great Expectations. ‘Would you read a couple of pages in honour of the great man?’ Gerald looked at the dog-eared paperback being thrust at him, then back up at Mick. ‘Please – it would mean a lot to me.’ Gerald took the book, glanced around self-consciously – there was no one else in sight. When he glanced back at Mick his eyes were closed, his arms were tightly folded across his chest. Despite his shaven head and rugged features, Gerald was reminded of a small boy on his best behaviour, waiting patiently for teacher to read the story. Gerald began at the beginning. ‘“My father's family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip”.’ Mick proved to be a very appreciative listener, completely absorbed in the story, smiling, nodding to himself or frowning in
concentration at regular intervals. When Gerald finished the chapter, Mick opened his eyes and smiled. ‘Beautifully read. Beautiful.’ Gerald returned the book, and they walked back to the cab without a word. As Gerald strapped himself in, he said, ‘Well thank you ever so much for this, Mick. It’s been fascinating. I’d like to go back to my hotel now, please.’ There was a hint of coldness in Mick’s eyes as he swivelled round. ‘It’s not even ten o’clock.’ ‘It’s been a long day, I was up before six finishing off my Powerpoint display and what with the travelling, giving the presentation, then the meal afterwards... I’m rather tired, and could really do with an early night.’ ‘Rather tired.’ Gerald recoiled – Mick’s anger felt like the sudden blast of heat when an oven was opened. ‘I’m sorry to hear that you’re rather tired, Gerald, I really am.’ Gerald said nothing, but was careful to maintain eye contact and show no sign of nerves. Eventually Mick looked away and sighed dramatically. ‘Come on then, I’ll take you back.’ They drove in silence to the end of the street, then Mick stopped the car. ‘I thought we’d made a connection.’ The anger had subsided, there was a look of betrayal in his eyes now. To his surprise, Gerald felt more uncomfortable dealing with this than his previous outburst. ‘I’ve enjoyed talking to you very much, but I really am tired.’ ‘I’ll bet you sleep well, don’t you?’ Gerald chose his words carefully. ‘I often find it difficult to sleep when I’m stressed about something at work, or if I’ve had an argument.’ ‘But once you do nod off, how many hours do you sleep then?’
Gerald considered lying, then dismissed the idea as ridiculous, after all, what did he have to hide? ‘Six or seven.’ Mick smiled to himself. ‘That’s the difference between me and you, isn’t it? I’m the poor bugger who has to live with not being able to sleep, but you just study it.’ ‘I never claimed that my work was autobiographical.’ Gerald couldn’t fathom the look he gave him then, but before he could say anything else Mick turned left, and put his foot down. ‘You know something, I used to watch my wife when she was asleep beside me, peer at her eyelids fluttering, gently rest my head on her heart and listen to the lovely steady rhythm of her breathing.’ They raced past a row of darkened shops; some lads swore at Mick when he failed to stop for them at a crossing; they turned left again, tyres squealing. ‘Would you mind slowing down?’ ‘I’d wonder if she was dreaming, try to picture what comforting story she was caught up in. Then I’d go back to staring at the ceiling and try to imagine what I would dream about, if I fell asleep. But I never did.’ Gerald looked around nervously; they appeared to be heading out of the centre. ‘You know something? I grew to hate my wife. I couldn’t stand the sight of her. It drove me crazy, knowing she was off in some other, better place, and I was left behind. I live alone now, it’s best that way.’ The rain was lashing down, Gerald didn’t know Hull, didn’t recognize any of these places. Then they were on a flyover, to the left a monumentally ugly Premier Inn erupted from somewhere below, like a malignant growth. ‘Mick, Mick. I want you to turn round and take me to my hotel.’ When he didn’t reply, Gerald took out his mobile. ‘Right, I’m going to – ’ Gerald felt a sharp tug as Mick grabbed the mobile from his hand
and chucked it onto the passenger seat. There was a loud thunk as the doors locked. ‘For Christ’s sake, what are you doing?’ ‘I’m helping you with your research, Gerald. I told you I believed in fate. It was no accident that someone left a copy of Great Expectations on the seat, and it’s no accident that you got into my cab tonight. Now you’ll find out what it’s like to crave sleep the way other people crave sex or drugs. We’re going to experience the long dark night of the soul together, you and me. Then you can write something autobiographical for a change.’ He lobbed the copy of Great Expectations into Gerald’s lap. ‘You whetted my appetite back there, Gerald. You read so beautifully. Let’s carry on, shall we? Chapter two next, where we meet Pip’s sister.’ Gerald stared at the book in his lap, then looked up just in time to see a sign for the ferry terminals flash past. They must have been doing sixty. Mick’s voice had an edge to it when he spoke again. ‘I’m waiting, Gerald. An expert like you will know how a lack of sleep can make the mildest man extremely short-tempered. How it can cause violent mood swings, make people do impulsive things. Gerald, are you listening?’ Gerald looked into the pair of piercing blue eyes staring at him in the mirror. He tried to speak, but his throat was parched, his mouth clamped shut, and the opening words of ‘The Dalesman’s Litany’ were going round and round in his head.
Cliff Forshaw Two Ballads from the Bush Lament for Trucanini, Queen of Van Dieman’s Land Aboriginals Last full-blood Tasmanian Aborigine (1812? – 1876)
Trucanini, Truganner, I’m not sure what to call you, your name has grown vague and lost as Trowenna. Trucanini, Truganner, last full-blood born here, raped by whitefella convicts, sterile with gonorrhoea. Trucanini, Truganner, still hanging round their woodsmoke, you sell yourself to sealers for a handful of tea or sugar. Trucanini, Truganner, they murdered your mother; come again, a little later, killed your new step-mother. Trucanini, Truganner, whitemen murdered your intended, convict mutineers stole your blood-sister Moorina. Trucanini, Truganner, there’ll soon be no one left now, so many sold to slavers just like your tribal sisters. Comes another whiteman: comes George Augustus Robinson, together with Wooraddy, loyal guide and his Good Friday. This whitefella Robinson’s a missionary like no other: cockney builder become explorer, e Great Conciliator. Trucanini, Truganner, help-meet and translator: interpret, make word-lists, catalogue their customs. Trucanini, Truganner − tiny, tiny, tiny − married Wooraddy, also full-blood out of Bruny. 62
Trucanini, Truganner, with Robinson you both wander, so long since you left your home on Bruny Island. You go gathering them in now, most-trusted Trucanini. Orphan-mother to the whitefella’s blackface piccaninny. Interpreter, translator, Truganner, Trucanini; in your story I hear echoes of Pocahontas, La Malinche. Traduttori sono traditori: I heard an Italian say in Sydney. And, for a long time, I thought, Trucanini, Truganner, how lives fork when we live in a stranger’s tongue.
My Lord’s a Cockney Shepherd who’s bringing in His Flock and we’re singing Ba Ba Black Sheep as we huddle in His Fold. Some say I’m rounding up the black sheep, like the shepherd’s faithful dog, but there’s nothing le but pasture, and my forest’s turned to logs. Now there’s a bounty on the Tiger, there’s a fence across the land, and they’re grazing fluﬀy white sheep while the Shepherd sings the hymns. He leads us to the Promised Land where we will all be safe, and our Pen is Flinders Island, though there’s not many still alive.
But the Master’s gone and le us, least what was le of that last Fold. Shipped us back from Flinders Island to slums and rum in Oyster Cove. Trucanini, Truganner, now you’re dying on your own, the doctors pick your bones like ghostly thylacines. Trucanini, Truganner, your flesh and blood all gone, your people dead as Dodos and they’ve stolen what remains, Trucanini, Truganner, you’re in the National Picture on the wall; but, though your bones are raked in a big glass case, you saved No One after all.
The last four Tasmanian Aborigines: Trucanini seated right with William Lanne centre.
The Ballad of Trucanini’s Husband William Lanne Or, ‘e Blackfella’s Skeleton’ Now there’s a funny kind of Ballad, Penned by your Boneyard Bards, Of what happened down in Hobart When the surgeons came to town. e coroner’s paper’s white as bone And the ink’s as black as skin And the seal upon the parchment’s Red as blood but not so thin. Trucanini’s final husband, A bloke called Billy Lanne, Died in 1869, The last full-blood Tassie man. If this was Terra Nullius, Then William was No-One. No Diggers could ever count or name All the species that are gone. Old Darwin, when he studied Where Nature had gone wrong, Found dead-ends merely croaked And sang no great swan-song. But the Dinosaurs have left Fossilised Rosetta Stones, So the doctors licked their chops At the thought of Billy’s bones.
Well, one night old Saw-Bones Crowther Sneaked on tip-toes to the Morgue; The Lamplight glints on his case of Knives Beside that laid-out Corpse. Now the Surgeon’s filthy Cuffs Are rolled Back for Steel & Skill: His Scalpel skims the Cadaver’s Scalp, Peels back that Sad Black Skin. Now William’s Face falls like a Mask − Crestfallen, sloughed-off Skin − As Crowther teases out the Skull And slips a White Bloke’s in. Now a new Head fills that Death Mask, Sewn into the Blackfella’s grin; The Bastard wraps the Brain-Pain up In a Piece of old Sealskin. He’ll send it off to London To the Royal bloody Surgeons there, So he tip-toes from the Morgue, Sniffs Reward in the Dawn-Fresh Air.
Skullduggery’s soon discovered (reports our Hobart hack): Examining Our Cadaver’s head, ‘The Face turned round,’ the M.O. said and this new Saw-Bones ‘saw Bones were sticking out the Back.’
So, to stop the pommie Surgeons Getting their bloody filthy hands On the rest of that last Tasmanian they chopped off its feet, and they chopped off its hands, and they threw them away. The cadaver was buried, But secretly next night Royal Society gentlemen Dug it up by their lamplight. Time waits for no Tasmanian: The quick must be quick with the dead. They dissected William’s skeleton (sans feet, sans hands, sans head). Did grave doctors cast their lots To perform their funeral rites? They cut away black flesh that rots, Redeemed the white bone into light. Meanwhile, bobbing off to London, Seal-skin begins to stink. Sailors got shot of it overboard, Flung Billy’s skull in the drink. It’s a very sorry end, To what became of William Lanne: The butchers lost his feet and hands, His head went bobbing far from land
– Do you think one day they’ll find those bones? Will his skull wash up on Tassie’s sands? Can he be buried whole again? … Yeah, yeah, but from Darwin down to Melbourne, the learned doctors said: ‘Let the weak fall by the wayside, for the strong live oﬀ the dead. To stay alive is to survive against the bleakest odds. Embrace your Fate. Know your Place. Accept the Will of God. His cards were always marked, just like the thylacine’s: inevitable extinction’s written into defunct genes.’ Course, it’s a sad, sad end, this dead dead-end, but, when all is said and done, can’t stand in the way of Progress – Thank Christ they’re bleedin’ gawn. We gave them a good shake, but they just could not wake, the Dreamtime had crusted their eyes. So we left them for dead, and strode on ahead, and were blessed with this golden sunrise.
Our shadows are shortening behind us. Our dead are all dead and all gone. They couldn’t come with us, they couldn’t adapt, their bones lie bleached by the sun. It’s dawn in the Lucky Country and it’s time, it’s time to move on. Let the women and the crocs shed tears, these fellas had been just hanging on these last four thousand years. Long time dreamed of falling, Down through seaweed, silver shoal. Up above the light was fading, Waves tumbled, roiled and boiled. Night presses down so heavy. Down here’s just salty sea-bed. Empty sockets see nothing, nothing. I need eyes like I need holes in my head. Teeth shiver-shiver my jaw. No flesh le to pad them all in. e world has ripped up all its Laws, Le us dismembered, dismembered and bearing white grins.
Trucanini (around 1868)
William Lanne, ‘King Billy’ (around 1868)
Note: Trucanini, the last of the full-blood Tasmanian Aborigines, was born on Bruny Island around 1812. After many of her family and tribe were killed or sold into slavery she joined builder-turned-evangelist George Augustus Robinson and his guide the Aboriginal chief Woorady on his journeys of exploration and ‘conciliation.’ During the early 1830s Robinson made contact with every remaining group of Tasmanian natives and carried out rudimentary anthropological inquiries into their customs and rituals, as well as compiling basic vocabularies of their languages. After the failure of the Black Line (1829) to pen the Aborigines in the Tasman Peninsula, in 1834 Robinson led the remaining natives to Flinders Island in the Bass Strait, where he attempted to Christianize them. The ‘National Picture’ showing Robinson and Trucanini ‘bringing in’ the remaining Aborigines is Benjamin Duttereau’s The Conciliation (c.1835). By 1845 there were 150 Aborigines left. Robinson had left Flinders to return to the mainland in 1839; his successors treated the remaining aborigines in their concentration camp appallingly. In 1846 the survivors were settled at Oyster Cove on the d’Entrecasteaux Channel near Hobart where their keepers provided them with insanitary huts and rum. By 1855 there were only sixteen left, including Trucanini. The last man, William Lanne, died in 1869. Trucanini died in 1876.
David Wheatley Northern Divers The northern diver, or great northern loon, is a singularly graceful and beautiful bird. It is a rare visitor to these parts though the only time I’ve seen it has been in Shetland, where it goes by the name ‘da raingös’, as confirmed to me by an old gravedigger on Hugh MacDiarmid’s island of Whalsay. There is a lock-up shed on the eastern bank of the river Hull, however, emblazoned with the name Northern Divers and a black and white avian logo over its doors. I was reminded of this when forced to drop into a Royal Mail sorting office for an errant package. I say ‘forced’, as the postal service now goes to any lengths rather than deliver my post in the morning. As mortgage junk mail flops through my letter box at three in the afternoon, it strikes me I have the perfect solution. Make the post later and later, until it arrives in the middle of the night and then finally... at eight the next morning. I’ll happily lose a day, in other words, if they can just do this in return. Down by the sorting office, the Northern Divers building is looking fairly derelict. Is it still in use? A quick internet search later proves that it is, and what’s this on the company’s photo gallery? A picture of the work force, pants dropped and mooning the camera. That was unexpected. The walk from the sorting office back to my car brings me past the harbourmaster’s office, inside which a silver-haired gent appears hard at work, organising swing bridge openings and estuary dredgings. I think of Frank O’Hara’s ‘To the Harbourmaster’: ‘To /you I offer my hull and the tattered cordage /of my will.’ No man can do more. We sail for Shetland tomorrow.
David Wheatley Guns on the Bus Any man beyond the age of 26 who finds himself on a bus can count himself a failure, said Margaret Thatcher. That 26 is oddly specific, I always thought. Nevertheless, bus journeys are not always pleasant experiences. That house over there, bloke upstairs on bus tells other bloke: that’s where I go when I need a gun. I don’t know that I believe him, and suspect his performance has something to do with the captive audience that we his fellow passengers provide. A student of mine who worked in a bookie’s told me of a man coming in to rob him with what he claimed was a gun under a tea towel. Some grabbing later by a have-a-go hero revealed the weapon to be a banana. I have also heard tell of a bank robber on the Holderness Road who made good his escape by bicycle, perhaps having blown his entire budget on the hold-up weapon. Still, gun crime is rare in Hull, certainly compared with places at the other end of the M62, but the guns are out there somewhere, in a bottom drawer or under a brick in a back garden... I know a bloke who knows a bloke. These things can be arranged. You didn’t hear it from me, that’s all. And this bloke you...? Consider it done.
Carol Rumens Beware this Boy (A Christmas Carol)
There were two, a boy and a girl. He tried to say they were fine children but the words choked. A lie of such magnitude. î‚ťis boy is Ignorance. î‚ťis girl is Want. He woke up, startled. The room was itself, bright; the time on his wrist as it should be. Boxing-Day trade outside. Girls and boys in their smart affordable brands, shopping, texting, playing; time on their side. Beware them both and all of their degree but most of all beware this boy. He shook off the lie. They were fine children.
Aingeal Clare from Wide Country and the Road The sun was late over the hill the morning Adam left the village. Its light was slow to declare a horizon of stony fields, their scurf of halfreaped beetroot and the hedgerows that scarred them. Adam was glad he couldn’t see them – they sickened him – but in other ways he was very far from glad. He knew the dawn was only now coming, but for three desperate hours he’d been crouching inside a mediumsized clock, waiting for the rag-and-bone man’s sultry holler. His discomfort filled his head. When the voice came though, Adam forgot his twisted bones and remembered his excitement and his fear: ‘Rah-boh!’ the man called. ‘Hoy-hoy-hoy!’ he called. ‘Wood-tin-scrap-rah-boh!’ called the rag-and-bone man. Through the clock’s tiny keyhole, Adam could see the villagers purging their rooms of fresh junk: out came a housewife with a warped whisk, out came a man with a split vice, a man with a bandy tongs, out running came a girl with a dead vole. Boggle Dyke took everything, he didn’t discriminate; he took onto his cart the waste of all west Splawshire. When the cart pulled up by Adam’s clock, Boggle’s boy jumped off to lug it up. He tried to pick it up and dropped it. ‘That’s heavy as a tupped sow, that is, Bog,’ said the boy. ‘Give us hand.’ Gruffly Boggle slid off his pony and helped haul it up. The creases on his face were like tree bark cut across with scissors. They were made by salt country winds. ‘Nice bit a furnisher, this,’ he remarked. ‘Aye, but it’s heavy as a tupped sow, it is,’ said the boy again. ‘Nowt wrong with it on the outside,’ said Boggle, scratching his chin. ‘Not like these to chuck us out a thing like this.’ ‘A thing of quality, Bog.’ ‘Aye.’ Boggle stared at the clock and thought about commerce,
accounts, merchantmen, and ledgers of fruitful exchange. He thought about his own trading life, the rag-and-bone songs his father’s fathers sang, the gypsies who took his scrap metal and the country’s dust track maze that he knew blind. ‘Heavy as a tupped sow though,’ repeated the boy. He was green to the rag-and-bone life, but it had quickly tapped in him a gift for reckoning the weight of things just by looking at them. He felt this clock an insult to that gift. ‘Wonder what’s wrong with it?’ Boggle roused himself from his trance. ‘Something wrong with its air on the inside, perhaps,’ he conjectured. ‘Or full of forks, is it?’ ‘I’ll check, Bog,’ said the boy, and he went to work on the keyhole. Adam’s heart tumbled like a beetroot kicked from a bucket. ‘Not now,’ said Boggle. ‘Let’s get away with it before they change their minds.’ Adam waited, trembling. He heard the pony stumble into a trot, and felt his bruises blacken with the jolt, and knew he was safe. In the house above, though, in the house with a pale empty space where a grandmother clock used to stand, a finger twitched an upstairs curtain, and an eye darkened behind a greasy lens. * The village Adam was leaving was Little Rottencoast, the strangest village in Splawshire. It is all gone now, but Adam was the first to go. Its ruins are difficult to find; a ghost train from town might take you there but runs only in the harshest winters to clear ice, untimetabled and nocturnal. Osteoporitic cottages still stand stooped along the three interlocked streets, and the white rock on the scrubby green is still the sharp white jutting rock they called ‘The Tooth’. No human shadow is ever cast now on the green, though some old pennies in the pond were cast by human hands. And there are other signs: the hostelry’s cracked lettering tells us it was The Jawbone. Underneath the bar is a ledger with the family names – Crake, Horelip, Unfriend – and all around the green slouch the
headstones of drowned ducks. We know of Neg Stuckey, Adam’s mother, from records he left at the county hospital. Adam had lived with her and helped her with the pigs. ‘We bided in a house of wood and tin,’ he told one of our interviewers, ‘set up on stilts to keep it out the marsh that always was wet from the trickling tarn upfield.’ The pigs were kept under the house on a mess-pot diet. Twice a year they saw the world, he said: ‘In November they saw it, to eat the dregs of the beetroot harvest, and in August they saw it, to clear briars from the boscage.’ Local men hired Neg Stuckey’s pigs for these purposes, and beetroot was their currency. When she saw them tramping brawnily down the footpath, sacks of beetroot slung over their shoulders, Neg would shout for Adam, who would run out to meet them calling, ‘Eh-up, drakes!’ and ‘Ho, there!’ Happy, then, was he, among the men of the village, asking them about the harvest and telling them about the pigs. He would escort the men upstairs into the house with their heavy sacks, and, leaving them to do the business with his mother, would duck under the house to harness the pigs. ‘Dangerous work it is,’ he told us. ‘Been as pigs has teeth full sharp, and strength, and the fierce temper in their bags.’ As he dodged them and harnessed them, he would mark odd joggling sounds coming from the house over his head; but he ‘nay mind’, he said, for he knew that soon his belly would be full of ‘beetroot pie and pigs’ cheese and steaming soft-boiled leeks.’ Because the villagers never mixed with townsfolk except to barter over beetroot and whatnot, their gene-pool was somewhat abridged. ‘Everyone was cousins,’ explained Adam, ‘and if they wasn’t cousins they was uncles.’ Then he sat chewing on his tongue for a while, ruminating. ‘And if they wasn’t cousins or uncles they was townsfolk.’ The result was a self-replenishing stock of blackhaired, freckled children whose soft, painful teeth fell out when they reached nine years old, never to return. At school they learned three subjects: Farming, Doctoring, and New Testament Greek. ‘And come summer,’ said Adam, ‘when school was done, we clomb the Tooth
on the green, and drew letters on it, and sang with the fieldfares out in the boscage, and cut up dead shrews and bred woodlice. We made bombs out of stickweed and swam in the tarn. We raced goats.’ It sounds, doesn’t it, splendid? But it was all about to change for Adam, who in some future dawn was quaking in his neighbour’s stopped clock. It started with a routine council meeting. Ambrose Quipp was the biggest man in the village, which was like being the mayor, and he belonged to his wife. She had decided that she did not want the same toothless life as the villagers lived to blight her eldest, newly toothless daughter. Tamsin Quipp would have teeth. ‘But how can it be done?’ asked Filchard Gallboy, Council Speaker. All turned towards Mr. Nimble, the schoolmaster and village engineer. ‘With some not inconsiderable intricacy and convolution,’ he said. ‘But can it be done at all?’ cut in another, the forceful tusky Eustace Stout. ‘If we were to contrive,’ said Nimble, ‘some wire contraption of enough dexterity and stealth –’ ‘With cuts of flint!’ shouted a clever woman. ‘So as to be fit rigidly about the upper gum, with each protuberance aligned with the gingival sulcus so that in time –’ But Ambrose stepped forward and laid a loaded fist upon the table. ‘That does not sound like teeth to me,’ he said darkly. ‘It sounds like what I trap rabbits with.’ ‘I’ll take three!’ sang Eustace Stout, ‘To put around my good wife’s cabbage patch!’ ‘Wire and flint will make no joke of my daughter,’ warned Ambrose, who could be a petulant and fearsome and far from complicated man where his reputation lay at stake. Mr. Nimble, who was used to this, checked his watch. ‘I’m afraid our wires are crossed, Mr Quipp. Flint is no good. Your daughter wants teeth, and its teeth she will have, which she will borrow from the toothiest villagers here.’
At this remark confusion touched the audience. ‘We none of us have teeth to give, Mr Nimble!’ shouted the only woman. Nimble sighed the impatient, lonely sigh of one always too far ahead of his company. ‘At Mrs. Stuckey’s,’ he said, ‘there are some very toothsome pigs.’ Ambrose, who had thought of thumping his fist onto the table, instead used it to swing himself over and make straight for Nimble, whose eyes were suddenly bulging and whose neck and face had turned quickly red and blotchy like the feathers of a horny Chinese cockerel. Ambrose lifted Nimble by his collar, which ripped at once because a schoolmaster’s salary cannot always account for the forms of his vanity. Nimble was left sprawled bonily on the floor like a buckled chair, while Ambrose stared mystified at the strip of fabric he was clutching near his face. Now Filchard Gallboy was beside him, advising him to calm down and consider. ‘Of course, Tamsin won’t be the experiment,’ he said. ‘We could try it first on someone else’s child –’ ‘A boy,’ suggested the woman. ‘A boy,’ Filchard agreed. Ambrose, jagged-breathed, considered and digested. ‘Whose boy?’ he said at last, swabbing his brow with Nimble’s collar. ‘What about Stuckey’s boy?’ ventured a voice from the back. ‘He’s half pig already, son of hers.’ Someone laughed and a few applauded, and within a very short time it was settled. Two of the beetrootmen agreed to take the news to Neg Stuckey, with a sack of beetroot to soften her. Satisfied, Ambrose thrust his pipe in his mean, wickedly folded mouth, and left. * Too many delicious things to choose from: beetroot pie, or pigs’ cheese, or steaming soft-boiled leeks? Apple pie or goats’ cheese or spitting fat-fried eggs? Adam had not tasted any of it for such a very long time, not since he broke his last tooth on soup when he was
nine years, two months, and a day. He was delighted with his newly pronged jaw and his old, rich, varied diet. He wanted to try everything, wanted to think that no morsel now was beyond his range. Granted, he had acquired a strange taste for beetroot scurf and briars from the boscage, but he was not concerned. The operation had been painful, and eating too had been a crucifixion for a while. He had cried, in pleasure and agony, before bowls of sickly semolina and mugs of hot tea; but he nay mind, he said, for the salt in his tears came from sausage and bacon, and other things that taste as good as that. When he had raced his last goat of the summer, though, and bred the last of his woodlouse dynasty, his real problems began. ‘Some might say,’ he said, ‘my history began.’ School began. In poor New Testament Greek the other children swore at him freely. They jeered at him and stole his books, and would-not-play with him. He was an outcast. They said he was a rodent, a bloody gnawer. Soon he was just a boy alone in a graveyard, picking at turf with cuts of flint, and daring the dead to rise out of their boredom and drag his willing body to a harsh New Testament hell. While he dug the graveyard turf alone, and whispered dares to the dead through the cracks in the earth that he made, other children’s voices menaced from the playground’s toothless, lisping warzone. Very soon Adam started suffering from too much grasp. He grasped that his status in the village was the lowest, and that his mother’s was the lowest next to him. He grasped that to his friends he was a joke, and to his elders an experiment. He grasped that he was both fatherless and all-too-many-fathered, and started looking for his own face in the faces of the beetrootmen (whose visits were now less and less frequent). He was no longer met by his cousin on the way to school. ‘They’d all just come out from getting their syringes,’ he said. ‘I’d scunged in the back way, not wanting to know them,’ he said, ‘just wanting to get on with the lessons and get out.’ We asked him to explain ‘syringes’.
‘They all lived on syringes,’ he said. ‘They had in them milk, grain, meat, fruit, and alcohol. I think they was made by townsfolk,’ he said. We asked him to clarify ‘scunging’. ‘I scunged in the back way,’ he explained, ‘So as not to have to take abuse from them away from teacher.’ This was when we realised that Adam, after eighty years of suffering and triumph, still had not guessed Mr. Nimble’s terrible role in his story. ‘But they was already finished their syringes,’ he continued. ‘They came out onto the playground asking to smell my lips, and I said no. They smelt them anyway. They said, is that eggs you’ve been eating? I told them yes. Then Quipp’s girl said, “You scungey, egg-eating, pig-tooth-boy.” She hit me and they laughed.’ ‘They laughed out loud.’ ‘They laughed out loud at me.’ Adam’s first interview with us dealt only with his early childhood: his time in Little Rottencoast and his sudden, weird, and dangerous departure. It ended gnomically with four short words: ‘The pigs, they bite’. Details we had to glean for ourselves, in later interviews with surviving villagers and one disgraced dental engineer. It seems that in self-defence he had taken to biting flesh, and in fear and anger had gorily bitten the shoulder of one Tamsin Quipp, who told her father. Later that day, after a short, fist-thumping council, a dental engineer was summoned from town, and Adam’s wayward jaw was wired shut. Which was when he fled. Inside his clock, knotted, foetal Adam was roughly sleeping; then, more roughly, he was awake. He guessed that he had reached the town of Belton Splaw. Through his keyhole, he saw thick white smoke curling from a large stone house, like a stretch of cotton combed out of a rock. He saw gangs of darkskinned foreigners marching into the country carrying sacks of shovels, fruit punnets and finger bandages. He felt himself being lowered from the cart, and heard familiar voices over his head. ‘Heavy as a tupped sow, is this,’ came one.
‘Will you shut up at last,’ came another. ‘It is enough that I’ve been hearing it all the way from village. You get off with you for once. Come back on Thursday and till then keep away from Lass.’ ‘But Bog, she—’ ‘What did I say?’ ‘—’ ‘What’s that?’ ‘Bog.’ Now it was dark inside his clock. Adam had been laid keyholedown on someone’s bit of grass. Two sets of footsteps went away, then slowly one set came deliberately back. Something started to drag him, in slow heaves, away from the pony and towards another place.
Kath McKay Hull and Eastern Counties Herald March 1869 4th 8th 9th
13th 15th 16th 22nd 26th 27th 29th 30th 31st
Eighty sixth annual meeting at the Hull General Infirmary. The Hull election petition withdrawn. Trial of the Beverley election petition commenced. – The case terminated on the 11th when the members, Sir H EDWARDS and Capt. KENNARD, were unseated. Mr CHARLES DICKENS, the eminent novelist, gave ‘readings’ in Hull Fire on board Messrs RAWSON and ROBINSON's steamer Czar, in the Railway Dock. – A man named THWAITES charged with selling horse flesh for beef in Hull. A labourer named McGUINNESS killed on the North Eastern line, opposite Neptune Street. Mr PETTINGELL's plan for a new market submitted to the Property committee. – Shock of an earthquake felt in Hull. Opening of the Fishermen’s Institute CHARLES BROWN, third hand on board the smack Excel, drowned at sea. Conference of Yorkshire Sunday school teachers at Hull. Destructive fire at Messrs NEAL and WOKES' saw yard. – Annual horse show at Roos. Deputation waited on the Property committee with reference to the proposed swimming bath on the Spring Bank Grand bazaar at the Public Rooms in aid of the Spring Bank Sailors' Orphan Home. St Stephen's Working Men’s Industrial Exhibition opened. – Accident at the Park Street railway crossing. A porter named WALDRON much hurt.
Kath McKay After the Silk Stockings As the young draper wrapped up the six pairs of silk stockings in brown paper, and tied the parcel with string, Dickens questioned him. ‘And what it is it you like to do in your spare time?’ Most people liked to talk about themselves. You only needed an opening. ‘Why sir, I like dramatic performances at the theatre very much myself. And the musicals.’ The young man blushed, as if he had given too much away. Dickens was aware of his curiosity when the older man held the stockings up to the light, examining their mesh, and talking about the different grades of silk. What would an old man want with such things, he would be thinking. Was he not long past passion? But the young man was polite and attentive, without that obsequiousness which sometimes afflicted those of the serving classes in the more exclusive London stores. ‘I would have liked to have obtained tickets to see Mr Dickens. I have heard such good things of him. But alas, all the tickets had been sold.’ ‘And what are your favourites, may I ask?’ ‘I love Mr Pickwick, for his bonhomie. My favourite is the trial scene. And I do believe that Mr Dickens was to read from it. I also very much admire his portrayal of villains such as Sikes. And Mrs Gamp, why I have come across such characters myself in my work. Mr Dickens has a most acute insight into people. Still, it cannot be helped. Will that be all sir? I hope everything is to your satisfaction.’ ‘Indeed. Thank you, my young man, most helpful. And you may find a use for these, I trust. Good day.’ He tipped his hat, and marched smartly out of the wood-panelled shop. The young man fingered the ticket in his hand. ‘Admit the bearer. Farewell Reading, Mr Charles Dickens. Assembly Rooms, Hull.’
After Dickens left the silk merchants on Whitefriargate, clutching the parcel he would give to Nelly, he realised that for a few pleasant minutes, he had forgotten about the thing that was eating at his heart: the death of his good friend Tennent. He shivered. And with Tennent only eight years older than him. Such a sad journey he would have to make to London, cutting short his Hull readings. He was enjoying his time here. They were a fine people, with cultured and fashionable strata of society of whom those who did not venture out of London would be unaware. And the people on the street were open and direct. One of the more pleasant aspects of giving readings was the way ordinary working people would come up and shake your hand, say they admired your work and knew it well. Only this morning, a railway labourer with a terrible turn in his eye, but such a pleasant and equable manner as to make you do him the honour of forgetting his affliction, stopped him in the street and praised the writing in Oliver Twist, and hoped that ‘you would be reading from that directly.’ ‘Indeed I am,’ he answered. Dickens breathed in. A tang of sewers and fish, and rabbit and beef, the smell of sweat. A most agreeable afternoon was in store. How he loved to perform. How he would die without it. In his ribs, somewhere under his heart, sat the ache. The agent had already arranged the cancellation of the Friday evening reading, and that Dickens should read in York instead and take the overnight train to London for the funeral. An advert was to be put in the paper; people would receive their money back. No doubt there would be disappointment. He tested his foot on the cobbles. Still it hurt. His foot might never be right again. He dismissed the thought. The readings would set him up. ‘I am two people,’ he had told Dostoevsky once, and there was still truth in the statement. The stage revivified him. Without the stage he would wither and die. He did not want to inform his doctor of his latest symptoms, for his doctor would forbid the readings and prescribe enforced rest. If he lay down he would be maddened with frustration. Far better to keep on while upright. There were things
inside him he did not want to think about. James was dead. Yet another dear friend was dead. The shades were piling up. Every season a funeral. He could not talk to Nelly about it. She would enjoy these fine silk stockings. Boots and the Holly Tree, Sikes and Nancy, and Mrs Gamp: he would keep the same order. Billed as a farewell performance, truly it would be. He doubted whether he would be in Hull again. He could manage without the book for Sikes, so many times had he performed. And each time it felt as if it might be his last. Each time a draught of liquor was needed to perk him up, to revive him after the ordeal of performance. Sometimes he had such a fatigue about him, everything ached. And he would include the food scene from Oliver Twist, especially for the draper. He’d surprise him. Give a good show. And Mrs Gamp – yes, he’d end on her. People loved her, she made them laugh. Good to end on laughter. Tennent was dead. Mrs Gamp, she saw people entering the world, she saw them exiting. A pain on his left side made him start. She, sizing him up now, would not think he would make such a fine corpse. And so, walking down Whitefriargate, in pale sunshine with a fresh breeze off the river, Dickens was preoccupied. When he saw the line of White Friars walking along in front of him, he was not even surprised. Their long white robes, their bare feet, and the rope round their waists: it all seemed familiar and expected. A bell tolled. When he looked again, they were gone. A breeze passed by, and a man bumped into him. ‘Eee, look quick, old gentleman,’ said a rough-faced man, as he skipped off down an alley, surprisingly agile for one so heavy. Dickens was not however surprised to find his pocket book gone, along with the letter he was writing to dear Tennent’s wife, Letitia. No matter. He would see her soon enough. And the money was only money. In his rooms, he turned the telegram over and over again in his hands. Sorry. Regret to inform…Tennent was dead. That night, after the last train left, and the last hansom cab started
out, he fancied he was at the end of the world. This coast was prone to flooding. What if the waters rose and he were never to leave? He slept. *** The thief uses the contents of Dickens’s pocket book to buy his sick wife some rabbit. He sits with her. The child whimpers, and he promises that he will take her down to the quay to gather fish the fishermen throw away. The vicar attends the dying woman. Being a canny man, he notices the letter lying on the side. A letter is unusual in such a house, where there is nothing that is not strictly functional, and when he sees the signature of the inimitable Charles Dickens, the vicar has to force himself to concentrate. ‘Kingdom of Heaven…Everlasting Life,’ he mumbles. They would have been better off spending their money on a doctor. But the poor are ignorant and superstitious, and he has to live. When the woman dies, and he faces the sad eyes of her pale child, it is an easy thing to sweep up the letter into his bag. What would her father want with it? He puts away his bible and snaps his bag shut. ‘There, there dear. She has gone to a better place.’ Pockets his fee, hands a small coin to the child. At home, he places the letter inside his copy of Oliver Twist. Too much a radical for him, Dickens. Of course the vicar had gone to the reading in the Music Hall. He’d enjoyed the drama of the Sikes and Nancy piece. But equality and justice for the poor? Ridiculous. And was Dickens not above making a great deal of money himself? Had he not separated from his wife? And wasn’t he keeping a young mistress? Who was he to lecture them on morality? All the fashionable people of Hull had attended, showing off their jewellery and clothes. A good place to be seen. Still, the man was entertaining. Yet he had not looked well. The vicar had seen that look before, of a man who has seen death coming. He’d be surprised
if Dickens lasted out the year. All this running about and travelling up and down the country didn’t mean death came less quick.
Image: Malcolm Watson
A few days after Dickens left Hull for the last time, for he is to die of a stroke the following year, a small earthquake is felt in the town. Nothing spectacular – plates rattle on dressers, boats are tossed at sea, people drown – the usual story. Tremors are felt near the river, and the letter falls from the vicar’s book, is blown out into the street, and scooped up by a trader as a bookmark. And so the letter begins its journey.
Kath McKay After Abigail Finds the Letter I look over Grand-dad’s shoulder and read: Complete works of Charles Dickens Great storeys such as Great expectations, Dambey and son, the old Curiosity shop Green faux leather bound, embosed spine. Listed as used But Never Read or Opened ‘Look at that,’ says grand-dad. ‘A travesty.’ ‘What’s a travesty?’ I ask him, but he shuts the lap-top and says it’s terrible that some people never read. ‘We read, grand-dad, don’t we?’ ‘Yes, love.’ He makes me Marmite on toast and we get our books out. Next time I go to his flat there is a new bookshelf taking up the whole of one wall in the living room. ‘Now I can dip into them whenever I want to.’ He smiles. My grand-dad taught my mum to read, and she taught me. She says there’s nothing better than lying on the sofa with your shoes off and a good book. My grand-dad says you can learn so much from Dickens, that Dickens could see into people’s souls. My favourite is Oliver Twist, my mum likes Great Expectations, and Grand-dad loves Nicholas Nickleby. He’s made me a bookshelf, and he buys me a book on birthdays and Christmas. When he was young he was in a Readers’ Society and he’d get books through the post, and he’s got all these old Penguins, in dark blue and orange and pink. Says he believes in education and that books open doors. He used to get books from the local library, but then it closed. Now sometimes he can’t make it to the big one in town. It was me who found the letter, tucked at the back of Great Expectations.
When I show him his eyes go all shiny. He says it’s a sign: Dickens speaking to us over the centuries. When he comes back from the new History Centre that’s shaped like a whalebone, he says he’s checked Dickens’s signature, and it’s GENUINE. He gets the letter out and touches it. I touch it as well. He says it’s like touching history, that of course he’ll donate it to a library, but that he just wants to enjoy it for a little while. He puts it in a plastic folder so as not to let the light get at it. Says we should keep it a secret, as otherwise we might get robbed. It’s OK if we keep it for a bit, he says, as we respect it, and because we’re a Dickens family. And we are. Mam works at Pickwick Papers on Beverley Road. And I’m going to do a Dickens project for school. Mr Able told us to pick an historical figure, and see if they have any relevance today. We are to use our imagination and creativity. When I pick Dickens he says ‘Excellent. Perfect.’ Mr Able is always saying ‘perfect.’ ‘He’s an optimist,’ says Mam. I want to be an optimist when I grow up. Mr Able says of course Dickens was an optimist. He keeps telling us that he believes in us, and that he knows we’re as good as anybody else. I know already, my mum says I can do anything. I can be an architect, or a geologist or a forensic scientist, or a swimmer or a runner. Mam says if you look at the world in a different way, you can see it through Dickens’s eyes. So that’s my project. Observation is important. Mr Able says Dickens would ‘heartily agree.’ When people start talking about Dickens they use words like ‘heartily’ and ‘alas.’ So when Mam says I can help her in the shop on a Training Day, Mr Able agrees that it will be an ‘ideal opportunity’ for observation. For my project I’ve already downloaded interesting pieces from the newspaper: Hull Daily Mail May 2012 12 May HULL FOODBANK OPENS On the day when a local MP says that the levels of food poverty in the area are almost Dickensian, a food bank has opened in Hull. Demand for
emergency food packages has increased tenfold in the city over the past six months. 13 May Beverley soup kitchen will feed anyone in need of a free meal. 24 May Comet Staff leave Hull Call Centre as consultation ends. 240 made redundant. In the shop, I note down things. Doritos, big packet £1.29. Tinned tomatoes, own brand 29p. Fresh orange juice £1.00. Milk 62p. When customers come in I imagine what Dickens would have called them. There is a man in a dark green suit, and a long thin face like a horse, and he leans forward as if he is in a great hurry, and talks very fast. I call him Mr Brake. Mam says he’s not well, and that we should be kind to him, but she makes sure I am standing by her when he comes in. Mr Able says I have to ask questions, and has helped me think of some, so I ask Mam about the ‘parallels between Dickens’s society and now’. ‘There’s child slavery in other countries, and poverty here. People on the breadline.’ I ask what the breadline is and she looks sad, like Grand-dad does sometimes, and then she starts talking about the Lottery. If you win the Lottery you can become a millionaire. If I was a millionaire I would give money to all the children. In the morning most people buy a paper or cigarettes. Or scratchcards or a Lottery ticket. Mam knows everyone. That’s because she’s always smiling and happy and people like her. She says ‘Hiya Jeff,’ and ‘That’s 55p.’ She says hello to Lillian, who’s sad because her brother died. ‘Come and have a chat with me,’ Mam says. When Lillian hears of my project she says ‘It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.’ I know this is from A Tale of Two Cities because I have seen the film. Lillian likes Dickens as well. I write a list of what is outside: A kebab shop
Scaffolding Dirty windows. Two men drinking Extra-Strong Lager. The shop is very interesting, with all the different people. Mam says there are Polish, and Iraqi, and Lithuanians and Afghan people. Some people cough and look sad, some people are smiley. Some people take ages to decide. Bert, who Mam says is a kind man, comes in for the paper, and gives me 50p, says get myself some sweets. I tell him I’ll buy a notebook thank you very much, that sweets are not good for my teeth and that Mam only lets me have them at the weekend, and he laughs. Mam says Bert used to work on the docks, shifting great weights like bananas. I am glad Bert shifted bananas. I like bananas. In Dickens’s time they didn’t have bananas. I am writing down all the flavours of the juices, and what is in the Coca Cola fridge. Some of the juices are turquoise, like that stuff that Steve, my step-dad, uses for painting. Sanjeev comes in from the café and starts shouting about the fridge. Says just because it has the Coca Cola logo on it doesn’t mean it belongs to Coca Cola, and that people can’t put anything else in the fridge. He starts talking about the Lottery and how the government is stealing from poor people and Mam says ‘Shush. The customers have got to have hope.’ ‘It’s a trick,’ he says and stomps away. Sanjeev is funny. Then there’s two lads in the shop, and they’re pushing sweets off the counter, and shouting at my mum, and I hear the till bang shut. My mum’s voice gets high. ‘No, I am not serving you cigs. You’re only fourteen.’ ‘You bitch.’ I write this down. ‘And what are you looking at, you stupid cow?’ The two boys, with snarly teeth, are looking at me. Mam shushes me behind the counter. I know she’s nearly crying because I can see her bottom lip moving. But she does that thing where she looks taller and stares at them.
‘There’s the door,’ she says, in a firm voice like my teacher. She looks over as if someone else might come through. And Bert does: ‘Forgot my milk,’ he says, and walks over to the counter. ‘That right, love?’ He counts out change. Bert’s really old, Mam said once, but he’s always looked the same, and he must be strong. The boys are near the back shelf now, and they have a bottle of vodka each. They’re going towards the cigarettes, towards Mam. They look through Bert like they can’t see him, and pull down beer cans. Bert turns his neck to the ceiling. ‘Good job you’ve got the new camera in.’ ‘They say it can even make out the colour of your eyes.’ The boys stop filling their pockets and look up. Their mouths open, and they run at the door, throwing a bottle at Mam. She ducks and it hits the floor and breaks. Vodka spreads over the floor towards the lemonade. Bert helps clean it up. When he leaves, he doesn’t look old. Mam’s shaking, so Steve picks us up. I write it all down. What an exciting day. Later, Mam says we should feel sorry for those kids who are rude to people and treat others badly. ‘Maybe they haven’t got anyone who loves them,’ she says, cuddling me. ‘I am the resurrection and the life,’ I hear on TV as I am falling asleep.
Malcolm Watson A Christmas Carol On Christmas Eve on icy Goddard Avenue, plumb centre on the stencil of the defecating mutt above the yellow legend Pick It Up there sits a frozen turd that’s been bisected by a tyre. Sheets of crumbling plasterboard and twisted MDF and battered window frames in PVC minus their panes of glass all lean against a blackened skip, empty except for soggy ash. A sign that says No Fires! Five playing-cards stuck to the path showing a busted flush – the six, eight, ten and jack of clubs and queen of hearts – under a sheet of fractured ice beneath a pair of trainers hanging from the wires. And just before the Post Office, a plastic wand from someone’s pregnancy-testing kit showing two fine strips of bright cyanic blue. Oh, I send you every blessing, wish you all joy, and hope to God your wishes all come true.
David Wheatley Interview with a Binman Would you say rubbish has always been important to you? Thinking back to the rubbish you grew up with, what first gave you the bug? What qualities do you look for in a rubbish collection? Do you work best in groups or alone? Geoff Nobbs – genius or madman? How do you keep your rubbish fresh? Are you worried it might run out? Do you find it hard to let go of? So what’s next for rubbish? Tell me about some of the rubbish you’re working on now. When can we expect to see this latest rubbish of yours in the shops?
David Wheatley Visitors’ Centre I am passing HMP Hull when I see a sign for ‘Visitors’ Centre’ and go in. As quickly emerges, there is no exhibition area, interactive display or café. I’ve misconstrued. Not that my idea of a visitors’ centre would be such a bad thing, as I explain, showing myself out. A student of mine has worked in the prison, and I ask him whether he has ever seen any violence or other dodgy dealings inside. He drops some hints about complicity and how it gets passed on: if you as a trainee witness an older officer doing something dodgy with a con, do you report him or say nothing? That wouldn’t be for me to say. There is a bar beside the prison called The Sportsman, which features as a watering hole for prison officers in Robert Edric’s Hullbased thrillers. Surely this would cause tension with prisoners’ family members, who would also drink there, I thought. My friend Mike confirms this, but tells me people have been known to get one over on prison officers by reporting them for drink driving when they leave the pub in an overly refreshed condition. The Sportsman is a music venue, and among the bands playing there are The Penetrators, two of whose members are siblings of Hull musician Trevor Bolder, bassist in David Bowie’s Spiders from Mars alongside his fellow Hull guitar legend Mick Ronson. On his Wikipedia page, I learn that while on tour with the ‘Cybernauts’ Trevor Bolder painted his face blue but then discovered the paint was semipermanent and would not come off. ‘Bolder had to sell his car to raise the money needed for a specialist skin peeling process at a Swiss clinic. To this day he still has traces of blue paint behind his left ear.’
David Wheatley Vacuous and Unknown I used to be Irish. No, I take that back, but as my connection to the land of my birth frays, if not entirely severs, I wonder how much longer I am expected to keep up my routine of slouching round the world with my performative gesture, my brogue, and my faggot of useless memories, to paraphrase Louis MacNeice. I’d rather just keep it bottled up. Someone complains in the pub about the government contributing to the Irish bail-out, then begs my pardon, to which I say – fine by me, complain away. I have to pay for it too, after all. When my Irishness does erupt, it can take unexpected forms. Waiting to attend a gig here by my fellow Brayman Dara Ó Briain one evening I saw him prowling the streets and found myself saluting him with a hearty ‘Go n-eirí an bóthar leat anocht, a Dhara!’, to which he replied ‘Go raibh míle maith agat’ (‘good luck’, and ‘thanks very much’). Like the old man in Synge’s e Aran Islands who told the author that there were few rich men in the wide world not studying the Gaelic, Dara will have left, I hope, with a newfound conviction that Irish is the Hullish vernacular of choice. One of Dara’s routines is about national stereotypes, and involves inventing characteristics for nations of which we know nothing. What about Vanuatu, he asks, what are Vanuatans? Vacuous and unknown, comes the reply, from an anonymous Vanuatu-hating audience member. Ah, to be not just ‘Irish’ or ‘White Other’ (as they say on equal opportunities monitoring forms), but ‘Unknown’. The great Darach Ó Catháin spent many years down the road in the more conspicuously Irish Leeds (where he was known as ‘Dudley Kane’), but to judge from a radio documentary about him failed to integrate. Great artist that he was (the best sean-nós singer of all, in Seán Ó Riada’s judgement), he chose not to break cover, remaining camouflaged in the belly of the British beast. Unknown Irishspeakers of Hull, rally to the cause: join me not in exiles’ solidarity but in shared and glorious obscurity. And when Irish ceases to be obscure enough, let us move on to even more richly inscrutable tongues: Quechua, Choctaw, Volapük. Dyuspagrasunki, yakoke, dan olik!
Jane Thomas Charles Dickens and Hull Charles Dickens began his provincial reading tours in 1858 and first visited Hull on 14 September of that year. His reception was so enthusiastic that he was forced to promise to return, which he did in 1869 less than a year before he died. His first reading was at the Assembly Rooms in Jarratt Street, now the New Theatre.1 The Hull News, 18 September, 1858 carried an appreciative report of the event: The visit of this well-known and popular fictionist attracted to the Music Hall, on Tuesday Evening, such a numerous and fashionable audience as we have seldom witnessed. Every part of the hall was well filled long before 8 o’clock, and for some time after Mr Dickens had commenced his reading, the pushing and drumming occasionally heard amongst those who were on the wrong side of the door proved how many were excluded, and how keenly they felt their disappointment. If an enthusiastic greeting from such an audience, and an eager, unflagging attention from first to last, may be accepted as evidence, Mr Dickens’ admirers in Hull are by no means few or indifferent. His CHRISTMAS CAROL was selected for the evening’s entertainment, and was read throughout with a voice and pronunciation so clear and distinct that every word must have been perfectly audible to the most distant corner of the crowded room. It was impossible to overlook either the author’s complete acquaintance with the characters he depicted, or the dramatic skill and success with which he introduced them to his audience. Both the story and the reading proved his indisputable claim to the title which his works have long since earned him – the genial, hearty world-famed master of smiles and tears.
Tickets could be bought from Mr Robert Bowser, Manager of the Assembly Rooms, and from Mr J W Leng of Saville Street, who displayed a plan of the reserved seats. They were priced thus: Reserved Seats Second Seats Orchestra (or Platform)
: 5s : 4s : 1s
The average weekly wage paid to an ordinary agricultural labourer at this time was 11s 8 1/2d. Dickens always stipulated that a certain number of cheaper-priced seats should be made available and was keen to make his readings as inclusive as possible. Dickens was delighted with his reception in Hull and described the occasion, with characteristic hyperbole, in a letter to one of his daughters: The Hull people (not generally considered excitable, even on their own showing) were so enthusiastic that we were obliged to promise to go back there for Two Readings! I have positively resolved not to lengthen out the time of my tour, so we are arranging to drop some small places and substitute Hull again and York again. Arthur (Smith) told you, I suppose, that he had his shirt front and waistcoat torn off last night; he was perfectly enraptured in consequence. Our men got so knocked about that we gave them five shillings apiece on the spot. John passed several minutes upside down against the wall with his head among the peopleâ€™s boots; he came out of the difficulty in an exceedingly tousled condition and with his face much flushed. For all this and their being packed, as you may conceive they would be packed, they settled down the instant I went in and never wavered in the closest attention for an instant. It was a very high room and required a great effort.
The Hull and Yorkshire Times reports that it was nearly eleven years before Dickens visited Hull again, on his final provincial reading tour in 1869. Arrangements were made for two readings on 10th and 12th of March, 1869, with a visit to York scheduled in between on 11th March. The advertisement read: MUSIC HALL, JARRATT ST Messrs Chappell and Co beg to announce that they have made arrangements with MR CHARLES DICKENS for TWO FAREWELL READINGS The only readings Mr Dickens will ever give in Hull On Wednesday evening, March 10, 1869, when he will read his ‘BOOTS AT THE HOLLY TREE INN’, Sikes and Nancy (from ‘OLIVER TWIST’), and Mrs Gamp On Friday evening March 12, 1869, ‘DR MARIGOLD’ and Mr Bob Sawyer’s Party (from ‘PICKWICK’) The second reading was cancelled however as Dickens was called to attend the London funeral of a friend. The paper reports that the readings were disappointing this time around. Bookings were not up to expectations and the response was less enthusiastic than it had been in 1858. It would appear that the fault lay partly with Dickens’ agent who not only raised the ticket prices to 7s, 4s and 1s, but may well have made a mistake in thinking
that Hull could support two nights of Dickens. Tickets were available from Messrs Gough and Davy, then located in Saville Street. A story quoted in the Hull and Yorkshire Times for 8 March, 1941 describes an interesting interchange between Dickens and a draper’s assistant in Whitefriargate. The story is vouched for by a Mr W. G. B. Page, an historian and librarian at the Reckitt Free Library, East Hull at the time and is quoted in Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens: A Life.2 Whilst in Hull, Dickens reputedly called at the shop of a Mr Henry Dixon, draper and hosier, at 28 Whitefriargate and asked to be shown some ladies stockings which may have been intended for the young actress Ellen Ternan, for whom Dickens had left his wife in 1858 and whose birthday he had celebrated in London a few days before arriving in Hull. He was attended by an assistant – Edward S Long – an old friend of Mr Page and, while Dickens was choosing, the following conversation took place: Dickens: ‘What do you do with yourself, young man, of an evening?’ Long: ‘Well, I sometimes go to the theatre if there is a good Shakespearean play on, or dramatic reading same as tonight; but it is by subscription, so I shall not be able to go.’ Dickens: ‘Why, have you read any of Dickens’ books?’ Long: ‘Oh yes, I have read most of Dickens’ books, and can find many characters to fit them.’ Dickens then asked Edward Long which of his books he liked the best. Long named several and was asked if he would like to go to the reading. Dickens took out a visiting card and wrote on it ‘Please admit bearer’. Needless to say, Edward Long was amazed when he turned over the card and discovered the identity of his customer. When he went to his seat at the reading he found that it was on the platform close to the desk from which Dickens delivered his readings. Throughout the evening the novelist turned to see how Edward Long was enjoying himself and, apparently, deliberately chose passages from Long’s favourite books.
The readings were timed to begin at 8.00pm and finish by 10.00pm and the audience were ‘earnestly requested to be seated ten minutes before the commencement of the readings’. The Hull Packet (now the Hull Daily Mail) reported that despite the high admission there was ‘a large and fashionable attendance’ and referred to the general success of the entertainment: How deep and intense is the impression these readings make was evidenced by the breathless and almost painful interest manifested. The story of ‘Boots at the Holly Tree Inn’ and the sayings of the well-known Mrs Gamp deeply interested and highly amused the audience. But the masterpower of Mr Dickens was manifested in his reading of the selection from ‘Oliver Twist’ containing Fagin’s communications to Bill Sykes of Nancy’s delinquencies and the description of the murder scene. It is ironic that the death of his friend prevented Dickens from fulfilling his second engagement because at that time he himself had just over twelve months left to live. The provincial reading tours led to a complete physical breakdown from which he never fully recovered. He died on 9 June, 1870 having been booked to read at the Royal Institution, Albion Street, under the auspices of the Hull Literary and Philosophical Society in the same month.3 Much against his expressed intention, Dickens was forced, once again, to disappoint his enthusiastic Hull admirers.
1 The foundation stone for the Assembly Rooms in Jarratt Street, Kingston Square was laid in 1830. It was known variously as the ‘Public Rooms’, the ‘Music Hall’ and the ‘Assembly Rooms’. In 1891 it was gutted by fire and didn’t re-open until 1893. In 1897 the first motion pictures to be seen in Hull were shown here and in 1919 the building was taken over by Morton’s Pictures Ltd as a cinema, which proved to be an unsuccessful venture and by 1922 the Assembly Rooms were used for dancing and social events, before becoming the property of the theatre syndicate. Sometime before 1937 the front of the building was remodelled. The Georgian pediment was removed and several additions were made including a canopy. By 1939 it was known as the New Theatre, which was itself remodelled and modernised in 1985. Dickens’s reading is
commemorated with a blue plaque. 2 Claire Tomalin (2012), Charles Dickens, A Life (London: Penguin, Viking), pp.377. Tomalin places this incident in March 1869 during Dickens’ second visit to Hull. Long’s failure to secure tickets seems odd given that this second reading was less popular than the one in 1858. Perhaps Dickens was indulging in the old theatre trick of ‘papering’ ie giving out free tickets to ensure a decent audience. 3 The Royal Institution building in Albion Street is still standing, though in a somewhat dilapidated condition
Mary Aherne Hope on the Horizon My father’s family name being Wojciechanski, and my Christian name Beatrycze, the people here could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Bea. So, I called myself Bea, and came to be called Bea. When I first came here I had little or no English, and no money to pay for lessons, so I set about collecting words from signs in shop windows, advertisements on buses and labels on tins and packets of food. I even collected words from the inscriptions on the gravestones in the Western Cemetery through which I walked each day on my way to work. I wrote the words down in my little notebook, looked them up in the battered dictionary my father had given me when I left Poland and repeated them over and over until I could remember them. Some were easy and didn’t cause too much bother like beans, bread, milk. The inscriptions on the gravestones opened a new world to me and phrases like dearly departed; gone, but not forgotten, and shed not for her the bitter tear, added a melancholy tone to my acquisition of the language. Collecting the words was absorbing, entertaining even; for a long time I was as happy as a child collecting seashells on the shore. Conversation was more difficult and didn’t always elicit the response I anticipated. I decided to try out my skills with the woman at the check-out in the Co-op where I bought my bread and milk. ‘I am from Poland,’ I said to her with a bright smile, but she only shrugged her shoulders and narrowed her eyes in suspicion. I tried speaking with my supervisor. ‘You like work?’ I asked her. ‘Is mint, yes?’ It was a word I’d picked up from the next door neighbour’s kid who said it when I gave him a football I’d found in the park. My supervisor pouted her lips, gave a little snort and then said it wasn’t exactly the word she’d use to describe a cleaning job with the council but hey ho. Then she carried on muttering in a disgruntled way but it was impossible to understand what she was saying so I just smiled
and nodded. Her words, I thought, were not so much like the glossy shells my sister and I collected on the beach; they were more like stones rattling about in an old tin bucket. One conversation I learned to master early on was the one about the weather. Everybody here is obsessed with the weather and though it’s mostly grey and rainy (and not at all interesting) it seems to dominate most conversations, providing everyone with the opportunity to complain. When the sun eventually burns through the grey veils of cloud they grumble that it’s too hot. Nodding sagely, shaking heads in desperation, rubbing their hands together, you can tell they enjoy this topic of conversation perhaps because it is safe: it is one thing on which everyone can agree. I had expected a lot of fog in England but I only saw it once on a snowy night in December. It curled in from the river, crept through the streets and cast an enchanted air about this melancholy northern town. ‘A right peasouper,’ Danny the security man said, with obvious relish. I mostly worked nights after the performance when everyone had gone home but I also did a couple of hours on Saturday afternoons after the matinee. I had to clear the aisles and between the rows of seats, and of course clean the toilets too. It wasn’t a particularly fulfilling job but it was the only way I could earn a living here until I could improve my English. They call the theatre the Hull New Theatre even though the building is quite old and was built as the Assembly Rooms in 1830 – I know this from the sign outside the building. Viewed from the park the theatre looks like a Greek temple, its walls and pillars white and smooth as icing; inside it is all plush red velvet like a great cavernous womb. Sometimes I felt quite proud to work there but would have preferred to sing on stage rather than scrub its stinking lavatories. Another plaque on the wall outside says that Charles Dickens gave some readings here, but I was upset to see that the plaque was in very bad condition, all peeling and rusting, so bad you could hardly make out the words – because I know that Dickens was a very important novelist and I had even read some of his books back home
in Poland in my father’s bookshop. But lots of things were broken in this city – abandoned warehouses crumbling by the river and so many houses near where I lived were empty and boarded up. They said it was part of the new regeneration – that’s a word you saw quite a lot on banners and hoardings next to the buildings they were knocking down – and maybe that was true but I’ve seen a lot of poor people on the streets and in the parks, and some of them are still living in those boarded up houses. When I cleaned the theatre I started from the top of the balcony and worked my way down towards the stage. It was always dirtier after matinees and musicals, maybe because more kids came and audiences were bigger for those kinds of shows. On such occasions the theatre held the warmth and breath of bodies crammed together so that when I came to work the air was a fetid mix of sweat, perfume and the fustiness of rain-damp overcoats. People scattered popcorn, drinks cans and ice-cream cartons under the seats. Their mess and carelessness disgusted me but I had to remind myself that their untidiness created work for people like me so I gritted my teeth and got on with the job. What surprised me was the huge number of personal belongings that the audiences left behind. They forgot bags and umbrellas, dropped coins onto the floor, left spectacles, pens and lipstick by washbasins in the toilets. I always read the writing on these objects and mouthed the words to myself as I swept away the debris. Elizabeth II, Specsaver, uni-ball, wonderlash. The variety of carrier bags amazed me too. England seemed to be a nation not so much of shopkeepers but of carrier bags – Tesco, Sainsbury, medium pink bag, large brown bag, old bag, and, my favourite, bag for life. Hope on the horizon was a phrase I picked up from Danny who liked to read out the headlines to me from the newspaper. These were the words of a politician who believed that Hull would be saved by foreign companies building factories here. They needed foreign companies to save them? I was shocked and if that was the case then what was to become of me, my job at the theatre and all
the hopes I had for my future? I imagined hope as a tiny boat bobbing on the horizon trying desperately to find its way through the treacherous murky currents of the Humber. I don’t know if the people were particularly convinced by the politician’s words but we all needed reassurance and I too wanted to believe that there was hope on the horizon. One night, after I’d filled five big black sacks with rubbish and had just about finished tidying up I spotted a book under a seat at the end of Row B. I imagined a student stowing it away carefully at the start of the performance and then absentmindedly walking away without it. Or perhaps some old biddy – a term I learnt from Danny when a coach-load of them arrived from Grimsby to see Ladies’ Night – who, in the crush to leave the theatre at the end of the performance, had forgotten all about it. The book was very beautiful, bound in soft dark green leather with gold lettering and intricate designs on the spine, the edges of each page brushed with gilt. I ran my fingers over the cover, flicked through the silken pages and, breathing in their musty smell, I was instantly transported back to my father’s old bookshop where I had spent so many happy childhood days. Behind me the entrance door creaked open and when I turned round with a start I saw Danny bumbling down the red-carpeted steps towards me. In my confusion I slipped the book back into a spare carrier bag, just to keep it safe. I’m not the kind of person who keeps the things they find. Why would I do that? And besides, I knew if I wanted to do well here I’d have to be careful. I wanted to say something to Danny but my throat was dry, my tongue as stiff as cardboard. I fussed about with the black sacks and felt the colour rising to my cheeks. ‘Hello. Very nice weather we have. Not-bad-for-the-time-of-year,’ I recited mechanically feeling like an idiot. ‘What’s up wi’ you lass? You look like you seen a ghost.’ Danny’s voice is rough but his eyes are gentle and his smile is broad. ‘No-rest-for-the-wicked,’ I say, repeating a phrase my supervisor
loved to use but the mangled words slithered like slugs from my mouth. ‘You don’t sound too well, lass. If I were you I’d be gettin’ off home now. You’ve done enough work for tonight,’ he smiled kindly. I wanted to show him the treasure I’d found. I wanted to tell him about Kraków and my father’s second hand bookshop in Stare Miasto. About the hours I’d spent as a child curled up on the window seat on the top floor reading book after book. To tell him that I hadn’t really wanted to come here but I needed the work, how much it broke my father’s heart the day I left. I wanted to ask him if he got lonely at night sitting in his cubby hole, waiting for night to pass, hoping that nothing terrible would happen. ‘Yes. You get home and have a nice cup of tea, lass. I’ll lock up here.’ Tea. The great British panacea. I rack my brains for something friendly to say but the words slip from my grasp like water through my fingers. So I just smile and nod and hope I’ll be able to hold back my tears until I get home to my tiny bedsit on Chanterlands Avenue. I offer him the box of Maltesers I’d found on Seat 22, Row M and he takes it with a smile then scoops up the black plastic sacks for me and strides away up the theatre steps whistling a tune from Footloose, the show that was on that night. While he takes the rubbish to the bins I change out of my overalls and pull on my coat and outdoor shoes. By the time I get back to the foyer he’s at his post, checking screens, tapping a pen on his desk. ‘You still here?’ he asks cheerfully. Once again my tongue is tied so I just take the book from the bag and show it to him. ‘What’s this then?’ He takes the book from me, riffles through the pages. ‘Great Expectations,’ he reads, ‘by our very own Charles Dickens. Dream on, pet. Dream on,’ he says, but he continues flicking through the pages, reading some of the passages to himself, smiling at the illustrations, just as my father might have done. I long
to talk to him about my father in his bookshop, how he used to read Dickens to me at bedtime, how much I miss my home but going back now would amount to failure. Danny shuts the book with a snap. ‘Lost property,’ he says the words slowly as though speaking to a child or an idiot. ‘Take it to Marjorie and she’ll put it with lost property.’ I nod and turn away but I know I don’t want to let go of the precious book just yet. I will keep it for tonight then hand it in to Marjorie tomorrow where it will take its place alongside all the other unclaimed objects – amongst the forgotten umbrellas, the mislaid scarves, the forlorn spectacles and mismatched gloves. Crossing the little park in Kingston Square I am startled by a fearful man in coarse clothes, with broken shoes and an old rag tied about his head. I almost cry out but then realise it is just the sad homeless man who sleeps there most nights under the canopy of trees. He comes close enough for me to smell his dog-breath and see the wild look in his eye. ‘Lend me some money, can you?’ he barks. Clutching the book tightly to my chest I fumble in my pocket and draw out some coins. ‘Here,’ I say, stretching my palm towards him. His grimy hand snatches the money from mine. ‘I’ll pay you back,’ he says shuffling back to his bench. ‘You’ll see. I’ll pay you back.’ His words echo round the square behind me as I hurry on my way down Albion Street. But I’m thinking, as Danny might say, in your dreams, kid. In your dreams.
Mary Aherne birds she is on the bench again outside the punch in the grey hungover haze of monday morning hooked claws tear ragged crusts from a crumpled bag to thrust into her own slack lips and suckle or toss like maundy coins to a cockered flock chirring and shitting at her unwashed feet like courtiers nodding and bowing they pay homage to their queen rise and flutter, fall off her shopping trolley her thoughts are far away have migrated somewhere south forgotten to return and then suddenly old half-remembered hurts rise to the surface peck at her ravaged cheeks emerge to ruffle feathers she howls her pain fukken â€Ś fukkenâ€Ś the words soar
and shriek like hungry gulls shattering the surface of a drifting town shuffling about its business circle overhead then float discarded into darkened corners settle and nestle like torn-out feathers rotten leaves
Maurice Rutherford Second Thoughts Perhaps there is a positive response I could have made: think of how Dickens walked the paths of London and its waterfront compiling his cartography of lanes and lives in poverty, the griefs and joys of folk whose patois separated them from others of their ilk six streets away; their trades or occupations and the smells that advertised which workplace turned out what. So when in 1858 he came to read in Hull, would he not also walk our wharfs and alleyways? Why, yes, of course! Say that we’ve now reached 1938, Charles Dickens comes again, he takes my arm as we retrace his steps round Sammy’s Point then leave the Humber bank, to explore north along the river Hull that ‘halves the town,’ he notes, ‘to separate these warring smells.’ Sickly molasses, petrochemicals, guano, malt and hops, hides, nauseous fats defining east and, to the west, ripe fruit and cattle markets’ muck combining with cowled smokehouses’ and fishmeal’s pungencies. From Beverley we see a trawler launch
‘High Hopes!’ downstream to berth in Princes Dock for fitting-out across from Lipman’s shop where Wilberforce stands tall. And here we part, he to his audience, I to 2012 where streets, docks, tailor’s shops and monuments – fresh breezes too – stamp Hull as greatly changed. What hasn’t changed, and doubtless never will, is our delight in eponyms: Heep, Scrooge; how mums on rainy days still take a Gamp. It was my pleasure, Sir, this day with you, enriching as the truths faced in your works, books kept with love, and loved ones shared through Scope.
Painting: Nude with Top Hat 2 by Cliff Forshaw
Contributors Mary Aherne is completing a PhD at the University of Hull. She has edited and contributed to a number of anthologies including For the First Time, A Box Full of Aer, Pulse, Hide and Postcards from Hull. She is currently working on a collection of poems and short stories inspired by her time spent as writer-in-residence at Burton Constable Hall. Aingeal Clare has written for e Guardian, e Times Literary Supplement, London Review of Books, and other journals. She recently completed a PhD at the University of York. Cliff Forshaw’s publications include Trans (2005), A Ned Kelly Hymnal (2009), Wake (2010) and Tiger (2011); Vandemonian, is due from Arc in September 2012. He has held residencies in Romania, Tasmania and California, twice been a Hawthornden Writing Fellow, and won the Welsh Academi John Tripp Award. His paintings and drawings have appeared in exhibitions in the UK and USA. He teaches at Hull. Ray French is the author of two novels, All is Is Mine and Going Under. They have been translated into four European languages and Going Under has been optioned as a film in France and adapted for German radio. He is also the author of e Red Jag & other stories and a co-author of Four Fathers. He teaches Creative Writing at the Universities of Hull and Leeds. Kath McKay writes short fiction, poetry, reviews and articles. She has published one novel, one poetry collection, and poetry and stories in magazines and anthologies. She contributed to Hide and Postcards from Hull. She teaches at the University of Hull. Carol Rumens has published a number of collections of poetry, including Blind Spots (Seren, 2008) and De Chirico’s reads (Seren, 2010). Her awards include the Alice Hunt Bartlett Prize (with Thomas McCarthy). Holding Pattern (Blackstaff, 1998), was short-listed for the Belfast City Arts Award. She has published translations, short stories, a novel (Plato Park, Chatto, 1988) and a trio of poetry lectures, Self into Song (Bloodaxe Books/Newcastle University, 2007). She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
Maurice Rutherford, born in 1922 in Hull, spent his working life in the shiprepairing industry on both banks of the Humber. And Saturday is Christmas: New and Selected Poems was published in 2011 by Shoestring Press. A pamphlet, A Flip Side to Philip Larkin, is due from Shoestring in September 2012. Valerie Sanders is Professor of English at the University of Hull, a specialist in Victorian literature, and author of e Tragi-Comedy of Victorian Fatherhood (Cambridge UP, 2009). Jane Thomas is Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Hull. She specialises in the work of Thomas Hardy, late Victorian literature and the visual arts. Her interest in Dickens in Hull was sparked during a five year period working as the Director of Community Education for Hull Truck and Spring Street Theatre during the 1980s. She is the author of two monographs on Thomas Hardy. Malcolm Watson is an artist living in Hull. He was encouraged to continue writing poetry by Philip Larkin while reading for his first degree in English at the University of Hull. He has been widely anthologized and has won prizes in many competitions, including in the National Poetry Competitions of 2006 and 2008. He won first prize in the Basil Bunting Awards 2010, first prize in the Stafford Poetry competition 2011 and first prize in the Cardiff International Poetry Competition 2011. In 2012, Malcom won first prize in the Larkin and East Riding Poetry Competition. David Wheatley is the author of four collections of poetry with Gallery Press: irst (1997), Misery Hill (2000), Mocker (2006), and A Nest on the Waves (2010). He has been awarded the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature and the Vincent Buckley Poetry Prize, and has edited the work of James Clarence Mangan for Gallery Press, and Samuel Beckett’s Selected Poems for Faber. His work features in e Penguin Book of Irish Poetry, and he reviews widely, for e Guardian and other journals.
Acknowledgements All photographs are by Cliff Forshaw. Earlier versions of Cliff Forshaw's ‘Bush Ballads’ appeared online in EnterText 7.2 ‘Human Rights, Human Wrongs’ (Brunel University, 2007) http://people.brunel.ac.uk/~acsrrrm/entertext/issues.htm Designed by Graham Scott at Human Design, Hull. Printed by Wyke Printers, Hull.
Published on Dec 17, 2012