It's the silver jubilee of Philip Larkin's death. Chris Moss visited the poet's adopted home and found what just might be England's nicest city.
Saturday evening. The bar at The Royal, facing the platform where the London train comes in. I thought about March 1955. That was the month Philip Larkin arrived in Hull to take up the post of librarian at the university. He'd stay 30 years; he'd turn down the poet laureate job, he'd never marry, he'd use binoculars to spy on young female students who attended the redbrick institution, he'd die in a pool of booze... and many other myths, half-lies and rumours.
The bar had his 1966 poem 'Friday Night at the Royal Station Hotel' up on the wall. It's classic Larkin, moving from a humdrum ennui - 'A porter reads/An unsold evening paper./ Hours pass,/ And all the salesmen have gone back to Leeds,/ Leaving full ashtrays in the Conference Room' - to a morbid, portentous conclusion: 'Now Night comes on./ Waves fold behind villages.'
Exploring Larkin's haunts
Against my general principle of avoiding literary pilgrimages, I was in the city partly to check out the city's attempts to mark 25 years since the poet's death. I'd started a Larkin-themed walking tour right here at the bar earlier in the day. Well, Larkinesque. Because my guide, Paul Schofield, was no robotic regurgitator of anecdote and the commonplace; he just used Larkin to show me some fabulous old pubs, winding, cobbled streets and lovely architecture in 'The Avenues' district of the city centre, the gloriously grey Humber, the Old Town and new artists' quarter right on its bank, and, finally, a small, suitably gloomy exhibition of Larkinalia on display at the Wilberforce House.
The objects included his bike, long johns, geeky glasses, some jazz records and several photos. As ever Larkin look like Eric Morecambe with depression. Just that morning, the ticket woman told me, she'd been berated for allowing a homage to a racist poet to be installed in the very house where the end of slavery was made possible. What a bore. And, if she'd looked at the other displays, she'd have seen slavery hasn't ended at all.
Over four hours Paul and I had a good, long hike round town and drank up the north sea breezes (though the sea proper is farther away from Hull than Calais is from Dover).
A source of inspiration
Hull was the moody backdrop to several of Larkin's poems but he doesn't often describe it explicitly. 'Here', the opening poem of 'Whitsun Weddings', is a stirring exception: 'And residents from raw estates, brought down/The dead straight miles by stealing flat-faced trolleys,/Push through plate-glass swing doors to their desires -/Cheap suits, red kitchen-ware, sharp shoes, iced lollies...'.
Larkin had been drawn to Hull because it wasn't full of writers or other aspiring pseudo-intelligentsia and was on the margins of England, much ignored, recently bombed, down on its luck.
But if you come to the city in 2010 in search of the poetically grim you may be disappointed. Hull is a bright and airy city full of affable folk - Paul said hello to about 25 people on our walk. Compared to other major cities Hull is joyously empty of people: about 260,000 residents spread over a huge area.
A friendly atmosphere
By day and night I only ever came across great little shops (Steve Mathie's Spin-It record store in the food market is one not to miss), a buzzing cultural life, friendly inns and handsome squares and streets full of energy.
One such place is Princes Avenue. I was at the Royal's bar a second time because I was waiting for an old friend, Mike, to arrive from Burtonwood in Lancashire. It took him aeons - because 'the windscreen wipers were broke' on his cross-country train - but eventually he made it. After a quick ale at the lovely basement pub the Hop and Vine (www.hopandvinehull.co.uk) we went to this smart social thoroughfare to the north-west of the city. We were going to take a taxi but the Hop and Vine's co-owner Janet said she'd run us. A new friend.
We dined out at Brimbles (www.brimblesbistro.com), a smart, small restaurant. We each had succulent pigeon with beetroot mash and a great Rioja before hitting a string of bars with Brimbles owner Dean. Another friend. We were becoming Hullers.
Saturday we went to The Deep, Hull's pretty awesome aquarium, which was full of sharks and kids, unfortunately separated by planes of thick glass. We passed the rest of the day drifting between the pubs Paul had recommended to me: The Minerva, Ye Olde White Hart, The Green Bricks, Ye Olde Black Boy (where Larkin caught jazz gigs), The George Hotel (site of 'the world's smallest window') and the The (new) White Hart. While we didn't quite die in a pool of booze, we tried our best. For moments - and I admit they were tipsy ones in general - I wonderd if Hull wasn't, after all, England's nicest city . That's something its best known literary resident would never have declared, but it seemed somehow apt to toast him for getting me there anyway.
Where to stay
The Townhouse Hull's most stylish hotel, built in 1846, used to be the home of Queen Victoria's personal physician Sir James Anderson. It still has a grand façade of pillars and a stone staircase; after passing through the marble reception, you're shown to one of 27 rooms decorated and styled along clean, modern lines. All rooms have free WiFi, air con, plasma screens DVD players, fridges (with fresh milk), tea and coffee, Ipod docking stations, Jacuzzi style baths and power showers.
Artisan Twenty minutes' taxi ride towards the west gets you to one of Yorkshire's best restaurants. For £50 you dine on a 'gourmet menu' of six exquisite dishes - slow-roast rare breed pork belly, roast rump of Devonshire estate lamb and Belgian white chocolate and raspberry pot with orange curd yoghurt ice cream are three of them - all prepared with dedication by Richard Johns, while his wife Lindsey serves and chats to you at the front. Refined, but very relaxed, it's one for a special treat.