This is part of a publicity statement I’ve recently read on behalf (of all things) a café:
Everywhere we go we find a sameness which is nauseating to the sensitive mind. The little village store, with its essential individuality has gone and its place has been taken by the multiple shop a shallow and vulgar mockery, where ‘service’ is a catch-word and cellophane mistaken for wholesomeness. Where tinned foods take the place of rich farm produce and quack medicines the place of brimstone and treacle. Life today lacks reality.*
‘Life today lacks reality.’ What a contemporary lament! Everyone knows that tomatoes today aren’t what they used to be. But this particular lament comes from 1936, advertising a famous Hull café called Jenny’s which became the meeting place of something called the Hull Art Club. Even in the heyday of Bakelite people were bemoaning the loss of authenticity, the plasticisation of everything. Perhaps only art could stem the tide.
I found this vignette of a forgotten facet of Hull interesting inasmuch as Hull never quite acquired its own cadre of artists. In those, and in somewhat earlier days, all sorts of places were becoming identified with a rejection of the triumph of industrialisation, what Jenny’s café would call perhaps the cellophane society. Up the coast from Hull was the Staithes Group of artists who celebrated rural life (in a kind of murky brown sort of way) and then in contrast in Cornwall was the sun-blessed brilliantine ex-Londoners, the St. Ives Group, formulating a less realist but inner realist vision of landscape. There had been the Scottish Colourists (the Glasgow Boys) discovering sunshine in the grim North. In London, there was the Camden Town Group, who perhaps were like the Staithes Group when they were at home. For some reason, there didn’t, so far as I know, emerge a Hull Group. Of course, this is not to deny Hull its separate history of poetry, from Andrew Marvell to the Hull Group of Poets. For most people these days the only ’Hull’ poet is Phillip Larkin but the sixties and seventies saw many others coalescing around some form of Hull identity. This identity was to some extent based on the city’s pride in its isolation, the ‘fishing village at the end of the line.’
I recently watched a 1960s film, available for free on the BFI website, charting the early days of the folk revivalist band, the Hull-based Watersons. It captures in unforgiving monochrome a city in a prolonged post-war recovery, a recovery which for many struggled to succeed. Hull still has one or two city centre car parks based on World War II bombsites. There are some gleaming office block shells speaking of regeneration, but these (I imagine) provide more lucrative locations for the out-of-towners who dwell in the salubrious suburbs which dominate the west of the city (outwith its boundary) and whose daily escape to their ex-urban lives takes place on roads passing through depressed inner city streets.
As evidenced in so many places, artists can lead regeneration by taking over old buildings and turning them into studios and galleries, very often at little or no public expense. But once developers and landlords prick up their ears, these endeavours can be squeezed out by high rents and other exorbitant costs. What may have temporarily have been an art district becomes an ‘arts quarter’ full of the faux aesthetic which is considered chic. None of this would have gone down well with the proprietors of Jenny’s café. I suspect they would have had a hearty laugh over the concept of ‘levelling up’ - a concept bereft of any cultural context.
*In “Allanson Hick: Architect and Artist 1898-1975,” complied by Arthur Credland, pub. by Hull City Council and Hutton Press, 1991.