21 October 2017

Filling the Creative Well with Unexpected Poignancy

Replica of Amy Johnson's Gypsy Moth in Paragon Station
Writers need their creative wells replenishing now and again, actually a lot more than we allow. As I am between novels now is the time to smell the flowers. Or in this case, view the Art.

I was born in Kingston upon Hull and it remains my nearest city. This year good ol’ ’ull carries resplendent the title ‘UK City of Culture’ and, despite the inherent pessimism of its population, what a year it has become.

The 3,000 orange barriers littering the city centre during renovations in the run-up to the New Year, which became an artwork in their own right after the local paper ran a tongue-in-cheek competition for readers to guess how many were in use, soon made way for Blade, the first hand-made turbine blade coming off production at a nearby green energy site. Viewing these blades turning at a distance is one thing; it’s quite another to see one arcing across Queen Victoria Square so double-decker buses could travel beneath one end while pedestrians could touch the other. With that and the light show portraying Hull’s 20th century history across its iconic buildings, 'Culture' soon became a word of optimism to be burnished by everyone.

Apart from the Freedom Festival, part of which was held in Queen’s Gardens on the weekend I attended FantastiCon, I’ve not attended many of the myriad events which have been on offer over the intervening months. So when the shortlisted artworks for The Turner Prize took over several rooms at Feren’s Art Gallery at the same time the Maritime Museum opposite hosted a clutch of the actual JMW Turner’s paintings in Turner and the Whale, a date was set for a visit.

Vote with your feet, the saying goes. We did, right down to exhaustion setting in. The Turner Prize is vaunted, or derided, for being very left field, but the exhibits of the four artists chosen proved thought-provoking. Turner’s paintings of the whaling industry of his day were no romantic renditions, either, despite his impressionistic use of colour. Alongside scrimshaw work, and the cold, hard colours of the Arctic in paintings by working mariners, it carried the same thoughtful pull at my subconscious. We finished the triad at the nearby shopping centre to view The Elephant in the Room, a life-size Bowhead whale suspended from the roof in a confetti of 12,000 fragments of paper. Beneath it, to my surprise, was an exhibition of the most fantastic travel photographs taken by Under 16s.

'A Hall For Hull', outside Hull Minster in Trinity Square
From there it was hot-foot to Holy Trinity Church, now Hull Minster, to view the A Hall For Hull installation - aka ‘the bird feeders’ - though lining up the six metre tall metal cylinders to create the three visual effects proved harder than time allowed.

Then it was down to the Central Library to point and smile over The Tool Appreciation Society, an exhibition of 20th century hand tools, most of which my family seems to be storing in our garage, even down to the ubiquitous St Bruno baccy tin used by men of earlier generations to store bits and pieces. Somehow I can’t see modern electric tools being handed down with the same love and care.
'Fly to Freedom' mosaic birds, and the "glass cases"

It was a short walk to Paragon Railway Station to view both Fly to Freedom, locally made mosaic birds soaring across the walls, and The Train Track and the Basket, images on the arched windows, both of which remember the two million people who, between 1848 and 1914, arrived in Hull by ship and left by rail to continue their journeys to ‘the promised land’ - mostly America via Liverpool. This includes ancestors of my father – who arrived by ship but, for reasons unknown, never left the city.

While I was taking photographs of these exhibits that my eye was drawn to the many varnished glass cases fastened at eye level to the walls. What did they commemorate? Ah, the many who left by train for World War 1 and never returned. And there he was, my grandfather, JA Kammerer, Private, Middlesex Regiment.

There are 21 cases fastened to the entrance walls between the windows of Paragon Station. Each case carries 4 lists; each list 52 names. That’s 4,368 named people who left Hull by train and never returned. My grandfather among them.

Art is never just art. Plaques are never just plaques. I should take time to stand and stare more often.
We all should.

Note: the full-size replica of the Gypsy Moth flown by local woman Amy Johnson in her record-breaking 19-day flight from London to Darwin, Australia, in 1930, and the plaques commemorating those who left Paragon Station for WW1 and did not return, were created by inmates of Hull Prison.


  1. Wish I could've joined you on this visit to what was the city of my birth, Linda. But distance is now an obstacle. Thanks for this detailed and interesting account.