Saturday, 31 July 2010

A Tale of Two Roads

A Northeast Coast Town. That's what they called Hull during the Second World War when they reported the heavy damage it suffered under the Blitz. They didn't want to name it directly, in case the enemy was listening. Few people in Britain outside of Hull knew what they were referring to.

But it stayed standing. It didn't surrender or lay down and die. Today, the city routinely comes bottom of the list: worst schools in the UK, worst quality of life and prospects, highest unemployment. It was once a town rich on fishing and whaling money.

But Hull surprises me. People don't look at me with suspicion. That's what I expected. That was my own prejudice, I'm ashamed to say. Two minutes of conversation and they have all the time in the world for me, two more minutes and they're telling me their life stories.

Malcolm now works at a school for pregnant teenage girls. It was once the School for Fishermen, teaching boys how to work on trawlers in the North Sea. Malcolm, too, used to work in the fishing industry as a carpenter, repairing the ice boxes in deep-sea trawlers, but when the industry collapsed in 1974, he was made redundant. It was only coincidence that he found a job as a caretaker for what used to be the School for Fishermen.

I ask if he misses working on the docks. "Strange as it sounds, yes. I even took a pay cut to keep working there. It was hard work but it kept you fit." Today there's almost no fishing out of the West Hull docks, just a few fish packing warehouses. The docks have been filled in and converted into megastores and shopping centres.

In Purdy's fish warehouse, Dave is filleting the day's catch. He tells me he started working on the docks when he was only 15, and he's been working with fish ever since. I ask if he ever worked on a trawler, "No, it's a different breed of person who can work on a trawler." Out to sea for weeks, sailing as far as Iceland. Ash laughs when I tell him I'm going to East Hull next. "When you go to the East, all you'll be photographing is rats!"

I think of Tarfiyyah, where I photographed fishermen on the border of Western Sahara in 2003. And Newlyn, where I shot a short film about the imminent demise of the largest fishing port in the UK, and I wonder what it is that keeps drawing me back to fishing towns. There is something romantic (naive, I admit) about that close connection to the sea. And the fishermen, risking their lives every time they go to work. There's something inherently dramatic about their stories, something that shakes me out of the safety of my every day life.

Sarah and I visit a working man's club. We stare at a group of around ten men, watching horse racing on the television, drinking pints and exchanging jokes with each other. We don't know how to approach them, what do you say? "Can I photograph you, please? Can you tell me about the East/Wet divide in your city?" How do you start to approach someone like that, someone you have nothing in common with? How do you ask them without reducing them to representations and stereotypes?

But minutes after our awkward introductions and they are as intrigued as we are. They exchange banter with us, one man invites Sarah to sit on his knee. They each have their own stories and memories. One man, who must be in his late eighties, tells me about fighting in World War II. "Are you Sheikh Mohammad?" he jokes, pointing to my beard. "You'd have a lot of money if you were." The man sitting across from him leans over and says to me "You'll have to speak louder, he's nearly as old as god!" And he repeats the joke several times throughout the conversation. "He's nearly as old as god!"

And, of course, everyone talks about sports. The competing rugby teams from East and West Hull. They say when Hull FC played at Wembley in the Challenge Cup Final in 2008, the city was emptied as everyone made their way to London to watch the match. And when Hull's football team was promoted to the Premiership, it genuinely boosted the confidence of a city that had been dragged through the mud and humiliated for decades. I've always thought of football and Rugby as childish distractions. I have little time for England's obsession with the sports. But here, in Hull, it means something else. It's a chance for a city - a city that once had great pride and strength - to say "look, I'm worth something. Don't forget it." You have one chance to restore your own sense of self-worth. That's something I have respect for. Old women cried when Hull went to Wembley, and everyone swore it was a day they would never forget.


Posted via email from taji's posterous

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