Wednesday, 18 August 2010

The City Compels Me, The Sea Draws Me In

The smell of East Hull was once tanneries, grain, chocolate. The smell of west hull was fish and oil. When the wind would change directions, they would look over to the other side of the river and complain about 'yon side.'

Sarah and I went looking for what was left of East Hull's milling industry. But The British Extraction Co. is empty. A shell of a monument to an impossible staircase. No one would climb it, except kids and adventurers after the mill was closed down. They had to remove the bottom steps to stop anyone else from climbing because they thought it was too dangerous. Behind it, the chimney of an abandoned paint factory. This is the spire to the cathedral of the Extraction Co.

The only grain mill left in Hull looks like a yellow-topped box of cereal. Its name reminds me of a fictional corporation from a cheap conspiracy movie, one in which the unscrupulous grain company begins working on indigenous land and exploiting its workers. Using natives as slaves and devastating the ecology.

The man at the reception tells us we can't take pictures in there without permission from the boss. And the boss is away at the moment. Even when he returns, we're told, the last thing he'll want to do is deal with us. He'll have other things on his mind. It's clear the mill is having some kind of serious trouble, but I can't get exact details. There is another man behind the reception, wearing a white all-in-one suite, the kind you see forensic police wearing when they survey a crime scene. He barely talks, and then only with a certain bitterness and resignation. It's clear he doesn't want to help. The two want o get rid of us, so they shown us samples of what the mill produces, in small clinical jars kept behind the reception, labeled clearly with each grain type and size. They specialise in grits.

After talking to the man behind the reception for around 10 minutes, the man in the forensic suit seems to suddenly give in. Maybe he got bored of sitting there and avoiding questions. He mentions the old Rank Hovis mill, once a landmark in Hull. "I have a few old photographs I could show you," he says, and leads Sarah and I into the factory.

In his office, he keeps an archive of the old mill, the mill where he worked for 30 years and was General Manager before it shut down. "A graduate could have made Manager in five years, but it took me 30 years," he says. He shows us pictures of the equipment, proudly explaining that the entire mill was run by only one engine. I call it a motor at one point, but he quickly corrects me "It was an engine, not a motor." He shows us newspaper clippings about the mill, some going back to just after the Second World War. He even has the original architectural plans from when the mill was renovated. He carefully holds a photograph by its edges, so as not to get his fingerprints on the image. It's a photograph of his father, graduating from a City & Guilds course as a miller. His grandfather, too, was a miller. He has taken on the responsibility of the keeper, the last source of these images, stories and memories. On our way out, he tells us his name is Robin - he had been named after the Kingston Rovers Rugby team mascot, a Robin red breast.

When I hear the name J. Arthur Rank, I think of films. He began as a miller, but that was never important to me. What mattered to me was the logo of a strong man swinging a giant mallet, and the tone that resonated when he hit an enormous golden gong. That logo was the opening of so many films I watched as a child, when I became fascinated by cinema and the symbols it could sustain. Those are my own memories of the Rank name.

Hull, you surprise me. I am embarrassed to say what I expected you to be like, but you are not like that. You welcomed me, you spoke to me when I was too shy and introduced yourself. You opened up to me, and told me stories of your life within minutes of meeting me. You took me at face value, and only once asked me where I was from. You said I was funny, because I would rather take pictures in the war zones of Southern Lebanon than photograph a wedding. Yes, once you asked me "Are you Sheikh Mohammed?" and laughed, but I didn't mind because you made fun of yourself with the same relentlessness. And when I thought I was finished, that I had taken my last photograph but still could not solve your mystery, I found the Blue Lagoon.

I ask Jason about the sea, and he reveals to me a fact that puts everything into place. Suddenly Hull's true character, and her relationship to her people, is clear to me. "I don't know why," he says, "but Hull is a Mecca for scuba diving. More scuba divers are trained in this city than in any other in the UK."

It is irrefutable proof that something is still drawing the people of Hull to the water.

The exhibition opens August 20th, 6pm at the ARC building in Hull

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