Darkness Itself IV

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Driving along the A63, as it merges wit the Clive Sully, the major artery of Kingston-upon-Hull, having passed under the Humber Bridge and continuing to hurtle towards the city centre, I see the Lord Line building, that rotting and abandoned monument, casting its shadow over the city and its estuary. 

Built to serve Hull’s deep sea trawlermen, the Lord Line and its surrounding out-buildings somehow repeatedly avoid demolition and redevelopment – much like the city itself (at least until recently).

Elsewhere in Yorkshire, reminders of a once-proud mining industry slip from view. In Sheffield I’ve heard they turn slag heaps into public parks, ski slopes, golf courses. Geological matter so deeply excavated cannot be put back but it is nonetheless buried, becoming one more layer of the city’s substrate, albeit uneven, the scar tissue of shifting industries.

In Hull, you can’t escape the water. It haunts and mocks. Worked or not, it laps the shore and the tide never changes.


 

Cod, like coal, was to be a pawn in wider political and economic issues, but in the early weeks of 1968 the enemy was atrocious weather. [via]

Many of the 20th century’s mining disasters are well known. Subterranean terrors calcify the public imagination. The darkness of Hull’s oceanic disasters are equally unfathomable and far less visible. The first two months of 1968 in particular are known for the Triple Trawler Tragedy, claiming 60 lives alone. Coastal industries have the unfortunate complication of being at the mercy of “fanged noumena”.

Is not transcendental philosophy a fear of the sea? Something like a dike or a sea-wall?

A longing for the open ocean knows at us, as the land is gnawed by the sea. A dark fluidity at the roots of our nature rebels against the security of terra firma, provoking a wave of anxiety in which we are submerged, until we feel ourselves drowning, with representation draining away. Nihil ulterius. [1]

Some 6000 deaths have been recorded at sea since records began but Hull has prospered as a fishing town long before then. The true numbers are unimaginable.


In the 12th century,  the fishing monks of Meaux Abbey established what was then Wyke-upon-Hull as a site of national important for fishing and trade, leading to its eventual nomination as a King’s Town. The word “Wyke” comes from the Scandinavian vik — meaning ‘port’ — which suggests the region was important for a few hundred years before records began.

Wyke is a name that locals will recognise as belonging to a local Further Education college but perhaps without knowledge of its origins. The same goes for the city’s peculiar accent which still retains the soft vowel “ø.

Hull remains a Viking town, through and through, but it has a tendency to forget itself.

After hundreds of years of gradually increasing prosperity, Hull’s fishing industry succumbed to the Cod Wars of the 20th century — successive wars over fishing territories between the UK and Iceland, of which Iceland won each one successively. Boats and shipsremain a familiar fixture of the city’s edges and rivers but the smell of fish that once clouded the city in its prime is now, for better and for worse, long gone.

How much thought is given to the olfactory consequences of post-industrial decline?


Hull is my hometown, although I didn’t feel at home there when I was a child.

I was afraid of the sea. I viewed its waves in much the same way as I viewed horses — entities with a strength that I cannot trust to be contained for my benefit. 

That began to change when I picked up my first camera. The first picture I took with any seriousness being the back end of a ferry leaving Dover for Calais, as I embarked on a school trip to see the war graves of Flanders. For some reason, I preferred its colours inverted. Aesthetic considerations were present but lacking. The sea has remained my favourite subject ever since — not that I noticed.

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I only realised how central the sea was to my thinking in 2015 when, trawling through my archive, hoping to make a book, I counted hundreds upon hundreds of photographs of it. I had not taken these images with any motive or purpose but here was evidence of a rigorous and repeated (but nonetheless unconscious) looking.

As I thought about these photographs more and more often, I found them to be at odds with all my other work, soaked in what I perceived to be (at worst) useless aestheticism or (at best) outdated romanticism. I loved them but hated what they seemed to represent: nothing –no thought, no agenda, no purpose. And yet still I made them.

As I continued to look, now conscious to my obsession, I felt seawater coursing through my veins. A familial affiliation had surfaced within me. I felt my fear dissipate into a sort of fisherman’s wonder; a wary respect. I discovered in the annals of my family history that this dynamic between fear and wonder had much precedence.

Both sides of my family come from Sunderland, much further up the north-east coast from Hull. My great-great-[…]-grandfather on my mother’s side of the family was the infamous Captain John Humble of the SS Forfarshire, a steamship that had left Hull for Dundee in September 1838 and, following a troubled voyage, hit rocks just off the Farne Islands.

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Of the sixty-two people on board, only nine survived, saved by a lighthouse keeper’s daughter by the name of Grace Darling. Darling’s bravery made her a celebrity in her time and won her the admiration of Queen Victoria herself. You can still visit a museum dedicated to her life in the village of Bamburgh, Northumberland. Unfortunately, Captain Humble and his wife were amongst the dead. He was found posthumously guilty of “culpable negligence”.

My great-grandfather worked on ships too. In a shoebox on a shelf in my grandparent’s cupboard, there are photographs of him in India wearing what looks like a ship’s captain’s uniform. The family’s seafaring tradition was persistent, it seems, but it ultimately ended with him.

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My grandfather was a navigator during the war. He swapped boats for planes but after the war never flew or sailed again, having witnessed too many of his countrymen plummet into the waves below, never to be seen again.

The only time my mother saw him enter the water was when her brother was once swept out to sea by a rip current as a child. My grandfather swam in and saved him but only just. My uncle nonetheless died young, the first of my fractures that would prove too much for my mother’s mind. She now lives alone, a shut-in in the house I grew up in, west of Hull, writing poetry about the sea in a hybrid dialect between Hull and Mackem.

I always liked the word ‘Mackem’. The animosity between Sunderland and its neighbour, Newcastle, seems to have existed forever but my grandfather used to tell me many stories of Mackems and “Tackems” working together, in reference to two cities’ former shipbuilding partnership: Sunderland would make ’em, Newcastle would take ’em.

Any talk of nicknames would, of course, always end with the story of the Monkeyhangers of Middlesbrough, so called because the town once sentenced a monkey to death by hanging. It had been found amongst a shipwreck during the Napoleonic Wars and had been thought to be a French spy.

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When I returned to Hull intermittently in my early 20s, I would trawl my own memories as much as those of other family members. Tasked with caring for my now-invalid mother, I would escape every evening by car to the Humber Bridge with fast food and a pack of cigarettes.

My memories of the bridge are deep-rooted. Indeed, my earliest memory is of standing up in my crib in my parent’s bedroom, alone, craning my neck to see the pulsing red light of its northern arch far off in the distance. New housing developments have since obscured this view and I would have to travel to catch a glimpse of that most hypnotic of local visions.

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Last year, driving from Stockport to Grimsby, I saw the familiar car park where I spent many an hour, known locally as Little Switzerland, from the south side of the river. My ears started to ring, an enormous gap erupting in my knowledge of a place so familiar that I was seeing, in that moment, from a wholly new vantage point. Caught unawares, I almost had to stop the car.


The Humber Bridge is, for me, the epitomy of that sense of fear and wonder. It forbodes and impresses in equal measure.

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There is a great beauty to the place and the bridge’s awe-inspiring size, connecting Humberside to Lincolnshire, the neighbouring county where I have never been — so close but, to my mind, another country — but there is also a darkness that lingers at the back of my mind.

The view of the bridge’s pulsating red light was tainted for me as a child when, a few minutes walk from the family home, a man murdered his wife, stabbing her to death. Before she succumbed to her wounds, the papers said, she crawled across the shared driveway to her neighbor’s back door. They alerted the police and soon after moved away. Both houses remained empty for years. This story fascinated and horrified me.

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The police were able to track the husband with a surprising efficiency and a car chase ensued, one car and dozens of lights careening down the A63, ending at the Humber Bridge where the man crashed into the central reservation and jumped off into the blackened waters of the night below, never to be seen again.

When living in Hull I would read reports of jumpers from the bridge with a strange sense of disbelief. I calculated that, whilst I was sat underneath the bridge smoking and eating my fast food, I will have been present for a number of deaths.

One local newspaper report, published online, included video footage following a jumping, recorded at a date and time when I knew I was loitering under the arches. The video showed the bridge closed in one direction with a flashing blue cordon of a half-dozen emergency vehicles. I remember lifeboats were deployed but I assumed they were running a drill. I remember seeing the lights as they gathered on the bridge from my vantage point below, the revolving blue glow ricocheting off the night.

I never once saw a jumper. No falling shadows. No violent breaks in the surface of the water. Nothing. It were as if they never reached the water at all. Lost to something else, to darkness itself.

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[1] Nick Land, The Thirst for Annihilation: Georges Bataille and Virulent Nihilism (London: Routledge, 1991), 107

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