The lock gates look as though they are simply staying up out of bloody-mindedness. The timbers are rotten: sinking, inch by inch, into a sucking chocolatey sludge. The rusty metal struts are half hidden behind hanging tapestries of green slime. Anybody wanting to test the path must first wriggle past lethal-looking metal security railings and a tattered curl of barbed wire.
This is St Andrew’s Dock in Hull.
The warehouses and office buildings around me are either boarded up, falling down or both. The graffiti artists have had their fun. Critical response: D-plus. Enthusiastic, if not artful. Metal shutters have been nailed across every door. The floor is a smashed mosaic of broken glass and cracked concrete. It feels like a bomb-site.
This is the landscape that journalists and bloggers and booksellers seem keen to talk to me about. The bleak, rain-lashed spit of land on the far edge of things. The area where Detective Sergeant Aector McAvoy tries to enable the wrongly bereaved to say their final goodbyes. The area that has allowed me to quit my old job as a crime journalist and make a living writing books that have sold all over the world.
I give all kinds of answers. It’s the people. The architecture. The sense of closeness I have with a city I know through the soles of my shoes. But none of these answers seem to fit. So for a moment, I’ll ask you to indulge me. See out through my eyes, if you will. I promise, you’ll come back, but you might not enjoy cold meat buffets as much.
Stand with your back to the devastation and you will see the outline of the Humber Bridge; sharp slashes of charcoal half lost in the low cloud. The sun is trying hard today, spilling a violet, honeyed light onto the cold coffee of the shimmering water. I’m thinking of lavdender-scented nectar. I’m thinking of a sunny day when I was nine. A big stately home somewhere. Air that smelled of damp leaves and toffee apples. Me, sitting inside, sulkily eating a jam sandwich, because a huge bumble bee had spoiled the outdoor picnic. Seeing the man at the nearby table. A world away. Lost in thoughts. Head full of his own intentions and regrets. I can see what would matter to him. What he would set right, if pressure of circumstance were to silence his conscience.
I’m thinking. Imagining. I’m leaning on the grey wall and imagining how many times a body would bounce off the sloping harbour wall below me before it plopped into the water. I’m thinking of this place in its heyday, when colossal trawlers full of ordinary men slipped through these same lock gates heading for rich fishing grounds across terrible seas. Thinking of how the body would look when it bobbed up a week from now at Dutch River near Goole. They always seem to. Bad place to walk your dogs.
I’m remembering. A chat with a proper Hull lass. 70-years-old and never met an ‘o’ she couldn’t pronounce with an ‘ur’. Fruit Pastilles in her handbag in case she bumped into one of the bairns. A sense of self you could bend a horseshoe around. Talking to the writer in between bites of buttered scurn…
Don’t wave, she said, licking butter from a lumpy knuckle. “Never wave. Bad luck if you wave. Bad as carrying your bag or bringing a woman …”
I’m seeing it. Seeing the offending hand nailed to the lock gates. Seeing a sort of pagan justice meted out for a crime half a century old and McAvoy’s big sad face staring down and through his own rippling reflection. And now I’m writing. Scribbling in my notepad like the journalist I used to be. I’m meeting the characters that my brain is spitting out like slides.
Why do I write about Hull? Take a walk by the water. You might just see what I see.
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