In July 2016, Sheila Annis and her daughter Caron Mincke saw an ad for volunteers for Hull UK City of Culture. “We fancied having a go,” she says. “But we didn’t think for a minute we’d be picked.” Nevertheless, they answered it, and soon afterwards, somewhat to their amazement, they were invited to an interview, given uniforms to try on, and photographed. “And then we got an email. We were so shocked. They wanted us. We thought they’d want someone more… professional, someone who knew what they were doing.” How did being chosen make them feel? “Ecstatic,” says Mincke. And it was catching. Now Mincke’s daughter, Leanne Ayre, wanted in, too. “I began to suffer badly from Fear of Missing Out,” she says. “When they went to the KCOM Stadium [home of Hull City football club] to do a lap in their uniforms and hand out flags [part of efforts to promote City of Culture], I was jealous. So I signed on as part of wave two.”
Mincke and Ayre, who are both teachers, have always been keen theatregoers, though as Mincke notes, this wasn’t something she grew up with: “We were a working-class family,” she says. “We went to museums – they were free. But the theatre was too expensive.” Annis, though, worked in a fish and chip shop until her retirement, for which reason it is fair to say that it is on her that the last year has had the most transformative effect. “I’m 75,” she says. “I looked after my children, and helped out with my grandchildren; I looked after my mum, who was in a wheelchair, until she died. I worked in the fish shop for 47 years, until I was 67. So when this came along, I thought: right, I’m going to do something for myself. Someone said to me: ‘You’re doing it for the people of Hull, not yourself,’ which is true, in a way. But oh, it has brought me out of my shell. When I was a child, art was just a picture on a wall. Now I go to the Humber Street Gallery [a new space in Hull’s Fruit Market] every week, and I love it.”
All three of them talk of the opportunities they feel they’ve been given as volunteers. The first of these, and perhaps the most important, was their initial training, which lasted two days. “They told us a lot about Hull,” says Ayre. “But they did it like a pub quiz, with a prize of chip spice [a local delicacy]. And there was a gallery, with lots of pictures, and they asked us what we liked, and what we didn’t like, and we were made to feel that whatever opinions we had, they were valid. It was about people skills, and confidence.”
Once 2017 arrived, however, every day was an opportunity. “We rarely get to volunteer for the same event,” says Mincke. “But that’s great because afterwards, we pool the information, telling each other what’s worth seeing. It’s costing us a fortune.” They have amazed themselves with the things they’ve wanted to try. For instance: opera. “I was a meeter and greeter at a 45-minute taster session Opera North held at the University,” says Ayre. “And I liked it so much, I booked tickets for us to see L’enfant [et les Sortilèges, by Ravel].” What did she think? “I would go again.”
Ask the trio for their City of Culture highlights so far, and the list seems endless. Early on, Ayre warned her grandma off seeing a retrospective by COUM Transmissions, the 70s collective whose members included the performance artist Cosey Fanni Tutti, on the grounds it would feature nudity. But having ignored this advice, Annis found that she liked it: “That was my era, too, you know.” They all went to see the Royal Ballet when the company came to Hull’s magnificently refurbished New theatre (“It was out of this world,” says Mincke), and they all enjoyed Blade, the 28ft rotor blade that arrived in Queen’s Square last January, a temporary artwork made by Siemens, which has a factory in Hull. “It was very controversial at first,” says Ayre. “But it brought the city together. It was a point of pride. There was a lot of disappointment when it left, so it’s great that it’s got planning permission to be installed outside the factory.”
Ayre also picks out Flood, a four-part performance piece (it tells the story of what happens when the world is destroyed, and how those who survive try to make it new again), and a Hull Philharmonic Orchestra rehearsal she attended, while Ayre loved a virtual reality “thing” laid on by an imaginary Korean technology company, Kasang: “And I’m the kind of person who’s only just got a mobile phone.” There’s a brief silence. “Don’t forget Pride,” says Mincke. “We were volunteers for that. Me and mum had our faces painted like polar bears, and Leanne was a fish.” Ayre casts a look in the direction of Annis: “There’s nothing like seeing your grandma dancing in the street with a flowery lanyard tied around her head.”
Will they be deflated when the year comes to an end? “No,” says Leanne. “Because it’s carrying on. We’ve already been asked what we want to do next. There are 2,500 of us, and we’re not going away. People would be disappointed if all this disappeared overnight.” Mincke agrees: “What we need to do now is make sure the next generation gets involved. It’ll be about mentoring, that kind of thing.” Do they believe the City of Culture will leave a lasting legacy? This, after all, is why I am in Hull – to try to find out what effect it has had on the city, and how long these things might endure, if it all. All three nod their heads. “It has brought more money in to the city,” says Annis. “And that has changed it. People used to get off the ferry [from Rotterdam] and go straight to York. Now they’ll stop here for the night, and have a look around.”
If there are more visitors, this is nothing compared to the effect on locals. “For my students, certain things have come to seem more graspable,” says Ayre. “There are more independent businesses, more Hull-centric shops. When we had the food market, you couldn’t move: 20,000 people came.” One of the biggest successes of the festival has been, in their minds, Back to Ours, a series of events designed to spread culture outwards from the city centre, taking over shopping centres, housing estates, schools and gyms. “Black Grape played in front of an Iceland supermarket, and Badly Drawn Boy was at the Freedom Centre on Preston Road,” says Ayre. “And so much has been cheap or even free,” says Annis. “In the summer, people would spend all day with their kiddies playing in the new fountains outside City Hall. They’d bring packed lunches.” City of Culture has, they believe, turned out to be a happy two-way street. What you give, you get back. Hull has shown its citizens a measure of generosity and affection, and as result, they are loving it right back.
The team who run Hull City of Culture call it “The Hull Oh”. What they mean is that when new visitors get off the train at Paragon station, walk through the almost wholly pedestrianised city centre, and arrive in Queen’s Square (home of the Maritime Museum and the newly revamped Ferens Art Gallery), the first thing they say usually begins with an “Oh…”, as in: “Oh, it’s not how I thought it would be”, or: “Oh, it’s really nice.” This isn’t my response (I have a reflexive fondness for all northern cities – and also, I’m on my own). All the same, my spirit soars as I stroll through the old town and down towards the fruit market. Hull was the second most bombed British city during the blitz, and the troubles it has suffered since are well known (thanks to the loss of its fishing industry, it is one of the most deprived cities in the UK). Yet it is so abidingly handsome. As Gavin Stamp has written, no town that has, at its centre, a street called Land of Green Ginger could fail to be interesting. But it also has a lot of great and important buildings. I fall hard for Trinity House (an 18th-century terrace that once housed a guild of mariners), for the gothic minor masterpiece that is Holy Trinity (the parish church that was elevated to Minster status in May) and, above all, for Alan Boyson’s Three Ships, a 60s glass mural on the side of the building, now derelict, that used to house BHS. Very few other cities have so much lovely decorative tile work – there is a trail you can follow – nor so many well-preserved pubs.
But this isn’t a Pevsner guide. Wandering round, the signs of regeneration and (whisper it) gentrification are obvious: a hipster coffee place in a Victorian arcade, a falafel stall in the revamped indoor market, a gin distillery in the fruit market; I meet Sheila Annis and her daughter and granddaughter in a cafe that has been open only a week, and where the soup of the day is truffled celeriac. Somehow, though, all these businesses seem to coexist quite happily with their older neighbours – a feeling that is replicated inside the Ferens Art Gallery, where old men in flat caps mingle with the students who have come to see the Turner prize show, and in the audience at The Last Testament of Lillian Bilocca, Maxine Peake’s extraordinary site-specific play about a group of trawlermen’s wives who, in the 60s, fought for better, safer working conditions for their husbands and sons: on the night I go, the mix of people is brilliant (and a vital factor, I think, in the show’s tear-inducing impact).
There is far too much to see and do in the two days available to me: as it is, in just over 24 hours, I manage to catch two exhibitions (the Turner prize show and an exhibition of photographs by Martin Parr), two plays (Peake’s, staged in Hull’s grade II*-listed Guildhall, and another on a similar theme performed by enthusiastic local players) and two installations (A Hall for Hull, designed by the architects Pezo von Ellrichshausen and the Swiss artist Felice Varini, and the fantastic The City Speaks by Michael Pinsky, in which the words of locals are instantly projected on to the city’s tidal surge barrier). But if I were stuck for ideas, I wouldn’t have to wait long for inspiration. Stand still even for a moment, and inevitably a turquoise-jacketed volunteer will tap you on the shoulder, asking if you need help.
It’s usually all too easy to find naysayers in situations involving contemporary art and urban regeneration, but in Hull they prove to be elusive. I didn’t have this problem when I visited Derry, the first UK City of Culture, four years ago (and where events seemed, somehow, to be floating on the surface of the town, rather than born of its people, its unique history). While people are happy to complain about the thundering road that separates the town from the marina (they were promised a bridge), no one has a bad word to say about City of Culture, from a woman I meet at the Holiday Inn to the man who sells me a sandwich. “What do you think?” I ask a bloke who is standing sceptically (or so I imagine) in front of a huge canvas by the Turner prize nominee Hurvin Anderson at the Ferens. “I think it’s great,” he says. His look suggests I would be weird to think otherwise.
Georgia Allenby, the 25-year-old manager of a sleek new boutique apartment hotel called the Hideout, has lived in Hull all her life (her family owns a property company in the city). “I’ve always loved it,” she says. “I’ve always thought: we’ve got it all. But before, there was always a slight negativity. You’d have an idea, and people would say: it won’t work, no one will come. That’s changed. City of Culture has made people proud. It has given us all a new pair of eyes with which to look at our city. But also, there has been a huge shift in the relationship between the council and private investment. If you suggest something, no matter how unusual, the council’s attitude now is: let’s talk.” Her hotel has capitalised on both these changes. Not only is everything in it locally sourced, from the coffee and tea to the art on the walls (the sofas come from farthest away, and even they’re only from Leeds); the council gave her planning permission for the Japanese-style wooden screens that shield its rooms from the street – in spite of the fact that the building overlooks the Minster. “I don’t believe that would have happened a few years ago,” she says.
She was in Amsterdam with friends last New Year’s Eve. But they all flew home the following day, wanting to see the firework display that opened City of Culture. “It’s been great,” she says. “You can go to the website, and if you’re seeing a friend, there is always something to do now. Instead of staying in, or spending money in other cities, people are out and about here at the weekends.” It’s this that she hopes will be the legacy of 2017. “Next, we need to get more people living in the middle of the city. I’m working on trying to get young, creative people to stay here after they’ve studied here, instead of going to Leeds or London. You can get a cheaper office here, and great broadband.” What else? “It’s flat. I would like it to be more cycle-friendly.”
Others I talk to, perhaps with less of a vested interest, echo what she says. “People are coming to see us,” says Gina Garton who, like Allenby, is Hull born and bred, though as a younger woman she worked away at Pontins and for Thomson Holidays (homesickness drew her back). “From Leeds and Harrogate, and from London, too. That’s never happened before. Of course City of Culture is going to have a legacy. The volunteers are going to switch their allegiance to charity: the idea of helping people out is ingrained now.” Garton, whose day job is with the communications company KCOM (one of Hull’s quirks is that it has no BT landlines; KCOM provides its telecoms, which is why its phone boxes are cream rather than red), has been playing Lillian Bilocca – yes, the same – in Lil, a new play by Val Holmes, written for local, non-professional actors. She also works as a volunteer. She has seen Hull 2017 from every possible angle.
“What has made our play so special is the community cast, and the response from the audience. People have been campaigning for a long time down the Hessle Road [the area most strongly associated with the fishing industry] to keep these stories alive, and now they feel they’ve got a new profile.” Has she had time to consume any of the culture on offer herself this year? “Oh, yes. The opening light show: that was amazing. I cannot express the emotions I felt. First, I was giddy and happy and then, when they started showing people drowning in the trawler tragedies, I would find myself in tears. I saw it three times, and every time, I cried. I went to see The Hypocrite [Richard Bean’s comedy about Sir John Hotham, the governor of Hull at the start of the civil war] at Hull Truck, and the galleries are great, especially Humber Street. The fountains [in Queen’s Square] took a long time, but they’ve changed the atmosphere. There’s a new energy. And everything’s selling out: the ballet, queues round the block for Jersey Boys.” She laughs. “Suddenly, everyone’s an opera fanatic.”
These stories, when I repeat them, come as no surprise to Martin Green, the CEO and director of Hull City of Culture. “I hear them every day,” he says. “This whole thing has been owned by the city; people have grabbed it.” Green, formerly head of ceremonies for London 2012, was appointed in 2014, and from the start, he was determined that the culture his team was going to commission and produce would feel not bolted on to the city, but like part of its very fabric. “My passion is for culture and cities,” he says. “That was my connection to London 2012, and when I heard about this job, I thought: yes, this is it. Take what you have learned to a city that arguably needs it more.” He knew Hull – he had friends there – and he moved to the city immediately. Those he recruited to join him were expected to do the same. “Sixty-five per cent of our staff are from Hull,” he says. “The rest have specific skill sets we couldn’t necessarily find here. But we insisted that those people lived here. To work on a project like this, you need to understand Hull, to join it, to revel in it.”
We talk about legacy. Full data on the economic and social effects of 2017 will only be available next year (this is being collated by an independent unit at Hull University). But deep research conducted in the first three months shows that, during this period, nine out of 10 people in the city attended one cultural event. Other statistics available to him are equally dazzling. Of those who attended The Hypocrite at Hull Truck, 38% had never before been through the theatre’s door. Attendance at the Ferens Arts Gallery is up 400%. According to Expedia, bookings to Hull hotels through their website are up 80%. No wonder, then, that it has already been announced that the organisation set up to deliver Hull UK City of Culture is set to continue as a permanent national arts company based in the city, where it will develop a 20-year legacy plan.
“It will do two things,’ says Green. “It will continue to commission work in Hull. But it will also be a national and international company working in cities in found and outside spaces. We thought: why not be ambitious? We have learned a lot here. We want to share it. The company will collaborate with any city that wants to work with it.” It also hopes to harness the energy of the volunteers. Quite deliberately, the year was not printed on their uniforms: “We were future-proofing this from the outset. To me, the volunteers are as much of a cultural act as the programme itself: an act performed by 2,500 people. We know this civic workforce is capable of so much more. What we’d love to see in the future is training for them into activism, so they can get back into their communities as change-makers.”
All this has the full support of Hull council, which, unlike so many other authorities, has said it will not cut “soft” cultural budgets (its cultural strategy speaks of a £250m legacy plan). Its investment in City of Culture has been vital – and as Green points out, it is interesting to see where and how it spent its cash. “Not for them new buildings, monuments to themselves. They refurbished old buildings. At the Ferens, the money went on something you can’t even see: an environmental control system.”
Green isn’t pious about any of this: why else would he have commissioned theatre’s current darling, James Graham, an alumni of Hull University, to write a play about 2017? (The Culture: A Farce in Two Acts will premiere at Hull Truck next year.) He knows very well that this “artistic evaluation” of City of Culture, about which he won’t know anything at all until he sits down to watch it, could end up a bit W1A (“No, I don’t know if I’ll be in it!” he says). But he is serious about it. The last major commission of 2017, Where Do We Go From Here? by Jason Bruges Studio, will use light and soundscapes to ask “important questions for Hull and the nation”. What kind of place do we want to live in? And what role should culture play in it? It is these matters that will concern him into next year and beyond.
As our conversation comes to an end, I mention briefly that I chose not to ask my interviewees about Brexit (Hull voted 68% in favour of leaving), on the grounds that this didn’t seem fair. In response, he makes an extraordinary statement – one that will, though I don’t know it at the time, preoccupy me for days to come. “We are going through a time when we are having to renegotiate our national identity and our relationship with the world,” he says. “There is no better way to do that than through the thing we are best at, which is our art. I would say personally that Hull voted to leave when it felt unconsidered and unloved. Within 12 months, that position has utterly changed. That would lead me to believe that if the vote were run again, it wouldn’t go the same way. Perhaps Hull says something about what that vote was really about.”