Hull: City of (Literary) Culture
While staying in Yorkshire last November, I ventured into Hull one evening to attend a reading. It was being promoted by the same great people at Head In A Book who hosted me for a Boy About Town event, and at the same venue: the James Reckitt Reading Room at the Hull Central Library. Primarily I went there just to show support and enjoy an evening out, but I was assured I would appreciate the local author on offer: Russ Litten.
I did more than that. Russ, it transpired, had once been an avid Jamming! reader. We’ve also shared an editor over at William Heinemann, me for my last two books, he for his debut novel Scream If You Want To Go Faster. So we had reasons to bond. But I had to share him. Russ was clearly something of a local hero: the room was absolutely packed.
You see, there’s something interesting going on in Hull. Earlier that day, around eight in the morning, Hull had been selected as UK’s second ever City of Culture, an honor the City will cary during the year 2017. Alright, so UK City of Culture might not have quite the same cachet it as European Capital of Culture, and I realize some you might be hard put to name the debut designee, UK City of Culture 2013 (it’s Derry-Londonderry). But when you get as much shit for being Hull as Hull does, and you’re selected to represent your country, it does actually seem, for a moment, that you’re no longer the butt of other city’s jokes and that you’ve actually been recognized for your merits.
And among those merits, and apart from the excellent Museum Quarter, and the Deep, and the Premiership football, and the Avenues, and the maritime and political history, and the music, and the theatre, is Hull’s literary scene. And by that I don’t just mean its monuments to Philip Larkin. On the night I went into town, the Humber Mouth Literature Festival had just wound up after a ten-day run; the Russ Litten reading/ Q&A was something of an added bonus for a city that can’t seem to get enough of the written word, and what with the City of Culture Award and the free wine on offer, it was a chance to celebrate. Hence, perhaps, the packed room.
That said, Litten is among a number of writers who inadvertently play up Hull’s poor reputation by focusing on its underbelly. His fellow Humberside authors Nick Quantril and Nick Triplow hone in on crime and the people who commit it (I recommend the latter’s Frank’s Wild Years, set in South London and Hull); Litten lives it to some extent, employed as Writer In Residence at Hull Prison, teaching poetry to those who are not easily pre-disposed towards the form. And while Scream If You Want To Go Faster is not specifically a crime novel, his follow-up, Swear Down, most certainly fits that genre. It’s a simple premise: two people confess to the same murder. Rather than a Whodunnit?, it’s a Whodidntdoit? And a Whydidntsomeonethinkofthatbefore?
At the Hull Central Library, Russ took questions from local playwright Dave Windass, read some of his poetry, and additionally previewed his next novelprogress, based on an equally simple and apparently untested premise. Instead of a prisoner gone missing, there’s one too many people at the prison roll call; a ghost has broken in, and he’s determined to do his time. Need I say more for you to insist Litten hurries up and finishes the novel so we can all read it?
I completed Scream If You Want To Go Faster in early December. Meant to write about it back then. It took reading Michael Chabon’s latest blockbuster Telegraph Avenue, over the holidays, to finally put pen to paper. You see, Chabon’s book has a good plot (black-white couple of dudes running a second-hand record store; their black-white wives run a mid-wife service) and some potentially interesting characters (old kung fu movie veterans, dodgy politicians, NFL star turned hip-hop mogul) and it’s set in an interesting part of a storied city (Oakland, CA) with gentrification one its driving forces alongside race. And yet it is the most horrendously pretentious, overly written book I have ever had the misfortunate to slog through. For some reason, I persisted to the very end, and when I found myself laughing for the first time on the final few pages, I realized just how desperately humorless the process had otherwise been and that it was worthy of a rarely negative review.
And then I realized that Scream If You Want To Go Faster is everything that Telegraph Avenue is not – even though they share that basic premise of urban fiction – and that I should come not to bury Michael Chabon, but to praise Russ Litten instead. Scream, a series of inter-locking vignettes set over the final three-day weekend of the annual Hull Fair, is fast-paced, it’s action-packed, its characters come alive from the first page, and the plot twists, and their subsequent turns and limbo-dances and evasive tactics, are continually surprising. Whereas Telegraph Avenue pretty much, well, telegraphed its conclusions, Scream’s finale caught me totally by surprise. Definitely did not see that one coming.
So is Litten a better writer than Chabon? No, he is not – and Chabon lets you know as much with his every single sentence, including the one that infamously runs for eleven un-interrupted pages in the midst of the book. But in overemphasizing his literary brilliance – and why? Has he not received enough acclaim over the years? – Chabon has sadly sucked the soul out of his latest novel; sucked the funk and the R&B and the B-3/Leslie jazz sounds out of it too. For a musical novel, there’s no rhythm, no melody, no chorus. Just endless long words, unnecessary adverbs and adjectives and over-elaborate sentences getting in the way of a potentially strong story, gradually wearing down whatever patience the reader might have for a set of characters who offer promise but never realize it. Litten’s novel barely touches on music, other than the cacophony of the club night out, and his characters are equally hard to love, but in his case it’s precisely because they’re so true to (the low) life. Oh, and there’s very little by way of colorful prose because it’s really not that type of book. But it’s got rhythm alright. Scream fairly dances.
Respect. It’s a word Brian hears a lot these days, mostly from the youth, kids like their Paul and their Jennifer and all their daft mates and the kids he pelts out of here. And they hear it off the telly and on DVDs and records and out of the mouths of every half-baked plazzy gangster who sits in the back room of the pub bragging about their petty little moves and dealings.
Respect, thinks Brian.
They don’t know the fuckin’ meaning of the word.
Scream may not have done Hull any favors in its portrayal of the City (“It’s a shame al-Qaeda never ventured this far north, thinks Denise, we could do with a few strategically placed bombs up here”), but ironically, it’s because of writers like Litten, and Quantrill, and Triplow, and Shane Rhodes’ Head In A Book series, and his Wrecking Ball Press, that Hull is developing a reputation as a hotbed of literary prowess, a City of Culture. Congratulations to Hull on its impending twelve months of fame. Now get out there and support its rising literary icons.
To see us out, I’ll share, with his permission, one of the poems Russ Litten read from back in Hull that night, which says an awful lot about him and his work, and in so very few words that Michael Chabon would surely read it and weep.
Every Monday morning I stand up
before twenty or so disinterested faces
slouched around library tables
and tell them
about the possibilities of poetry
and the prospect of escape.
It’s a poor joke, and some mornings
it goes down less well
Like this morning,
one sullen soul flinging rancour
from the back of the room:
What’s that for then?
Yeah, but what do you get at the end of it?
Do you get paid?
So what use is that to me?
And I said
(quoting Scargill quoting his Dad)
“ … the quality of your life depends upon
your ability to manipulate words …”
Does it fuck, he