Mark Jones samples the delights of the UK’s version of The City by the Bay.
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Hull has been named UK city of culture for 2017. That should mean you can wear Paisley scarves and petrol blue raincoats (as I was) with metrosexual abandon. But a gruffer voice in my head told me I was now in a town of trawler men and rugby league players, where John Prescott bashes hecklers and the main arts organisation is called The Hull Truck Theatre.

Right. Let’s tackle this thing head on – a bit like a Hull KR prop forward.

San Francisco is one of the most culturally significant places on the planet. When the Beats got tired of New York’s Greenwich Village and cold, they settled there. They were supplanted by hippies and for a few hazy years in the mid 1960s, San Francisco was where it was at (man). The names are globally famous: the Fillmore West concert hall, Haight Ashbury, the City Lights bookstore. In the 1970s, liberal and radical SF spawned the gay liberation movement, celebrated and marked in the movie Milk and the book/TV series Tales of the City. And it’s maybe that culture of free-thinking, celebrating the unorthodox, that fed the internet start-up culture. It’s the least hidebound place there is.

Think of a San Francisco song and you think of “If You’re Going to San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair)”. Think of Hull songs and you go straight to the Housemartins’ 1982 New Wave album London 0, Hull 4. Iconic song: “We’re Not Deep”, a love song to the joys of youth unemployment with it’s quintessentially Hull chorus “And I know what you think/What you think about me…” Video: four young men with spots driving around Hull in a camper van.

But here’s the thing. While Scott MacKenzie and half of the stuff churned out of the West Coast now sounds too dated for words, “We’re Not Deep” is still fresh as a daisy. And musical pioneers? They don’t get much more pioneering than the Hull band Throbbing Gristle. The Wikipedia entry describes their music as “industrial, experimental, electronic, dark ambient”. Most of us would use a different word: unlistenable. But the Gristles were incredibly influential, inspiring the likes of David Bowie and Marilyn Manson. Interestingly, the lead singer Genesis P. Orridge, then known as simple Neil Megson, was awarded a poetry prize by Philip Larkin himself, who told The Times he was the most promising young poet in Britain. “Which, of course,” says Orridge, “immediately stopped me writing poetry”. A very Hull move, that.

Which brings us on neatly to Philip Larkin. You can’t miss Larkin when you come to Hull. His statue is on the concourse as you get off the train: a tall, bespectacled man in a raincoat who is sometimes mistaken for Eric Morecambe. He is by common consent one of the half dozen greatest poets England produced in the 20th century. And despite his Oxford education, he chose to live in Hull from his early 30s until his death in 1985. He was a librarian at Hull University but in all the books and articles, his work in that field comes a poor third to a) his poetry b) his tangled love life and c) the controversial and often unsavoury views expressed in his letters.

We looked at his library and drove around to his last home at 105 Newlands Park. The road is like thousands of genteel, leafy avenues that cluster around our universities and posh schools. Larkin described it as an “ugly little house”, which is a bit mean.

Larkin was a bit mean, in truth. But compare him to San Francisco’s bard, Allen Ginsberg – a much worse poet. There’s something refreshing, English and Hull-ish about his ordinariness and dislike of publicity, honours and fuss.

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