Journey to Hull and Back
My Blog
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My day started with the sight of this on my breakfast table.  Three slices of slightly sweating butter cut into chunky triangles and a glimpse of the cooked breakfast that was to arrive in a tiny printed photo.  It felt dizzying as I looked down, as if I was seeing distantly into a moment that was coming towards me through the solid table top.  There seemed to be layers of reality.  The oversized butter, breaking into sweat, laid out on a planet-sized plate which was virtually eclipsing the future.  It had been a strange night.  I blamed my odd thoughts on the age of the hotel, that it was a reservoir of odd thoughts and had been so for many years, and for the fact that on every landing and each turn of the many corridors there was a framed portrait of some old gentleman in a gilt picture frame.
This man was in the lounge...
And this man was in the stairwell outside my bedroom.  I took this photo to show just how much crazy wallpaper there was surrounding him, and what an extraordinary existence this man now has, spending his days in the stilted, airless, overly warm confines of a hotel stairwell, with no one to look at, other than the guests who refused to look him in the eye.
As I left the breakfast room I looked across to another table set for one.  I could have sat there.  It faced a different direction to the one I had sat at, and would have pointed me into a different direction for the rest of the day.
On the street outside I noticed all the entertainment I had missed the night before.  A band had apparently hung a washboard over the neck of a dead man, sat him behind a drum set, and then taunted him by playing their instruments.
A few hours later I was in Hull.  Hull is dominated by triangles.  The road layout in the centre has a triangular formation, and the building that houses the maritime museum is also a triangle.  It’s not my favourite geometric form.  It is all points and no centre.  At the museum I was pleased to see an oil painting of William Scoresby, whaling captain, having previously read his journals of Arctic sailing.
He looks like a very lovely fellow, with a mischievous look in his eyes, a compassionate expression, and a head of curly soft grey hair that no doubt kept him warm on the deck of his Arctic whaler.  I think he and I would be good friends, if only the kind of time jump promised by my morning butter and fry up could happen.
But I don’t think I would be friends with those other men hanging in the gilt frames back in the hotel.  And I would be wary of this man, too, whose photo was positioned in the museum wedged between the scrimshaw carved teeth of a sperm whale.
Unlike Scoresby, whose soft hair frames his head, this man wears his as a beard, and shows the severity of the age he lived in.  The two sperm whale teeth seem to measure his soul, like a finely tooled crab-clawed gauge.
On the subject of scrimshaw, I was under the impression that sailors used the ivory of whales and walruses to sketch out and carve the female sirens that haunted their dreams.  Exotic mermaids or scantily clad maidens, as an endorsed form of proto-pornography that they could carry around and set on candle shelves by their hammocks.  But I found myself corrected at the museum by these two examples:
Rather than being the stuff that dreams are made of, it seems these two frightening women might have driven their sailors off to sea.  Sirens indeed!  
By the way, in a nearby display case, a stuffed polar bear had been named by local schoolchildren...
I saw this man, peering through curtains of whale baleen...
In one of the cases I saw an account of the ‘Diana’, shipwrecked on Arctic rocks and a crew preparing to over-winter, written with the knowledge that it was likely they may not survive...
The journal was written by Charles Smith, ship’s doctor and proxy captain after the original captain had died.  It contained an outline of a coastline and, at the bottom of the page, a sketch of a medussa jellyfish.  It seemed the entry had been written in better times, but then at the bottom of the page I read the following: “the floes behind and around us - should the wind set in front then most probably all these ships would be lost.”
I was struck by the calmness of mind, written in pencil because no doubt ink would have frozen, and struck too by the intricacy of the watercolour wash which seemed as though it was not yet entirely dry.  The artifact had outlived Dr Charles Smith and his moment of mortal precariousness, and become a time traveller - as immediate today as the day it was written.
Back at the hotel, I ignored the gentlemen in the frames who stared at me as I climbed the stairs.  I considered sitting at the alternative breakfast table in the morning, and seeing where it might lead me.
Then, on the back of my bedroom door, I found the clue I’d been looking for...