Creative Writing Interpretation of a High Street Sound Walk in Hull

Bright Velvet Wander / Breet Velvit Ake

A warm, soft tone like voices held in harmony or the wind across moors or heights builds
and envelops us in brightness, ringing like air made of glass…

[Woman]

This breet velvit ake catches me
The sun creaking tiles
Timbers settling.

The warm tone carries on by like a train passing, passing, passing. Only random thuds
and the patter of raindrops can tug us out of the rapture and back to the street,
here, now.

[Jez riley French]

(Time stamp: 01:52)

(A calm, soothing voice with a local accent) There is a connection between the sleek pitch and gold Burton’s building and the one constructed by the white friars nearby, who gave this street its name. (The tone waits) The architects of both designed them knowing how stone, space and sound combine to form our sense of place. (A nesting gull chick peeps, something taps and the bright tone resurfaces, weaving in and out) There is another, of course. One building is long gone – the peeping continues – handed over to those with power during the Reformation of the 1500s, the other now in limbo – vehicles pass and something that needs oiling squeaks – owned but unused, unmaintained, handed to the reformation of the online.

The bright tone sustains itself and the plaintive peeping doesn’t let up.

This walk invites you to listen anew to the constant music of this place. (A gull squawks and others cry in the background) To sounds we overlook, ignore or that sit outside of our attention. (The gull chick peeps and an adult gull chatters) It’s a meander, with no set path to follow, reflecting on the street – a gull mews – and the nature of listening itself, its potential and its power.

While the tone fades, the peeping and chattering go on.

Take your time, explore, rebuild. We are always sensing combinations that will never repeat.

The peeping and chattering alternate. Other gulls cry in the distance.
A wood pigeon coos. Another round of crying from the gulls.

 A distant thud and then a squeak during what follows mark the return of human activity.

[Second woman]

You say I am mysterious
Let me explain myself
In a land of oranges
I am faithful to apples.

Voices and the wash of traffic faded in during the above. Now a car horn hoots.

[Jez riley French]

Those words, by the pioneering Hull-born poet, writer and philosopher Elsa Gidlow, who left the city in 1906 for Canada, could be a metaphor for this city of connections to social progress, and for a street that is pivotal in its history. (The peeping continues) For Elsa, Whitefriargate was still a street of old trades, emerging slowly from poverty, central to the business of the docks that surrounded it. A street on which to negotiate passage away from the city, as Elsa’s family did, to get your best shoes fitted – a vehicle roars into the distance – and, later, to take tea at Lyons’ Tea Room, or coffee at Kardomah, or lunch in Marks & Spencer’s. To browse in shop windows selling a new view of the world.

The roar takes a while to subside but eventually does.

Elsa was the first openly lesbian writer to publish an autobiography in her own name. And whilst it is an act of the imagination, other important examples of female empowerment that had taken place in the city by the time she was growing up here – the peeping goes on – perhaps planted a seed of radical progress in Elsa.

Close to Whitefriargate could be found the premises of one of England’s most famous dressmakers and female entrepreneurs, Emily Clapham – a motorbike revs and changes gear – or those of the suffragist, and Hull’s first female GP, Mary Murdoch – a gull cries in the distance – and where the first female photographer in Britain to have her own professional portrait studio, Ann Cooke, established her business. Earlier still, in 1795 – another gull cries, nearer to, as if answering – Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, a founding text of feminist philosophy, and a remarkable writer across many forms, having spent her formative years in Beverley – the ambient tone builds – returned and searched for several weeks on the streets and docks for a cargo ship to take her and her infant daughter to Sweden as she attempted to maintain a relationship with her unfaithful lover. Her letters from that time cast a powerful image of a mind shifting between romantic turmoil and a determination to be free of the confines of patriarchal society.

By now, the ambient tone has returned to its former levels. A lone gull squawks.

‘My friend’ – the tone modulates –  ‘I have dearly paid for one conviction. Love’ – gulls chatter in the background –  ‘in some minds, is an affair of sentiment, arising from the same delicacy of perception (or taste) as renders them alive to the beauties of nature and poetry’ – gulls cry – ‘alive to the charms of those evanescent graces that are, as it were, impalpable.’ (The tone drops out) ‘They must be felt, they cannot be described.’ (The tone recovers) ‘Yes, I shall be happy. This heart is worthy of the bliss its feelings anticipate…’

The tone continues.

As the commercial centre expanded, by the second half of the 20th century, Whitefriargate had become an edge, a path between the new and the old town, a place for the subcultures of music, fashion and art to call theirs.

The tone maintains a steady pitch as gulls cry in the background.

But what about the sound? How do we begin to think of our streets as places we can choose to listen to? All it takes is a slight shift in one’s attention and streets, spaces, transform. (Gulls squawk and chatter) Voices mix, accents layer on top of each other. Words appear – a chick peeps – and fall away. (The tone fades) Phrases plucked from important and unimportant conversations…

Gulls continue in the background.
In the foreground, raindrops patter.

[Second woman]

Water though
slipped
reminds me.

Drops plip-plip-plip on hard surfaces,
plopping where they pool. Bells ring out in this watery world.

[Jez riley French]

And the sound of architecture itself, wind, rain and voices bouncing from walls and pavements…

The patter of rain continues. Everywhere, everything, dripping.
A gull squawks sporadically. Wood creaks. The bells chime the hour.

 ..of the sun creaking tiles, timbers resting.

 Wood creaks. A long, slow, drawn-out groan.
Gulls cry in the background.

[Second woman]

The sun creaking tiles, timbers settling.

Wood creaks as the bells peal. Footsteps set out. Gulls cry.

[Jez riley French]

(09:09)

At first sight, this isn’t a street where one can see much in the way of other species, but when we humans retreat, others return. (The bells continue to peal and wood goes on creaking) Mostly birds resting on the roofline, or the occasional plant manages to push its way through, visible for a few days before being removed. (The bells fade along with the creaking) We are listening to one of these now…

Close up, a miniature army taps and grubs,
all feet and mouths greedily feeding.

The sound of Yorkshire fog, a species of common grass growing from a drainpipe. We hear its attempts to draw moisture through its roots.

The tapping, the truffling, continues along with deep knocks.

[Second woman]

Celandines and Yorkshire fog push through cracks
emerging at the edges.

The tapping and knocking are first joined and then replaced by bells and a new ambient tone.

[Jez riley French]

This street is still an edge, geographical, cultural and social. (The tone establishes itself) Its polished, worn, resonant surfaces soaked with collective memory. (The tone fluctuates gently) The store fronts change, their names change. Some we remember, others we forget, most now caught between the shift to online and the possibilities of regeneration. The hopes of the few remaining independent shop owners digging deep in, brows showing the strain of waiting long enough to see the street transform again. Looking up, one sees the fabric of buildings etched with their memories, 33 listed buildings on this one street alone, mixing together. The Georgian, the Victorian, the classical and the art deco.

The ambient tone continues to fluctuate. Gulls cry in the distance. A crackling emerges.

(11:47)

Sounds reflect from polished blue pearly larvikite from Norway, rapakivi from the Åland Islands of Finland and from the bricks formed from Humber warp and boulder clay. (A gull squawks) These utilised geologies of Scandinavia, Italy, South Africa, Scotland, Cumbria mirroring the communities that mixed and formed over centuries here.

A mass of tiny crepitations, the resonance of mineral surfaces,
continues throughout what follows.

[Second woman]

Blue pearly larvikite…

[First woman]

Rapakivi…

[Second woman]

Feldspar…

[First woman]

Baltic Brown…

Carrara marble…

[Second woman]

Lapilli…

Green serpentinite…

[First woman]

Basalt…

[Second woman]

Freestone…

[First woman]

Limestone…

[Second woman]

Muscovite…

Pyrite…

[First woman]

Granite…

Black flint…

Orthoclase…

[Second woman]

Shelly oölite…

The ambient tone slowly fades, followed by the combined crackling.

 A solitary gull cries but is then joined by other gulls.

[Jez riley French]

(13:25)

Sitting for a minute a little way along the street now, I think about how it’s suspended in the maelstrom of current history, the windows of empty buildings absorbing the sounds of their locales.

A low roar, like the sound of an aircraft going overhead
thousands of feet up, inhabits the windows.

(14:04)

We can listen below the surface to the sound of the earth spinning on its axis below our feet, recorded here around 3am on a warm night in June 2021. Continuing to turn as viruses form and reconfigure, as streets empty and fill again – something massive takes shape – as a species evolves, and fails to evolve.

A deep sustaining hum reverberates beneath it all
like the engine of the world.

This is the audible silence of infrasound, normally below our range of hearing, yet it moves through us, we are vibrated by it, our eyes resonating – gulls cry – at rates that sometimes cause us to see mists that some translate as ghosts, accompanied as these tectonic shifts are by a change in air pressure, a sudden sense of otherness that we can’t quite put into words.

We remain with the deep sustaining hum for another 30 seconds.
Gulls’ cries echo in the distance. The ambient tone returns. Individual gulls squawk.

We can imagine those we knew growing up standing outside the same shops on the street at a weekend – the tone builds to previous levels – walking back from the clubs late at night along it, our voices clattering back at us…and those who sought a safe place to express themselves in the one or two shops and bars in the 70s and 80s that welcomed those asking questions about identity and gender. All who declared their independence, whether through the music we listened to, the politics we chose or the people we loved, felt a sense of unity. I look up now and see cracks and chipped plaster and think of how far things have shifted, and how much there is always more to do.

 The ambient tone maintains its calming presence.

We can listen and find ourselves recalling the street when it was surrounded by venues and clubs at either end. Long before our time, it was filled with inns and taverns, silk merchants, printers – the tone contains other sounds, such as all manner of creaks – mineral water manufacturers – squeaks – ironmongers and silversmiths – rattling – music warehouses, confectioners – clicks – port and ale brewers – clinks – the earliest subscription library – taps – banks – faint thuds – newspaper offices, the first theatres in the city, as far back as the 1500s. (Creaks of movement in the foreground punctuate, in the distance, a sky full of gulls) There were private lecture halls – the gulls’ cries echo – and screening rooms for early moving pictures – a cinema projector ticks – and the less comfortable history of one of Hull’s notorious workhouses – the tone continues – and the maze of cramped houses hidden along thin passages behind inconspicuous doorways. (The ticking starts to fade) One can imagine the songs – creaks – the music that has echoed along this street through the centuries, the docks nearby providing voices from all corners of the world. (A gull cries, closer to, with another squawking in the background and a chick peeping) As that history vanished, so too did the music – the tone withdraws – only to be restored by the folk revival, with one of its most important venues only a few feet from the bottom of Whitefriargate at the Blue Bell. Perhaps we need a new folk music for our streets – the squawking comes to an end – one that reflects a welcome and not borders.

Only the peeping remains.

There used to be a run through the city, between the various record shops, on new release day, for those of us not interested in chart music, chasing down the one or two copies of whatever single or LP we had been waiting for. From Shakespeare’s in the train station through to Sydney Scarborough’s below the City Hall, and to Our Price, later HMV, on this street. There was something exciting – a gull croons and cries – in that relative rarity. (A gull squawks) And the sound of vinyl, whether played in stores, in our memory – a faint crackling, like a series of pins dropping – or back in our bedrooms, or in the clubs and cafés on Whitefriargate – the squawking continues – oddly similar to that of radio waves formed by the lightning strikes in the ionosphere above the street, both symbolic of the static crackle of nervous energies.

The squawking carries on, as does the faint crackling.

As New Wave took hold of the country musically, there were, briefly, one or two clothing shops on the street that we’d gather in front of at the weekend. (A thud) But mostly we remember those nearby…5,4,3,2,1 on George Street – closer again, gulls cry – stocking Seditionaries, Vivienne Westwood’s early label, at prices beyond most of us, and how we’d walk from there, through Queens Gardens and down Whitefriargate, checking each shop, on to the open market, or to Beasley's, then on South Church Side, where we would buy something similar but much cheaper to adapt, to make our own. Or perhaps to Changes – more thuds – where New Romantics and mods would buy pleat-fronted slacks and tailored shirts. (A vehicle hums) We might have stood in our different clans – knocks and thuds – but there was a sense of community then.

A lone gull chatters.

As the street has changed over the decades, so too has that sense of radical opposition to the grey normalities. (A passing gull cries) What once seemed crucial to how culture is built and maintained was replaced with a perhaps inevitable demand for acceptance.

There were always safe spaces here, places that sought to overcome divides and prejudices. They brought us together, provided an escape from a society that seemed to have fallen asleep. (A gull chatters) Those places are still needed. Spaces that allow culture, that ask questions and where being awake is vital again. A heritage of acceptance.

The ambient tone returns.

[First woman]

Everything fractures, fragments

all in the same room, getting on.

 Clacking or clapping punctuates the tone.

[Jez riley French]

Perhaps Whitefriargate can return to some of that energy, accept its role as an edge. (The tone shifts to a different pitch) How short the time, how slim the divides, between the Carmelite friars, the wandering players, the traders, those sailing weekly for Denmark – a clock chimes – Africa, Portugal, Canada and beyond, the families of the 50s dressing up for a day out in the tea houses, window shopping as the street transformed ‘upmarket’ and the clans who came together outside certain shops – gulls squawk – in the 60s, 70s and 80s as it began to falter. And us all now, questioning how a high street might once again become a place to spend time with. To value its sense of place, to celebrate variation. (A dull clang signals activity in the near distance) History at yet another crossroads, constantly being made. (The tone shifts again) Our position as one species amongst many ever more relevant to how we can rebuild our streets.

Gulls cry in the distance amid the sea-like whoosh
of traffic as the tone gently undulates.

At the right time of the year, one or two bats – the clicking of echolocation weaves in and out – can be seen, hunting for insects, only for an hour or so in the evening. (The ultrasonic clicks intensify) But perhaps the signature species sound of the street is that of gulls, or mews as they are called in dialect. (The clicking fades)

(23:04)

Most of us don’t get the chance to be up at the roofline, in their domain, but spending time listening – gulls cry in the background – in the empty Boots building, formally the Neptune Inn, its upper floors not touched since the late 1800s, I can bring that border of distance down briefly – a gull cries in the foreground – and place your ears – close to, gulls call and answer each other – in the mews’ domain.

Individual gulls vocalise. They croon, squawk, chatter, cry.

Several gulls cry.

Then a whole colony.

There is a reason why a diversity of wildlife is rather absent on Whitefriargate, and indeed most city centres, and this is it…

An ominous crackling tone fluctuates at medium frequency.
 The frequency increases to a throbbing drone,
before fading to a background buzz.

(25:12)

We are listening to the web of frequencies coming from shop lighting, security systems, electrical circuits, wireless, mobile and broadband signals. (The buzzing continues) These sounds are normally outside of our range of hearing, but other species hear and sense them, and avoid them – the buzzing subsides – especially when other incentives to stay aren’t maintained. Trees, green spaces, clean air.

Silence draws attention to itself by being empty.

(25:39)

Listening is also, of course, an act of memory and imagination. The bright tones of vanished tram lines – rails echo with the hum of ghost trams passing – cooling from a day’s activity, replaced with the resonance of gates, bike racks – hollow metal knocks – and empty stockroom shelving – metal clangs – hooves, carriage wheels and the pastel-fumed cars before pedestrianisation.

Metal rattles, knocks and clangs like someone moving around in the attic.
The thuds and bangs ease momentarily before resuming –
an out-of-tune orchestra of the everyday.

 (26:52)

For years, I have looked up, as many of us have, at the iconic former British Home Stores building – the knocks and clangs fade – towards the bottom of Whitefriargate, its art deco lines cutting through the visual streetscape around it. It’s another space that was built by an architect who was interested in the ways sound affected the ability to build rooms – something clanks as if dropped – that were enjoyable to spend time in – voices fill the gaps between activity – and I’ll let the sound of it play now.

Gulls cry in the distance.
Voices continue in the foreground,
with tramping and occasional clanks. 

The bright tone resumes.

I think about the poetry of sound, its ability to remind us that harmony is built through the unity of difference.

The tone gently modulates back and forth. The voices and clanks
continue. A gull chick peeps and adult gulls cry in the distance.

As the tone finally fades away, the mewing of the gulls endures.


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