Transcript of High Street Sound Walk in Hull: 'Breet Velvit Ake'

This is a transcript of 'Breet Velvit Ake' (Yorkshire dialect for ‘Bright Velvet Wander’) a High Street Sound Walk in Hull.

All sound and the main narration is by Jez riley French with additional voices by Jenny Berger Myhre and Laura Naukkarinen.

[soft choral and orchestral adagio crescendo]

Laura Naukkarinen: this breet velvit ake catches me

the sun creaking tiles
timbers settling

[soft orchestral adagio. distant sounds of street activity, traffic and birds]

Jez riley French: 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 architects of both designed them knowing how stone, space and sound combine to form our sense of place. There is another of course; one building is long gone, handed over to those with power during the reformation of the 1500’s, the other now in limbo, owned but unused, unmaintained, handed to the reformation of the online.

This walk invites you to listen anew to the constant music of this place. To sounds we overlook, ignore or that sit outside of our attention. It’s a meander, with no set path to follow, reflecting on the street and the nature of listening itself, it’s potential and its power. Take your time, explore, re-build. We are always sensing combinations that will never repeat.

[bird song including gulls nesting, street noises]

Jenny Berger Myhre: You say I am mysterious
let me explain myself
In a land of oranges
I am faithful to apples

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.

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 and, later, to take tea at Lyons Tea Room, or coffee in Kardomah or lunch in Marks & Spencers. To browse in shop windows selling a new view of the world.

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 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, or those of the suffragist and Hull’s first female GP, Mary Murdoch, and where the first female photographer in Britain to have her own professional portrait studio, Ann Cooke, established her business.

Earlier still, in 1795 Mary Wollstonecraft, author of ‘A vindication of the rights of women’, a founding text of feminist philosophy, and a remarkable writer across many forms, having spent her formative years in Beverley, 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.

[soft orchestral adagio crescendo - seagulls calling]

"My friend, I have dearly paid for one conviction. Love, 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, alive to the charms of those evanescent graces that are, as it were, impalpable – they must be felt, they cannot be described.

Yes; I shall be happy – This heart is worthy of the bliss its feelings anticipate”

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.

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 ones attention and streets, spaces transform. Voices mix, accents layer on top of each other. Words appear and fall away. Phrases plucked from important and unimportant conversations...

[rainfall, gulls, clock tower chimes in distance]

Jenny Berger Myhre: water though
reminds me

Jez riley French: ...and the sound of architecture itself; wind, rain and voices bouncing from walls and pavements...of the sun creaking tiles, timbers resting.

[creaking timbers]

Jenny Berger Myhre: the sun creaking tiles, timbers settling

[creaking timbers and clock tower chimes from Holy trinity / Hull minster]

Jez riley French: At first site this isn’t a street where one can see much in the way of other species, but when we humans retreat others return; mostly birds resting on the roofline, or the occasional plant that manages to push its way through, visible for a few days before being removed. We are listening to one of these now...the sound of yorkshire fog, a species of common grass growing from a drainpipe, we hear its attempts to draw moisture through its roots.

[sound of species of common grass growing from a drainpipe - water being drawn up through its roots - clock tower chimes]

Jenny Berger Myhre: celandines and Yorkshire fog push through cracks
emerging at the edges

Jez riley French: This street is still an edge; geopgraphical, cultural and social. Its polished, worn, resonant surfaces soaked with collective memory. 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 mixing together; the Georgian, Victorian, classical and art deco.

[soft crackling sound; the sound of minerals dissolving]

Sounds reflect from polished blue pearly larvikite from Norway, rapakive from the Åland Islands of Finland and from bricks formed from Humber Warp and boulder clay. The utilised geologies of Scandanvia, Italy, South Africa, Scotland, Cumbria mirroring the communities that mixed and formed over centuries here.

Jenny Berger Myhre and Laura Naukkarinen: blue pearly larvikite
baltic brown
carrara marble
green serpentinite
black flint
shelly oolite

[soft crackling sound, birdsong, window glass resonating]

Jez riley French: Sitting for a minute, a little way along the street now, I think about how it is suspended in the mealstrom of current history. The windows of empty buildings absorbing the sounds of their locales. We can listen below the surface to the sound of the earth spinning on its axis below our feet, recorded around 3 am on a warm night in June 2021. Continuing to turn as viruses form and re-configure, as streets empty and fill again, as a species evolves and fails to evolve. 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 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.

[soft orchestral adagio]

We can imagine all of those we knew growing up, standing outside the same shops on the street on a weekend, 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 1970’s and 1980’s 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 now up and see cracks and chipped plaster and think of how far things have shifted, and how much there is always more to do.

[sounds of the street, factories - paper / printing, film projector - crunching, squeaking, ticking, gulls) 

We can listen and find ourselves recalling the street when it was surrounded by venues and with clubs at either end. Earlier once filled with inns and taverns, silk merchants, printers, mineral water manufacturers, iron mongers, silversmiths, music warehouses, confectioners, port and ale brewers, the earliest subscription library, banks, newspaper offices, the first theatres in the city as far back as the 1500’s. There were private lecture halls and screening rooms for early moving pictures, and the less comfortable history of one of Hull’s notorious workhouses and the maze of cramped houses hidden along thin passages behind inconspicuous doorways. One can imagine the songs, the music that has echoed along this street through the centuries, the docks nearby providing voices from all corners of the world. As that history vanished, so too did the music, 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. One that reflects a welcome and not borders.

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 you had been waiting for. From Shakespeares in the train station, through to Sydney Scarborough’s below the city hall, to Our Price, later HMV on this street. There was something exciting in that relative rarity. The sound of vinyl, whether played in stores in our memory or back in our bedrooms or in the clubs and cafe’s on Whitefriargate, oddly similar to that of radio waves formed by lightning strikes in the ionosphere above the street; both symbolic of the static crackle of nervous energies.

[the static crackle of events in the ionosphere - street sounds, gulls]

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 but mostly we remember those nearby; 5,4,3,2,1 on George Street, stocking Seditionaries, Vivianne Westwood’s early label, at prices beyond most of us, and how we’d walk from there, through Queens gardens, 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, where new romantics and mods would buy pleat fronted slacks and tailored shirts. We might have stood in our different clans but there was a sense of community then.

As the street has changed over the decades so too has that sense of radical opposition to the grey normalities. 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. Those places are still needed. Spaces that allow culture, that ask questions and where being awake is vital again; a heritage of acceptance. 

[soft orchestral adagio]

Laura Naukkarinen: everything fractures, fragments
all in the same room, getting on

Jez riley French: Perhaps Whitefriargate can return to some of that energy, accept its role as an edge.

[clock tower chimes; Holy trinity / Hull minster] 

How short the time, how slim the divides between the Carmelite friars, the wandering players, the traders, those sailing weekly for Denmark, Africa, Portugal, Canada and beyond, the families of the 1950s dressing up for a day out in the tea houses, window shopping as the street transformed ‘upmarket’ and the clans that came together outside certain shops in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s 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. History at yet another crossroads, constantly being made. Our position as one species amongst many, ever more relevant to how we re-build our streets.

[the sound of bats echo-locating, chattering]

At the right time of the year one or two bats can be seen, hunting for insects only for an hour or so in the evening. But perhaps the signature species sound of the street is that of gulls, or mews as they are called in dialect. Most of us don’t get the chance to be up at the roof line, in their domain, but spending time listening in the empty Boots building, formally the Neptune inn, its upper floors not touched since the late 1800’s, I can bring that border of distance down briefly and place your ears in the mews domain.

[gulls, street sounds]

There is a reason why a diversity of wildlife is rather absent from Whitefriargate, and indeed most city centres and this is it. We are listening to the web of frequencies coming from shop lighting, security systems, electrical circuits, wireless, mobile and broadband signals. These sounds are, normally, outside of our range of hearing, but other species hear and sense them, and avoid them, especially when other incentives to stay aren’t maintained; trees, green spaces, clean air.

Listening is also, of course, an act of memory and imagination; the bright tones of vanished tram lines cooling from a days activity, replaced with the resonance of gates, bike racks and empty stock room shelving, hoofs, carriage wheels and the pastel fumed cars before pedestrianisation.

[metallic echoing resonance of empty shop stock room shelving 

For years I have looked up, as many of us have, at the iconic former British Home Stores building towards the bottom of Whitefriargate. It’s Art Deco lines cutting through the visual streetscape around it. It’s another space that was built by an architect interested in the ways sound affected the ability to build rooms that were enjoyable to spend time in...and I’ll let the sound of it play now.

[The sound of the empty upper rooms of the former British Home Stores, soft orchestral adagio]

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

[orchestral adagio, distant bird calls, gulls] 


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