It is a peculiar reversal of fortune that a city the online magazine ‘The Idler’ once voted the country’s worst place to live should be named UK City of Culture for 2017. In many ways, there is an admirably defiant two-fingered quality to the gesture. Such anti-establishment sentiment is, of course, typical of the cultural psyche of many great northern towns, but especially the city that gave birth to slavery abolitionist William Wilberforce, the poetic miserabilism of Philip Larkin, and the great Seafarers’ strike of 1966.
As such, Hull is a resolutely Old Labour town, as personified by ex-merchant navy waiter, MP, and now Lord, John Prescott, and its new status as UK cultural mecca has a timely synchronicity with the revival of the traditional left within the Labour party. Hopefully, both of these factors augur well for the revival of this once great industrial city. However, it is easy to be skeptical about all place-branding initiatives such as these. For example, Hull never seemed central to George Osborne’s meaninglessly abstract ‘Northern Powerhouse’ rhetoric, and many cities across Europe are chasing the ‘Bilbao Effect’ of cultural regeneration. Most of these find the initial momentum created by such initiatives unsustainable.
Nevertheless, the Hull City of Culture 2017 campaign, via a properly New Labour formula of public-private funding has brought the excellent new Humber Street Gallery into existence, right at the heart of the regenerated, and newly trendy, Fruit Market area of the city. Until the end of the year, it is the proud host to a new wall piece by one of the originators of Punk’s graphic aesthetic, Jamie Reid. Entitled ‘Ragged Kingdom’ (2017), this work is an original mural in Reid’s signature style, part of an ongoing series of works which are ‘site-specific, nominally unplanned, exciting and done with flintlocks cocked and an eye on the exit’. It most certainly has an eye on the exit, being almost the first thing you meet when entering the gallery. It also has an eye on the sewers, being installed directly opposite the venue’s toilets.
Quite deliberately, subtlety has never been the preserve of the agitprop aesthetic, and Reid certainly doesn’t buck any trends here. In fact, the mural has a slightly revivalist, or even nostalgic, quality at first due to the inclusion of reworked images from Reid’s Sex Pistols era. However, in juxtaposition with images of the KKK and a swastika-eyed Donald Trump, there is a political urgency invoked within this piece that is impossible to ignore, particularly given recent events in Charlottesville. Punk has always been the answer of alienated youth to social inequality, deprivation, and a rotten ruling class. In an era of Brexit, and a new polarisation of left and right, maybe 2017 is the precise time where we need Jamie Reid’s anarchic, seditionary, DIY aesthetic more than ever. Where else to start the revolution but in Hull?
Jamie Reid: Ragged Kingdom, Humber St Gallery, Hull, 2 June – 31 December 2017.
Richard Hudson-Miles is an artist and writer based in West Yorkshire.