Nothing is vaster than empty things

When I was very young, I would spend most weekends at my grandmother’s house – a modest two-up, two-down Victorian terrace that sat in the middle of one of the sprawling industrial estates in east Hull. The toilet was in what my nan called the verandah – a precarious lean-to attached to the back kitchen that also housed the dog basket and twin-tub. The bathroom, which had no toilet, was in what had once been a bedroom, looking out over the back alley that we all called the tenfoot and across to the back yard, where my grandfather, a mechanic, worked all day on motorbikes and his own blue Morris Minor van. The front bedroom, where I would sleep with my aunt, gave on to Leads Road, which at night juddered and trembled with the thunder of lorries.

My brother and I would spend much of the weekend scrabbling around in a square of patchy scrub and mud that we – like all the others who lived on Leads Road – called bomb site. It yielded rich finds: pieces of shrapnel, red bricks, nuts and bolts, wild flowers, weeds and old pennies. We played out innumerable scenarios amidst the small tummocks of rough grass. Usually, they related to a war which – although we were born in the 60s and 70s – did not feel so distant to us. My cousin once cut his wrist there, having fallen on some broken glass while pretending to be a commando, and had to be taken to hospital for stitches. As his mother, my other aunt, led him away, he cried out to us, ‘I’m wounded, men, I’m wounded!’

We knew that the houses which once stood on the land where we played had been destroyed during the Second World War, during one of the many bombing raids which razed vast swathes of Hull. Sometimes, I asked my grandmother about the missing houses, but she never really told me anything, other than that she knew the families who had lived (but, she seemed to intimate, not died) in them. Once she told me the story of how, during an air raid, she chose – for reasons she never understood – not to enter the nearest shelter but ran instead to another, which was much further down the road. The first air raid shelter suffered a direct hit and all the people inside were killed. This, she would say, pointing at a space only she could see in the road, is where I escaped death. As she spoke, I could smell the sweetness that drifted at tea time from the cocoa factory round the corner.

I went back to Hull a couple of years ago with my camera. I wanted to take a picture of bomb site (there was never any definite article). When I got there, I saw that new houses have been built on the land and they look as though they’ve been there for a while now.

3 thoughts on “Nothing is vaster than empty things

  1. The building in the first two images does look really vast and also quite intriguing. What did the British Extracting Company extract, I wonder, and from what?

    What really resonated about your post though was the notion of the war not seeming distant to people born in the 60s and 70s which is something I’ve been pondering recently. I guess it’s down to growing up hearing about it, having parents who lived though it (or even grew up in the immediate shadow of it), but it’s perhaps it’s also about childhood proximity to bomb sites.

    1. Hi Ann – and thanks for your comments. I think WW2 really pervaded our imaginaries, even though it seems to me that many of the people who fought in it – like my grandfather – rarely spoke of it. Nonetheless, it shaped out physical environment, as you say, and felt like it belonged to *our* past, rather than the history books. I wonder also about the role of the cold war in keeping these connections live during our childhoods. As a child, I very much believed in the real possibility of nuclear war. And when the Falklands war began, it was terrifying for me: the beginning, perhaps, of something apocalyptic. All of this was felt, I think, rather than known. For example, I’ve been thinking how music played such an important part in sketching the contours of this emotional landscape…

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