Hull & Me: Leigh Bird and Esther Johnson

In this blog series, we talk to people about their connections to Hull and what the city means to them. In this post we’re chatting to Leigh Bird and Esther Johnson about the power of place and the importance of the ‘Three Ships’ mosaic.

Photos courtesy of Leigh Bird and Esther Johnson.

Thanks for chatting to us! First things first – tell us a bit more about yourselves.

LB: I’m Leigh Bird, a freelance Marketing and Social Media consultant now based near Manchester.  I’m a big fan of post-war and mid-century architecture and design and a member of ‘The Modernist Society’ and the ‘Twentieth Century Society’.  I’m also a director of ‘the modernist’.

EJ: My name is Esther Johnson and I’m an artist and filmmaker from Hull. I create work that has a focus on alternative social histories and am currently working on projects in Vietnam (Dust & Metal and  Liberation Radio), and the SHIPS in the SKY project which I initiated back in 2018. In addition I am a Professor of Film and Media Arts at Sheffield Hallam University.

Great. What’s your relationship to Hull?

LB: I’m from Hull and all my family and lots of friends still live here, so I get back home regularly.  Though no matter how often I do – or don’t get home – you never really leave Hull, do you?  It’s that kind of place, I think.

Late in 2016 I became a volunteer member of Hull Heritage Action Group and offered to run the @BHSMuralHull campaign and Twitter account to ‘Save the ‘Three Ships’ mosaic mural.   Through that I’ve met lots of amazing people from Hull and nationally who have supported the campaign.  It’s been a massive commitment over the years, but I’m so glad I got involved. It feels good to be able to do something really important for my hometown.

One of the people I met through the campaign is Esther; we got our heads together in 2017 over our shared love of Alan Boyson’s ‘Three Ships’ and have been firm friends ever since, and she’s supported the campaign massively.  I help Esther with research on her brilliant arts and film project, ‘SHIPS in the SKY’.

EJ: I have enormous affection for my home city of Hull. Whilst I now live in Nottingham I am regularly back in Hull as my parents and many friends still live there.

The city has inspired me in so many ways, from the architecture and public realm, to the derelict warehouses and docks which I avidly photographed as a teenager. The history of the city has been a rich seam for my work – starting with my first research project (in school age 9) about Reckitt’s in Hull where both my mum and nan worked. I later had work experience at Hull Time Based Arts (I said no thank you to the careers advice offer of secretarial work as they told me art was an unrealistic goal), was later a commissioned artist by HTBA, and then ran the Hull Film and the International Short Film Festival for a few years.

The maritime history of the city is particularly evocative to me – my father is from a long line of sea farers, was a Hull Trinity boy and then in the merchant navy. As a child my bedtime stories were his tales of being at sea rather than Cinderella et al. The ‘Three Ships’ mosaic on the former Hull Central Co-op/BHS was always a springboard for his tales at sea when we had fried egg sarnies from Fletcher’s cafe (opposite the BHS) on Saturday afternoons.

I got in contact with Leigh back in the summer of 2017. I’d had work in the ‘Somewhere Becoming Sea’ exhibition at Humber Street Gallery, and then made a film with Saint Etienne for the Hull2017 Basil Kirchen weekend so I was in Hull a lot and was increasingly anxious about the future of the former Hull Central Co-op/BHS. I’d always wanted to do an arts project centred around the building and so got in touch with Hull Heritage Action Group. It was Leigh I got chatting to — and quite frankly we haven’t stopped nattering since. I believe the call was serendipitous as we have such a shared love of the ‘Three Ships’ and the history of the building and we’ve become firm friends since.

Photo courtesy of Hull History Centre.

Can you tell us about a place in the city that’s special or memorable to you?

LB: Well, it’s the obvious one for me!  It’s got to be Boyson’s ‘Three Ships’ and the building behind it.  I used to meet my mate Alison under the mural on a Saturday night, and we’d wend our way via various pubs to Spiders.  I also used to go clubbing in ‘Juliet’s’ pretty regularly.  The mural has fascinated me since being a child.  I remember looking up at it whilst in Fletchers or sitting on the penny fountain wall.  I just wish I’d sat on the café balcony under the mural in its heyday!

EJ: So many places, but ditto I LOVE Boyson’s Three Ships and it was truly one of the things that made me want to go and study art. It is such an optimistic and magical mural to me and makes me imagine future adventures, in addition to family roots in the fishing and maritime history of Hull. The former docks and the Lord Line area are fascinating — bless my dad accompanying me as a young teen to photograph and sketch all the derelict warehouses which I’ve always been attracted to.

When I was very little one of my favourite spots was Blisters roller disco (near the old Spring Street Theatre, both no longer there) — I still roller-skate and that love came from the magic of Blister’s and their glam stars and stripes logo. I spent MANY hours in Hull Screen and I find it outrageous that the city still doesn’t have an independent cinema. Later it was Pink Pugsley at Spiders followed by chips drowned in Hull Chip Spice (I have a carton of Chip Spice on my desk to remind me of home). I also have to add, that our lovely unique cream K7 and K8 telephone boxes are a wonder (I have a model of one of them on my desk too.)

Photos courtesy of Esther Johnson.

We think we know the answer to this one – what’s one thing we absolutely need to include in a history of Hull?

LB: Not wanting to be a stuck record, but I think the mural and building is so important. It’s become such an emblem of the city and its history is fascinating.  What’s great is that Hull City Council are now genuinely committed to seeing that it’s safe, and that’s perfect for our Maritime & Cultural city.  It’d have been such a loss locally and nationally if it’d have been lost to the wrecking ball.

EJ: People’s social histories and how these intersect with politics both local and national are, I believe, important to capture for all cities. In Hull the former Hull Central Co-op/BHS is a fascinating place rich with memory that spans so many eras and subject matters from: architecture, public art, cooperatism, club culture, labour, women in the workplace, retail, fashion, class, the Hull Blitz – I could go on. I believe the stories of people connected to this place offer a deep understanding of the history and culture of post-war Hull on the ground, that in part also connects to the national and international.

We completely agree! Finally, what’s your favourite thing about the city?

LB: I know it sounds trite, but it’s the people, and the people who make the culture.  Lots of my memories of Hull are connected to people as well as place.  I think we’ve got a unique sensibility and warmth in the city.  I also think we’re a creative lot.  Look at the grassroots culture in the city.  It’s always been there, and it’s always been thriving, and it just keeps on getting better.  When I reminisce it’s often about nights with mates in Spiders, Silhouette, Welly Club and Adelphi. They’re all little communities aren’t they and all still thriving.

EJ: I think it’s tenacity. Studying and living in London there were so many folk that would smirk when they heard I was from Hull – the city on the ‘shittest’ place list every year. I never let this bother me as I felt/feel the city has a special magic with an ingrained tendency to just dust itself down and get on with it by any means. Perhaps this is linked to the ‘end of the line’ topography of the city and developing things in your own way as a result. I like to think that end of the line is also the beginning of a new space.

Thanks so much for talking to us!



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