Though I have missed you so very much

I am standing outside Hull Paragon Station, holding a sign in my hands. Slowly people gravitate towards me. A gentleman in a straw hat walks up to me, and not looking at my face, says haltingly ‘Though… I have missed you… so very much’.

This is how it begins, a walking tour of Hull, animated by fragments of lives played out in these streets at the turn of the 20th century. A group of sixteen has gathered for the tour, and luckily a woman in a floral dress hears the phone box next to us ringing quietly, a summons from Katy to come and meet her on platform 4, the original “emigrants platform”.

For two hours we explore Hull, asking each of the walkers to carry an envelope, which is addressed to a particular location. At these locations, they open the envelopes and discover one of Edith’s postcards, a photograph or artefact relating to that site. Katy and I weave together the stories of our family and these places, in the context of the 2.2 million emigrants who passed through Hull from the 1850s – 1910s.

As the walk meanders through the city centre and down to the docks, we become increasingly involved in the tales of Edith’s and her best friend Dolly’s lives, and separation through migration. We encounter ships, waiting rooms, concert halls, a music box, a lost locket, lost gardens, a drowned synagogue and a forgotten brother.

There’s a profound sadness that emerges from tracing vanished lives in a contemporary landscape. But there is also a humour as secrets are revealed and interpretations of the missing facts are offered. Most of the people who join us for the tour are of our parents generation, or older, and the readings we include about memory and forgetting seem to resonate strongly for them. We end the tour at the docks, looking out at the murky Humber and the wide open sky. I pour everyone a shot of vodka, and as we raise our glasses to ‘all those who have passed’ Katy reads us a quote from Sebald:

‘Memory, he added in a postscript, often strikes me as a kind of dumbness. It makes one’s head heavy and a giddy, as if one were not looking back down the receding perspectives of time but rather down on the earth from a great height, from one of those towers whose tops are lost to view in the clouds.’ The Emigrants, W G Sebald.

Though I have missed you so very much was part of Humber Mouth: the Hull Literature festival



“Memory, like the mind and time, is unimaginable without physical dimensions; to imagine it as a physical place is to make it into a landscape in which its contents are located, and what has location can be approached. That is to say, if memory is imagined as a real space…then the act of remembering is imagined as a real act…”[1]

We have installed our exhibition at Artlink in Hull, a gallery on Princes’ Avenue, in an area of town that still has remnants of Edwardian finery. Walking up the avenues with their spacious houses and ornate fountains in the middle of the road allows us to imagine the Hull where Great-grandmother Edith spent her youth, a wealthy town with a busy harbour, through which many migrants passed en route to America and South Africa. In other parts of town it is harder to see Hull’s past: it was one of the most severely bomb-damaged cities in the second world war, has lost a lot of its traditional industry, and has suffered a lot of redevelopment, including innumerable concrete shopping centres and car parks.

Travelling up to the north-east over the past few months, peering behind the concrete, we find clues about our ancestors. There’s a fantastic history centre where we look at maps of Hull from the 19th century, and see the plans of a long-disappeared Botanic Gardens. We find the 1901 census that record the Pearlman’s lives in Hull. We visit the neglected Jewish cemetery where Great-great-great-grandfather Filaratoff is buried. And using Edith’s post-card collection, we find what remains of the places that have entered out imaginations through the faded photos and looped handwriting of messages written over 100 years ago.

At Artlink we show some of the work we created in Cape Town, reconfigured for this environment. We have also produced new work, drawing on Edith’s life and local histories. Adaptation is a travelling plant case, based on the Wardian case used by Victorian plant collectors to transport rare finds to a new environment. The case contains four South African plants, whose names combine to make a ‘living letter’. Floriography, the Victorian ‘language of flowers’ designated particular meaning to specific flowers, to create coded messages of love and longing.

Ghost writing is an installation that develops an idea that we explored in South Africa: the physical act of writing by hand and the traces left by the letters and postcards of a generation of migrants. Farewell Concert refers to Edith’s skill as a concert pianist, and the concert she gave before leaving Hull for South Africa. We often select certain pieces of music to act as markers for moments in our life, or as requiems for a particular time or a person who is no longer with us.

Much of the work in this show can be transformed back into luggage, ready for a continued journey. We project the film Offere in a suitcase, a small mobile cinema that can be folded down and carried away in a few minutes. More than a century ago our family unpacked their bags in Hull and made it their home. Then after just one generation they packed up again and left. We return, looking for a place to touch, a place to locate memory.

Rebecca Beinart

[1] Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust- A History of Walking