As Hull becomes the UK’s 2017 City of Culture, documentary filmmaker and Yorkshire native Sean McAllister describes the Hullensian spirit and shares his favourite places in the city
My first documentary was made in a Birdseye pea factory in Hull, where I used to work 12 hours every night. I snuck the camera in on the job and made this film that actually ended up getting me out of there. Even though I’d wanted to make a story about how miserable and boring it was, the centre of that 40-minute film ended up being about a great Hull character called Brian who used to work outside, pushing the peas into the factory.
I remember asking him about how boring he thought the factory was, and he said: “What you talking about? I love coming here! I get away from the missus and the kids and we have a fucking laugh!” I was stood behind the camera thinking to myself, ‘No, no, no! We’re supposed to be talking about how bad it is!’. You still get that message about the drudgery of those people’s lives who are at the rough end of life, but you don’t need to sell it in that Ken Loach, miserable, torturous way. If you are in that position, a lot of the time you actually get through it by having a laugh.
What characterises the people of Hull is that they’re up for it. I’m the creative director for the opening celebrations for City of Culture, and we organised a huge art trail called Made in Hull all across the city at different sites. It’s been so exciting and fun, and I don’t know what it is, but if you put something on for the people of Hull, they’ll look for it and they’ll queue up. What we put on isn’t what people perceive to be ‘art’ in terms of an art gallery, instead it’s been put on as an event, and it’s opened up people’s horizons.
It’s not that working-class people can’t get art; speaking from my own perspective, if something’s looking highbrow and difficult to get into, I’d just rather give it a miss. In fact, my first selection of places was actually made up of six pubs, and I thought…’That’s really terrible!’ Even though culture of course happens in pubs, I decided to make this Secret City a list of places that I love. There’s so much more to Hull than meets the eye.
If people are looking for me in Hull, they probably will find me hiding in the back room of the Whalebone, having a pint of Tennessee Taylor. Despite being in-and-out of business all the time, it’s a beautiful old building. Inside, there’s a log fire and all the old photographs of Hull on the walls. Whenever I can get my 93-year-old father out, that’s where I take him, and memories of the old Hull are brought back to him. The surrounding area is a remnant of the good old days I suppose, and I find it very evocative of the North. It’s industrial, it’s inner-city, but it’s not present-day Hull somehow; it’s a great escape. This is a bit out-on-a-limb, but it’s a proper pub, and one that needs to survive.
In a room above my favourite craft ale bar in the bohemian Princes Avenue area is Union Mash-Up, where all of these spontaneous events happen. I was in the bar the other week, when I ran into one of my favourite local poets, Dean Wilson. He’s a working-class bloke who is also a doorman at a homeless hostel. He told me that he was doing some poetry, and when I got upstairs the place was fucking rammed – it was the most wonderful poetry too. There was no charge at the door, and everyone was giving very generously to a raffle that I later realised would pay Dean. The winner only got a bottle of wine and four cans of beer, but that’s the marvellous spirit of the people of Hull.
The Hessle Foreshore is at the mouth of the River Humber, and is framed by the backdrop of the magnificent Humber Bridge. It’s a lovely quiet area of reflection on the edge of town, and it’s the first and last thing you see of Hull when travelling either to or from the city. It’s so emotional and connected to memories for me: I know I’m close to home when I see it, and I like to just go and hang out there whenever I need to get away from it all. The fishing and whaling industries have always connected Hull to the sea, and the North Sea ferry does the Dutch dash to Amsterdam – it’s our gateway to Europe.
Kurdistan was the first restaurant to open up with the arrival of the Kurdish asylum seekers in 2003, and it’s on a street called Spring Bank which is next to Princes Avenue. Before they arrived, the street was a row of empty shops to rent, and now it’s this vibrant place full of restaurants and shops selling fruit and veg like you’ve never seen. Naturally, the locals have dubbed it ‘Spring-Bankistan’, which is, I think, a sort of comical title, rather than racist.
The local Kurdish have assimilated quite well, and the restaurant was the first of the places set up by them after they got their leave to remain. A lot of Hull people feel like maybe it’s not for them, but when they do go, they’re completely blown away by the incredible service and the chivalry of the staff. The chicken, rice, desserts and coffees are amazing. It’s something you wouldn’t normally associate with Hull, but it’s very special.
The Cave Street chippy does quite good chips, but for me the Dundee chippy is my first choice because the guy running it is an absolute character. He twitters away like he’s known you all his life, but hasn’t seen you in a few years, all the time frying away. They have the best fish and chips in town, but in Hull we also have the Hull Patty – mashed potato that is mixed with sage and onion before being shaped, coated in batter and deep fried. It sounds obscene, but it’s actually very tasty.
Fruit on Humber Street
When I was a kid, I remember that Humber street was where my dad would take me to buy all the boxes of apples and oranges for Christmas. It was a bustling fruit market where you’d see the people who’d worked all night, drinking a pint for breakfast before they went to bed. The past 20 years saw the area decline into a street of derelict buildings, but people then somehow started to migrate back there to set-up micro breweries and art galleries on the lovely cobbled street.
Dave Mays, a local clubbing guy, cleverly took over two warehouses in the area and turned them into an art gallery and bar space called Fruit. If it wasn’t for people like this, there would be nothing there, and to me it celebrates the future of Hull. Now as City of Culture, the council plans to support the street’s infrastructure. All the cobbles were ‘pointed’, and all the billboards of the old fruiters are still above the shopfronts. Everything is being developed without losing identity. It’s totally associated with culture and art in the city, and everything there has been self-generated by the people, for the people.
Sean McAllister is the creative director for Made in Hull, which runs at Hull UK City of Culture from 1 – 7 January 2017. Made in Hull is free and unticketed. For further details visit www.hull2017.co.uk