This Film Shows the Reality of Life in Austerity Britain
Hull might be the UK's City of Culture, but that doesn't change the day-to-day lives of many of its residents.
Steve Arnott in 'A Northern Soul'
A Northern Soul, the new documentary film directed by Sean McAllister, is about the year Hull became the City of Culture.
It's about the political and economic policy of austerity and the hardship it has visited on working class communities in the northern city – but most of all, it's a story about Steve Arnott, who we find living back home with his mother after the end of his second marriage. It's also about the Beats Bus, a bus turned mobile recording studio and classroom that Steve drives around Hull, running music workshops with the city's children (and sometimes adults).
Steve is 43 years old and has a tattoo on his neck that reads "Tear it down", the title of his first single, under the name Redeye Feenix. He's big and friendly and open. Over the phone, he tells me he left school aged 16 and went to work with his dad as a labourer. A professional rugby league career looked like it might be on the cards, but then Steve was run over. It took him a year-and-a-half to recover, and doctors told him he shouldn't risk playing again.
Depressed from the fallout of the accident, Steve became the manager of an arcade, where punters could gamble. "It was awful," he says. "Watching people losing money is not nice." But he needed the job. At the same time, he was doing gigs and making music, trying to make things happen as an MC and a producer. Eventually, he left the arcade and got a job working in a warehouse.
"I didn't realise my life was sad," said Steve the first time he saw the film, in front of an audience in Sheffield. "The first night, it made me feel really sad," he tells me now. "Seeing myself struggle and seeing how much it meant to the kids."
In 2017, Hull became the UK City of Culture, which brought in more than 5 million visitors; £220 million of investment and 800 new jobs. The centrepiece opening of the City of Culture was "Made in Hull", a week-long event involving the projection of films onto the outside of buildings in the city centre, as well as installations inside them.
Sean McAllister, who is from Hull, was the event's curator. At the same time, he tells me, he was making A Northern Soul, and there was some tension between his role as one of the main artistic visions behind the official celebration of the city and his role as director of documentaries that aim to tell the truth about ordinary people, like Steve, living in extraordinary situations.
"I had this fear of depicting the real side of life – austerity is killing people and it makes it incredibly hard to engage in art and culture," he says. "This film is the story of a life lived against the cuts, the struggle of life under the cuts."
McAllister and I speak twice on the telephone, the second time after A Northern Soul has been given a 15 certificate because Steve swears in it – a decision the director blasts as "classist". He's currently putting on free screenings in Hull for children under the age of 15.
"I would accept their rules if I didn't see evidence of double standards," he says, citing The King's Speech as an example of a film that has swearing in it but was given a 12A certificate, having originally been categorised as a 15. "The whole point of the film is to give the working class a voice. I think this decision has been made out of fear, or it's ignorance of the unknown. What really bothers me is that the story of hope and inspiration has really passed them by."
That hope and inspiration comes in the form of Steve's Beats Bus, which has provided a place for children like Harvey and Blessing – who both feature in A Northern Soul – to be energetic and creative and happy; an outlet they didn't have before. Of course, the backdrop to this story isn't quite as inspiring.
The situation Steve finds himself in reflects the bigger picture of life in austerity-hit Britain. Since 2011, Hull City Council has seen £121 million of core funding removed, with another £10 million due to be taken away this year. More than one in three children living in Hull lives in poverty. The fishing and shipping industries that were once the lifeblood of this town were killed off from the late 1970s onward. In 2016, 68 percent of the city voted for Brexit.
At one point in A Northern Soul, Steve shows the camera the state of his finances, something he tells me he was nervous about doing. He has a monthly income from the warehouse of £1,263 and monthly expenditure of £1,132, leaving him with £131 in disposable income. He is just over £12,000 in debt and has had to take out an IVA, a means of managing personal debt for those who don't want to declare bankruptcy. With high inflation, stagnant wages and benefits cuts hitting low-paid workers, applications for IVAs have reached their highest level since their introduction in 1987.
"This film blows away the myth of social mobility. Prosperity is mainly about opportunity, luck and advantage," Emma Hardy, Labour MP for Hull West and Hessle, tells me. "If we truly want to give everyone equality of opportunity and help people like Steve, then we can't simply give everyone the same, but instead adjust the resources of the state to help those who need it most."
To add cultural insult to economic injury, British people struggling to survive in these circumstances are routinely ignored, misunderstood or straightforwardly demonised by our media. "The dignity of the working class is not something the media is particularly concerned with," McAllister tells me.
The second most bombed city during World War II, McAllister speaks of a "defiance" in Hull that "goes back to 1642, when we locked out King Charles". In many ways, Steve embodies that defiance. He is exhausted by working two jobs – one for money, one for his soul and the good of his community – but he keeps at it, and now, he tells me, he works full time on the Beats Bus, running tutorials for people from the ages of six to 70 ("we had three old ladies rapping, they were great").
The City of Culture designation was meant to reinvigorate Hull – to take it, in the words of the official bid, "out of the shadows". Emma Hardy tells me that "of course it's had a positive impact", while McAllister says, "For some people, it was a great party – a £38 million party. Others were happy for the city centre to be refurbished. We would hope Hull is back on the map. There's a confidence that it's given the city, to step forward culturally and commercially."
For Steve, however, and others like him, life remains precarious. Political and economic decisions will have to be made in order to change lives across the country. But the former warehouse worker is going for it. He's following his dream and he's engaging with young people, giving them hope at a time when there doesn't always seem to be much about.
"You need somewhere positive," he tells me. "The kids have to have something to do."
A Northern Soul is out in cinemas on the 24th of August.