How Hull inspired Paul Heaton

Labour MP Tom Watson recalls growing up in South Yorkshire.

"Trotsky wanted to move to the seaside." This is Paul Heaton's explanation for why, 30 years ago, he came to live in Hull, which was named UK City of Culture 2017 on 20 November.

I am interviewing the legendary singer and songwriter for the Housemartins and the Beautiful South at the King’s Arms, the Salford pub he owns. On the day of the announcement, David Cameron name-checked the Housemartins’ 1986 album London 0 Hull 4 in celebration of the city’s win. Heaton reacted by calling him a “f***ing imbecile” on the King’s Arms Facebook page and banning him from entering the premises.

Everything about this pub is quirky. Upstairs, a rehearsal of Little Shop of Horrors is taking place. Adjacent rooms are packed with amps, keyboards and lighting equipment. A tiny studio room is being used for a script reading. Heaton silently appears in the centre of the room like the shopowner in the children’s TV programme Mr Benn. The idea of having a pint in a pub where Cameron is banned, with a hero, on the 23rd anniversary of the Thatcher resignation, is driving me giddy. As I begin my second real ale, he sips his first blackcurrant cordial and explains what Hull means to him.

Heaton didn’t feel able to help with Hull’s pitch for City of Culture because he feels that “bidding is begging”, but now it’s won he’s had an idea for a living-art installation, re-creating some of the colourful residents of the road in Hull – alcoholics and militant activists – who inspired the song “The Rising of Grafton Street” on the Beautiful South’s second album, Choke. Today, Cameron has inflamed Heaton’s sense of injustice at the privileges enjoyed by one class at the expense of another.

“You’ve voted Labour in the past. What would it take for Ed Miliband to get you back?” I ask.

“Full nationalisation,” he says, without a pause. “Capitalism has gone so far up its arse that I can’t keep up with it. We were warned all the way through the Seventies: don’t believe in the socialist utopia. They’ve been trying to sell capitalism to me since I was three years old and saw my first advert. Hopefully people will look back in 50 years’ time and say this was the age of the w**ker.”

We’re both too polite to admit that full nationalisation of public utilities is never going to happen under Ed Miliband, so we go back to sharing our love of Hull. We chuckle at the characters we both recall: the lad who used to wrap his trainers in Sellotape so he could pick up cigarette butts at the bus stop on Newland Avenue. Dave Dennett who ran the off-licence on Beverley Road and had his own draught beer on tap. Then there was Martin, who ran the Mainbrace pub but moved to Leeds – and so Paul followed him to his new local further across the M62. It didn’t work out in Leeds; the city felt like a “flag-waving frontier town”.

I smile, remembering how my own birthplace in South Yorkshire is often ridiculed by friends and family from the West. By my third pint, I’m overcome with nostalgia. There’s a symphony of Beautiful South lyrics playing in my head like a battalion of tubas and trombones.

I can see why Heaton ended up in Manchester. It’s a great city for music. He agrees – though it’s not a city of singers, he says. I think of the Hallé Youth Choir, but I assume his point is more to do with Shaun Ryder and Ian Brown’s nasal intonation than high-end classical singing. The one thing that Manchester has got is music lovers who follow their bands, as loyally as the football fans follow Manchester United. If Oasis play Glastonbury, “500 lads go down on the bus”.

I ask him what the differences are between north and south. He says the distinction is just “a squiggle on a map”. It’s the class divide he’s interested in, not geographical distance.

New heights: Hull has been named UK City of Culture 2017.
Tom Watson is the MP for West Bromwich East, and Deputy Chair of the Labour Party. He is also an avid gamer and campaigner for media integrity.

This article appears in the 27 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The North