The support act’s T-shirt shrank so Fatboy Slim made me a mixtape

How culture bridges borders, from the Troubles to Brexit, from the Housemartins in 1986 to Paul Heaton & Jacqui Abbott in 2019

Witnessing Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott perform at Trinity College in Dublin feels like more than a gig. A cultural and emotional exchange is taking place – the couple in front of me stare into each other’s eyes as they sing the lyrics of each song; another pair ask strangers to hold their pints as they dance to their wedding song, You Keep It All In; and a woman cries along to Prettiest Eyes, goosebumps on her arms, comforted by friends. This is the power of music – specifically the power of Heaton’s empathetic songwriting/storytelling and his and Abbott’s compelling vocals – and the drama is all around you, not just on stage.

I was a guest, not a reviewer, at last Friday’s sold-out gig because the generosity of spirit at the heart of art that was on display on stage happens off stage too. I am lucky enough to have been on the receiving end of it twice, 33 years apart.

Back in February 1986 I was a student at Queens in Belfast but looking for a way out of Dodge, exploring a transfer to university in Scotland. So I was en route to St Andrews and visiting an old school friend in Edinburgh when we went to see The Housemartins, Heaton’s first band, in concert in the Moray House Union for the very reasonable sum of £2.

The set list, which I shamelessly stole then brazenly took backstage and got the band to sign – “we wondered what happened to that” – included their recent debut single Flag Day; Sheep, which would come out two weeks later; Happy Hour, which went to No3 in June, and Caravan of Love, which would reach No1 the week before Christmas.

What’s that? A precocious talent spotter? It’s really not for me to say.

For some reason, I didn’t buy a Housemartins T-shirt but one of His Latest Flame, the support act, named after an Elvis song as my much hipper lecturer would later enlighten me.

When it shrank in the wash, again for a reason I can’t now fathom I decided to take it to the top and wrote to the headline act. Even more remarkably, the band’s bassist Norman Cook (that’s right, the future Fatboy Slim) wrote back, enclosing not a replacement T but something much more precious, a mix-tape of Housemartins demos and rarities, no fewer than 23 tracks on one side, complete with liner notes, and a concert recorded at the Clarendon in Hammersmith on the other.

He warned me not to make a copy, in fact he advised me to eat it after a few listens, advice which I of course ignored – home taping was not killing music and sharing is caring.

My favourite anecdote? “Drums on Pull Me Through are Norman hitting a chair, recorded on a four-track mixed and produced by Norman ‘Trevor Horn’ Cook. Fart by P.D. [Paul Heaton].”

My favourite line? “This is taking fucking hours.” No, this is gold. It’ll be worth it, Norman. It might take 33 years, but we’re going to get an article out of this.

A potted history

He even included a potted history of the band, prefaced with a note thanking me for my “very witty and entertaining letter” – fingers crossed it turns up in the Fatboy Slim Archive – although claiming that “we are not at all responsible for the behaviour of our T-shirts”, a position which in the circumstances I chose not to contest in court.

He warned me not to make a copy, in fact he advised me to eat it after a few listens, advice which I of course ignored – home taping was not killing music and sharing is caring. Worse still, I lent someone the original and they never gave it back.

A couple of years ago, I shared this memorabilia on Twitter, out of nostalgia but also as proof that famous people can be nice people too. Earlier this year it was retweeted by an account promoting National Letter Writing Month, which is obviously a thing. Next it’s been liked by Jacqui Abbott who invites me to her gig with Heaton.

As a thank you, I give her a copy of Lucy Caldwell’s Faber anthology of Irish short stories, Being Various. I should have given Heaton a copy of Dubliner Karl Whitney’s Hit Factories: A Journey Through the Industrial Cities of British Pop as it features a chapter on Hull, in which The Housemartins figure prominently, alongside another band I love, Everything But the Girl.

Philip Larkin gets a mention too for his passion for Black American music. Before he became Hull's university librarian, he spent several years in Belfast, another rich cultural exchange between these islands. In the run-up to the Twelfth, I recall his deeply unflattering description of Orange parades in the 1950s and later of Ian Paisley:

See the Pope of Ulster stand,
Spiked shillelagh in each hand,
Vowing to uphold the Border,
Father, Son and Orange Order

Hull also elected for many years as one of its MPs Kevin McNamara, a longtime Labour spokesman on the North once described as the greatest Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Britain never had.

Growing up Irish and Catholic in the political slum that was the North during the Troubles, there was a lot not to like about the behaviour of Britain’s armed forces and the arrogance and indifference of its politicians. But culture was a bridge that brought me to a different, better Britain. I felt right at home in the books of mostly northern, working-class writers like David Storey, films like Billy Liar – oh Julie Christie! – and the music of bands such as The Smiths and Dexys Midnight Runners, realising only later that their roots were as Irish as my own.

Greatest cultural exchange

I root out all my old Housemartins and Beautiful South albums and 12-inch singles and start playing them again. There are a couple of doubles as my record collection is merged with that of my late wife Nikki, my greatest cultural exchange. She was English and Jewish (with, as she said, the emphasis on ish) and my wedding speech may have cited as an auspicious augur the mythical twinning of Sodom and Begorrah. It definitely included lines from Black is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair, which I had always thought of as Irish because it is a staple of Christy Moore’s but it is of course Scottish. The overlap of our record collections was not so much a surplus as a symbol of the sufficiency of things in common that make relationships work.

The overlap of our record collections was not so much a surplus as a symbol of the sufficiency of things in common that make relationships work

I listen to Heaton and Abbott’s albums and one track stands out, Blackwater Banks, for it is a love letter from Heaton to Ireland.

"Oh Ireland, oh Ireland no wonder my roots
Were never in briefcases, never in suits
Of New York or London or Paris – no thanks
But down by the Blackwater Banks"

They don’t include it in their Trinity set, perhaps loath to appear to be currying favour, but Heaton prefaces the song Build with a reference to Ireland’s homelessness/housing crisis and later he nails his colours firmly to the mast, pointing to the blue flag with a circle of gold stars that is proudly displayed on stage.

“We have the European flag here,” he says to applause. “I do feel we have more in common with you than with Boris Johnson. Long may it last.”

"We have the European flag here," he says to applause. "I do feel we have more in common with you than with Boris Johnson. Long may it last."

At the end of a week in which Britain’s Brexit MEPs had turned their backs on Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, it is a powerful statement of solidarity, of hands (and bands) across borders.

Trinity College is an appropriate setting for this gig, founded by Elizabeth I as a bastion of English and Protestant culture but now evolved into an essential and integral part of Irish life and education.

Where would be be without each other? It is hard to imagine Irish literature having the international standing it does without the enthusiastic support of British publishers. That said, it must be understood as a partnership of equals. Not for the first time last week I had to interrupt and correct a senior London publisher who had referred to Britain in relation to Ireland as “the mainland”. I am haunted by the fact that a BBC radio producer once objected to Samuel Beckett’s own translation into English of En Attendant Godot as “too Irish”. No wonder Beckett, when asked if he was English, replied: “Au contraire.”

Heaton at one point lists the Irish artist that each band member would marry: Van Morrison, Sinead O’Connor, The Corrs, Bob Geldof and, finally, for Jacqui Abbott, Paul McGrath, a choice which inspires impromptu chants from the crowd of Ooh Aah Paul McGrath.

McGrath is a much loved figure on both sides of the Irish Sea, another powerful bridge between our two countries. Born in London to an Irish mother, he grew up in Dublin but became a cult hero first in Manchester and then in Birmingham when he joined Aston Villa, just 15 years after the Birmingham pub bombings, quite a feat of personality.

In an era where cynical, me féiner Brexiter politicians across the snot-green sea are tearing down the ties that bind us and stoking atavistic animosities, Heaton, like McGrath, is an envoy of sanity and empathy. Long may he and Abbott sing.

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