A member of 80s pop band The Housemartins and now a prolific children’s writer was in Cyprus last week. THEO PANAYIDES meets a man who has managed to live his life on his own terms
Stan Cullimore sits in an empty hall, reminiscing. “My friend Paul, who I wrote with – hello! do you want anything?” he breaks off, as a little girl approaches uncertainly. The setting is the Junior School in Nicosia, which is in the midst of a Writing and Literacy Week and – as it does every year – has invited a well-known children’s author to talk to the kids. For the little girl, who wants to buy a souvenir pen, Stan is the nice man with the ukulele who sang a song about all his favourite stories being “dirty filthy lies”. I assume she doesn’t know that, decades before she was born, he used to be a member of the Housemartins, a pop band who had six Top 20 singles in the UK, or that “my friend Paul” is Paul Heaton, who later formed the Beautiful South and sold 15 million records worldwide.
That was a long time ago, of course – even for adults. A little later, I overhear some teachers discussing Stan’s pop career as we wait for the man himself to begin his next workshop. “He wrote ‘Are You Ready?’ and ‘House of Love’,” reckons one woman – though in fact “Are you ready?” is the opening line from ‘Caravan of Love’, the band’s only No. 1 hit (and they didn’t write it, since it was originally done by the Isley Brothers). Their most successful original composition was the jangly, exuberant ‘Happy Hour’, which reached No. 3 in June 1986 and was written by Paul and Stan “in about 10 minutes” – though the lyrics are typically sharp beneath the exuberance (speaking of an alienated working man, and the horrors of “a night out with the boss”), a reminder that the band were both Marxists and Christians. The usual process, Stan recalls, was that Heaton would write lyrics, then the two of them “would chop them and move them around to make a song”.
It sounds a bit like Paul was the creative spark, Stan the organiser – which would certainly chime with his persona, from his geeky appearance in the Housemartins (he was the thin, gormless-looking one with enormous horn-rimmed glasses, like a goofier Elvis Costello) to the fact that he didn’t just write songs and play guitar but also managed the band, sorting out the contracts and legal minutiae. “When I was about 24, I used to employ about 30 people – as well as being a pop star, I was also running the company. So one minute we’d be playing the gig, and hanging out with people and having a laugh, then you’ve got to go and talk to the promoters, go and talk to the record company people, go and talk to the lawyers…”
Was he up to it, as a 24-year-old?
“I loved it!” He’d done a maths degree, with the intention of becoming a teacher, so “I quite liked facts and figures and legal stuff”.
We’re interrupted by another little girl. Stan is camped out in an empty hall, surrounded by memorabilia, and classes are brought in to hear him speak (“My job is to think up stupid stuff and get people to pay for it!” he tells a bunch of kids as I’m leaving) – but now this little girl wants a notebook, described on the cover as “A notebook for super stories, perfect poems and silly songs”.
“Do you want a pen with it, or the last hat?” asks Stan as she hands over a couple of euros. The girl opts for a pen, but also wants him to autograph three pages in the notebook for herself and her friends. (Looks like he’s been signing autographs, one way or the other, since the 80s, I point out as he quickly scribbles his name on the first three pages.) The business side seems to suit him, the whole give-and-take of striking a bargain, even when it’s just peddling notebooks to youthful fans. It’s not like he needs the money, after more than 120 children’s books, dozens of children’s TV scripts, and the Beautiful South compilation (which includes some Housemartins songs) having sold “half a million copies or something stupid” in the UK alone – but “I’ve always been good at deals,” he tells me. “I’ve always been interested in negotiation. I like negotiating.”
I suspect that’s his main personality type – not so much the sensitive artist, certainly not the wild hedonist (his rock’n roll lifestyle doesn’t seem to have extended far beyond the odd pint of ale) but the hustler, the dealmaker. He recalls with relish his big break in the TV business, when he blagged his way into a job with a bigger company at twice the salary and half the working hours. Even his writing is a kind of deal-making. What’s the secret to writing a children’s book? “Always think of your audience,” he replies – and shows me, for instance, a book called Blood Wheels (it’s about an evil ghost car that chases children) which he wrote for a very specific niche, slightly older kids who can’t read very well, so the story is exciting enough for 11-year-olds but the style is geared to the reading ability of an eight-year-old. “Who am I writing for? Who is the person I’m writing for?” The content of the books is almost incidental; anything goes, as long as it’s not too boring or too unpleasant. He doesn’t seem to be the kind of writer who writes to educate children, or pass on specific messages; like he told that Junior School class, what he loves most of all is thinking up stupid stuff and getting people to pay for it.
Has he changed over time? What was he like at 18? “I was probably annoying,” he chuckles dryly. “I had a big mouth, I thought a lot of myself, I was quite big-headed. I now realise that if I met me at that age I’d want to punch him and say ‘You idiot!’ You know? ‘Be more thoughtful, be nicer’. So yes, I was probably not a very nice person”.
Was he ambitious?
“Yes, I think I was very ambitious. I wanted to be a pop star”. Most teenage musicians jam in their parents’ garage but Stan was out busking, playing in the streets from the age of 14 or 15. “I’m very driven,” he says. “Very mouthy and driven. So if I want to do something, I just keep on doing it till someone says ‘Go away’.”
What actually drives him, though? “Having fun,” he replies. It certainly isn’t money. The Housemartins used to give “quite a lot” of their money to charity – not to massive feed-the-world projects but, for instance, buying minivans for a local school or sponsoring a youth football team, “just stuff like that, that we thought would help the local community”. And then of course he walked away from music altogether in 1988, just as his former bandmates became superstars (Heaton formed the Beautiful South; bassist Norman Cook changed his focus to electronic music and became world-famous DJ Fatboy Slim). Why did he do it? He met his wife Amy, he shrugs, and it just made sense. “A lot of the time, if I’m honest, I just do stuff that’s fun, that I think I’ll enjoy. So I wanted to be a pop star. I did it, I enjoyed it, I got a bit bored. Met my wife, thought ‘I think I want to spend my time with her. Just marry her and spend our time raising children together’. So that’s what I did.”
He’s now 53, and has four kids and assorted grandkids (he was already a grandfather in his mid-40s). He’s ditched the enormous specs – which came from a charity shop, that being all he could afford at the time – and now sports a salt-and-pepper beard, but he’s still very thin, his stomach flat as a washboard, and carries himself with a voluble confidence. His patter is a mix of ingratiating smoothness (“You’re right,” he’ll say towards the end of a long answer, making it sound like he’s agreeing with me when in fact he’s making the point he always wanted to make) and somewhat transparent self-deprecation. Did he really think the Paul Heaton compilation would “sell, like, three copies”? Did he really think, when he took part in University Challenge a couple of years ago, that his celebrity team would get knocked out in the first round? (They made it to the final; Stan reads a lot, currently a book about quantum physics.) It’s charm, of course, and the style of a pushy young man who’s learned how to mellow with age; giving interviews is also a kind of deal-making.
“Now, I’ve got one last hat,” he informs yet another little girl who trots over in search of memorabilia, “or you can have a pen with your notepad. Which would you like?”
“A pen,” she replies at once.
“A pen. I like that you know what you want. I like that.”
“Thank you,” she squeaks as he hands her the gift.
“Thank you very much. I hope you write lots of lovely stories in there, OK?”
Stan Cullimore also knows what he wants – and in fact his affable demeanour masks a man of strong principles, even if (he says) he no longer gets as angry as he used to. His parents were, and presumably are, quite religious – Dad was a lecturer in Human Biology, Mum a primary-school teacher; neither was thrilled when he chose to play guitar in a pop band, and they’re much happier now that he’s writing books and visiting schools – the kind of religion that emphasised self-reliance and helping the less fortunate, and dovetailed easily into left-wing idealism. The Housemartins were famously from Hull, their first album titled London 0, Hull 4, even though only one of the four was born there (Stan himself was born in Cambridge, as Ian Peter Cullimore) – but, for instance, Hull is next year’s City of Culture in the UK and Stan is quietly indignant at David Cameron’s attempt to co-opt the band into attending the festivities, because the PM is right-wing, hence the enemy. He still has a touch of the old Marxist, even if “I’ve definitely calmed down as I got older”.
Nowadays he lives near Bristol, having given up the middle-of-nowhere Scottish croft where he and Amy moved after the band split up. His old bandmates are still busy touring – Norman, aka Fatboy Slim, “goes onstage at three in the morning!” he marvels – but Stan himself lives a pretty quiet life, with the exception of the eight weeks a year when he visits schools like he’s doing today. “I spend a lot of time with my family when I’m home,” he says happily. “I like running, and cycling, and swimming. And I’ve got a Vespa. And I’ve got a dog. So, between them, those things keep me pretty busy.”
What would be his ideal day?
“My ideal day is a Sunday. We get up, I’ve got a lot of food in, I cook a huge dinner for everyone,” meaning his children – most of whom live nearby – and grandchildren. “I cook a dinner, everyone arrives. My son will help me cook a huge pork roast. Have dinner, go out for a walk with the dogs and the grandkids, take them to the park, then we go home and everyone sort of sits and chills and chats. And then they all go off, and I have a snooze!” He laughs out loud, at the blissful non-rock’n roll-ness of it all. “And in the evening I go out for a run, or a swim. That’s my perfect day.”
Most people, once part of a mega-successful pop band, would either stay in music or else spend a lifetime trading on past glories – but Stan Cullimore managed to do something else, leaving on his own terms, without acrimonious splits, then making it as a children’s author and TV writer which is arguably even harder than making it as a pop star. ‘On his own terms’ are the most important words in that sentence, he asserts: he’ll get “like a sulky kid” if he has to do what someone else tells him to do. “Perhaps I’m still a bit punchable now,” he muses, thinking back to his big-headed younger self. “But, to be honest, it doesn’t really happen. I’ve set my life up so that, most of the time, I decide what I want to do.”
The hall is filling up now. It’s Year 6, a warier, tougher crowd than their younger counterparts. “If I’m honest, I wouldn’t want to do [pop stardom] again, I much prefer this,” he tells me, eyeing his trusty ukulele. “I’m living the sort of quiet version of my dream. I get to do all the fun stuff, like sing songs and have a laugh – but I also get to go back to the hotel at two o’clock and go out for a walk, or a meal, or a swim!”. He heads to the front of the room, working his charm on the packed crowd of kids. “Does anyone here play football?” he shouts out genially, and all hands go up.