When Paul Heaton’s manager texted him to say he was trending on Twitter, his initial thought was: “Have I upset someone?” But perhaps that’s just a sign of the former Beautiful South and Housemartins frontman’s modesty. In fact, it was because Ted Kessler, the editor of Q magazine, had shared how, when Heaton heard the magazine was closing, he donated a large sum of money to distribute among the staff, writers and photographers to ease the blow. As Q’s deputy editor from 2017 and on-staff since 2011, I was one of the beneficiaries, and Ted spoke for us all when he tweeted that: “It really was the most amazingly kind, selfless, generous act.”
With so many other people losing their jobs during the pandemic, it is perhaps unsurprising that when news of this incredible gesture hit social media it sparked an outpouring of affection, but also other posters to chip in with their own Paul Heaton encounters, that confirmed his all round kindness. But for the 58-year-old, who lives in a terrace house in Withington, Manchester with his family, it was a little embarrassing. “I hadn’t planned on it being so public and I didn’t realise people would latch on to it so much,” he says. Heaton assumes it caused such a stir because it provided a nice break from what he describes as the “viper’s den” of social media. “People are looking for glimmers of hope. It was probably well-timed for some people to have a lift.”
There was one person who definitely wasn’t surprised by the news – Heaton’s manager. “I was saying to my manager: ‘Try and find out how many people are working there,’ and he was saying: ‘Don’t be doing something stupid!’ As soon as he says that, it’s usually a thing for me to do.” Q was a constant presence throughout Heaton’s career – from his breakthrough with the indie band the Housemartins in the 80s, through to the 90s mega success of kitchen-sink pop balladeers the Beautiful South and his subsequent solo work – and he felt compelled to help out.
It was obviously not the first time – so what other acts of stealth altruism has he been carrying out. “That’s a secret!” he says coyly. But he is willing to say that, sitting in his inbox, is an email from his accountant that he finds particularly amusing. “It’s just him despairing, ’cos he’s saying: ‘We can save money this way,’ and I’m being opposite and contrary, which is how I was brought up. If he says: ‘Here’s a way of saving money,’ then I say: ‘Well, I want to pay more tax on it.’ That’s how I’ve been and that’s how I’ll remain.” Heaton once even tried to nationalise his back catalogue, but was turned down by the former business secretary Greg Clark. Undeterred, he is now in negotiations to pay a higher council tax.
High on his list of financial priorities is to make sure people in his local community are looked after. He has lived in Manchester for almost two decades and, before lockdown, knew three-quarters of the neighbours on his street fairly well. Now it is closer to 100%, “and I know the other three-quarters much better … there’s been a lot of really positive friendships come out of it,” he says.
It seems throughout a soul-sapping 2020, Heaton has managed to retain his position as one of life’s optimists. “I’m vociferously anti-government and I strongly believe this government would have fallen if we’d had the right journalists and critics,” he says. But, “let’s not fall out about wearing a mask, let’s direct that energy of argument against the government and say: ‘Well, neither of us should be wearing a mask, it should be over and done with, we should have had test and trace’.”
Personally, he is enjoying masks. “Some of us have been stockpiling doughnuts, which is my expression for putting on weight,” he laughs. “I was listening to Ian Brown going on about not wearing a mask and thought: ‘No wonder, you lucky bastard, you’ve got a right chiselled face; as soon as you put a bit of weight on, like me, you’d be pro-mask.’”
Heaton and the former Beautiful South singer Jacqui Abbott achieved a No 1 with their fourth album, Manchester Calling, in March, and they released a Christmas single titled Christmas (And Dad Wants Her Back) in November. Heaton hopes that, despite everything, future generations will look back on 2020 in a positive light. “I hope people say: ‘Well, we didn’t all fight, we came together,’” he says. “I think human interaction is one of the most important things. That’s what I’ve learned about myself this year: interact with people more kindly, more patiently, and try and look more positively at people’s negatives.”
A few days after our chat, Heaton’s co-manager breaks the code of secrecy and forwards me an email from a local Sure Start centre which Heaton has been helping. “Paul isn’t one for blowing his own trumpet,” he says, “but I thought it was worth forwarding on.” The families highlighted in the email run into their hundreds and the assistance provided includes hot meals, Christmas presents, fixed doors, homeless support, help for asylum seekers and much more. “He donates a significant amount,”he says, “and also did at the start of the Covid crisis.” His heroic status is secured. Let the history books show that Paul Heaton led the way, a ray of light cutting through the gloom.