Norman Cook: ‘Working in a café has put a smile on my face’ 

 Norman Cook at his Hove seafront home on the roof with smiling acid face emoji

How working in a cafe put a smile back on Fatboy Slim's face - Credit: Jim Holden

When his work dried up during lockdown, Hove-based Norman Cook, aka Fatboy Slim, went behind the till at his cafe and doubled down on his mission to help Martlets hospice raise £2m to fund a new state-of-the-art HQ

Words: Angela Wintle Photographs: Jim Holden  

It was a simple act of kindness which persuaded Norman Cook that he should become an ambassador for Martlets Hospice in Brighton and Hove. His father-in-law, Richard (his ex-wife Zoe Ball’s stepdad), was terminally ill with Motor Neurone Disease, but wanted to fulfil one last dying wish. An ardent Brighton and Hove Albion football fan, he longed to see a final game. Could they make this possible? 

‘I can’t say I was very optimistic because when somebody’s dying, say, in hospital, you wouldn’t normally let them check out to watch a football match,’ says Norman. ‘But we mentioned it to Martlets and they said, “Of course. Let’s see what we can do.” I remember saying, “Are you sure?” But they said not only would they allow it, they would facilitate it. They were there to make dying wishes come true.’ 

Norman, who in the 1990s was a byword for hard living and excess, may not seem the obvious ambassador for a hospice, but that’s the point. Terminal illness touches many of us in some shape or form, and it doesn’t discriminate. Having witnessed first hand how Martlets assists dying people and their families, he wanted to help.  

‘Somehow, the ladies at Martlets address the elephant in the room,’ he says. ‘Let’s face it, few of us dare look death in the face. And certainly not a DJ, whose job is hedonism and prolonging adolescence.  

‘I’d never witnessed palliative care before. In a normal hospital, it’s all about trying to make people better. With palliative care, there isn’t any making better. It’s about dealing with death and what’s going to happen in the future. We’d had the bad news and we were trying to come to terms with it. Martlets saw a big part of their role as not only looking after my father-in-law, but also his nearest and dearest. 

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‘I was blown away by their kindness, empathy and thoughtfulness. They dealt with the practicalities of death with an effortless charm, stoicism and sense of humour. And they focused on celebrating his life rather than obsessing about the fact that it was ending.  

‘That touched me and I can tell when it has touched others. When I’m canvassing and drumming up donations, I only have to say “Martlets” and I can tell by the look in people’s eyes that they’ve had the same experience.’ 

Norman, aka Fatboy Slim, has suggested we meet at his home on Western Esplanade in Hove, familiarly known by the locals as ‘Millionaires’ Row’. He leads me into his open-plan kitchen, sporting joggers and two days’ worth of stubble. He says the previous evening he flew in from a gig in Holland. The weekend before that, he was in Rome and Switzerland.   

He boils the kettle while I admire his very own stretch of private beach. At high tide, the proximity to the sea is alarming. ‘Adele moved after one storm too many,’ he jokes, referring to his former neighbour’s decision to sell up for a cool £2.85m in 2016. He points out the shingle littering his balcony, but says he and his neighbours weathered Storm Eunice without any ill effects. 

Norman Cook loves living in Stellar Street in Hove  

Norman Cook loves living on Stellar Street in Hove - Credit: Jim Holden

Yes, about those neighbours. You may have heard of them. ‘We don’t call it Millionaires’ Row. We call it Stellar Street,’ he grins. ‘It’s surreal who’s here, although I don’t want to say who.’ Then he tells me sotto voce that David Walliams and Nick Berry still drop in at weekends. But it isn’t quite as starry as the old days. ‘At one point we had Paul McCartney, Adele, me and Zoe. People would say, “Was that Paul McCartney who just walked past in his Speedos?”’ 

Nevertheless, he doesn’t buy into the fame game. Well, not any more. Whenever he or Zoe started showing signs that they were losing touch with reality, one would cut the other down to size. Besides, now that the dust has settled since their highly-publicised marriage break-up six years ago, his life appears quieter.  

‘The lovely thing about my relationship with Brighton is that people, on the whole, leave me alone,’ he says. ‘Eventually, most of the locals bump into me in Waitrose and once they’ve said hello and done a selfie, it ceases to be a big thing. I’m just part of the furniture here.’ 

It wasn’t always the case. Back in the late 1990s, Norman and Zoe were one of the UK’s best-known showbiz couples, whose wild partying epitomised Cool Britannia. They also came to personify Brighton and Hove’s heady youth culture, which was then revelling in its newly-acquired city status under New Labour. 

These days Norman is just as likely to be found doing a jigsaw as partying on a beach in Ibiza, although he still emits a whiff of danger.  

‘The thing that has always kept me sane is the fact that Fatboy Slim and Norman Cook are two very different people,’ he says. ‘Fatboy Slim is a cartoon version of what I used to be when I was younger – a feckless party animal with a mental age of about 15. Norman Cook is a 58-year-old father of two who’s responsible, cares about people and tries to do his bit for charity. The only thing they have in common is their love of Brighton and loyalty to their friends. When I come off stage, I put Fatboy Slim back in his box because he was the dangerous one in my life.’ 

He admits the swagger is largely an act to overcome his innate shyness. ‘Actually, my friends describe me as a shy show-off. I can switch on the show-off to get over my shyness in certain situations.’ 

But surely as he approaches his sixth decade, there must be times when he’s just not feeling it as he gears up for yet another long set in the early hours? 

‘Yeah, there are nights when I don’t feel particularly euphoric. I find myself thinking, “Do I really have to go on stage at 3am? Why can’t people go out earlier?” But all that changes the minute I walk on and I feel the love and joy for these people.’ 

Watching him command a vast nightclub packed with ecstatic ravers, like the Pied Piper of Hamlyn, makes you realise why his love for his job never gets old. It must feel intoxicating being at the centre of that vortex, channelling all that emotion. Does it make him feel god-like? 

‘No, I don’t like the God analogy,’ he says, shrivelling at the suggestion. ‘I don’t want to get into a John Lennon religion thing. I prefer to describe myself as a shepherd of moments. I’m just stirring the cauldron, trying to shape people’s evenings into a wonderful thing. And that hunger to connect through music has been more powerful than ever since lockdown. When I did the Wembley Arena shows in November, you could see how much people needed that escape and release after being locked away.’ 

The pandemic badly affected Martlets, too. As well as demand for its services remaining high (it cared for 2,918 people affected by terminal illness in 2020-21), calls to the hospital’s 24-hour helpline doubled. The hospice remained open to patients for the majority of the pandemic, but many outpatient, therapeutic, counselling and bereavement services had to be moved online.  

Fundraising activities were also severely curtailed, with its charity shops closed for more than seven months, and all its regular fundraising events cancelled. This was a major setback because the charity, which offers its services for free, raises three quarters of its income from the community. 

Norman is no stranger to fundraising for Martlets and has been the public face of many of its campaigns. He sponsored a fibreglass snowdog outside his Big Beach Cafe at Hove Lagoon, walked a marathon around its Snailspace art trail and has hosted numerous live DJ sets.  

Norman Cook is ambassador for Martlets hospice 

Norman Cook is ambassador for Martlets hospice - Credit: Jim Holden

Now, in Martlets’ 25th anniversary year, he is the public face of its capital appeal which aims to raise the remaining £2m needed to rebuild the hospice and make it fit for purpose over the next 25 years. Construction on a new expanded building, comprising 14 private ensuite patient rooms, all with access to landscaped gardens, a new gym for rehabilitation and a sanctuary area for peaceful reflection, will begin in June.  

Work is expected to last until autumn 2023 and in the interim the hospice will be moved to temporary locations around the city. But it’s important to stress that the majority of care is provided in people’s homes by community nursing teams. 

Lockdown had a big impact on Norman, too. Initially, when all his gigs dried up, he sat back and enjoyed the summer off with his kids, Woody,21, and Nelly, 12, that he’d always promised himself. Then he started to worry: ‘If I took a year off, would I still have the drive to do my job? Would people forget me? Would the culture of clubbing change?’ 

And then, when his children went back to their studies and he was still out of work, he started to get restless, so he rolled up his sleeves and went to work at his cafe.  

‘It was purely for my mental health. It cheered me up no end just being able to talk to people. Although I’d owned the cafe for seven years, I hadn’t worked a till since 1985 in Rounder Records. The staff were initially wary around the boss, but soon started calling me the trainee. And I must admit, I did take pleasure in the irony of me working there. Customers would smile and say, “Has it come to this?”’ 

As it turns out, Norman’s fears were misplaced and he is now as much in demand as a DJ as ever. This June, he’ll be performing at Glastonbury and, in July, staging Big Beach Boutique VI on Brighton Beach. 

Norman Cook in the studio at his Hove seafront home

Norman was scared his DJ work would dry up after the pandemic - Credit: Jim Holden

Is he receptive to new music? ‘Receptive? I spend three hours every day trawling the internet for new tunes,’ he says, sounding disgruntled. ‘Having an ear for a good hook is worth gold dust, but I put in the legwork.’ While his appetite for DJing remains undimmed, he has stopped releasing albums. ‘I’m not really motivated to make new music. I might be a bit old. I listen to what my daughter likes and I don’t understand it.’ 

As I get up to leave, I ask if he gets lonely rattling around in his big, white, modernist cube by the sea. That’s assuming he’s single, of course? ‘Yeah, I am, but I’m not lonely. I’ve got my kids and my friends. I just haven’t met the right person yet. Zoe is a tough act to follow. In the meantime, I’m not going on Tinder, just for the sake of it. One day I’ll meet someone who will knock my socks off and that’ll be lovely.’ 

  • If you would like to find out more about Martlets hospice care and how you can support the charity, visit martlets.org.uk or call 01273 747455 to make a donation.