The Indie Series – Pete Zulu 

Pete ‘Zulu’ Robson was the founding member of 80s pop sensation, The Toy Dolls. He now owns and runs The Black Horse pub and restaurant in West Boldon. But do you really know him? Richard Dawson sits down with the man described as ‘a true polymath’ by Dave Stewart to find out more about his fascinating life

Pete Zulu grew up in Hendon, the part of Sunderland where Thomas Melville opened the city’s first shipyard all the way back in 1346. We’ve come a long way since the 14th century but as Pete recounts, his dreams of becoming an artist came up against this industrial heritage from a young age.

“When I was at school there was a careers officer, so I went to see him, and he asked what do you want to do?” Pete recalls. “I said, I want to be an artist, and he said right you can either go down the pit or to the shipyards.”

It was at this point Pete realised he was going to have to swim against the tide. And it seems he’s a good swimmer. His approach to cooking is one example.

“When it comes to food, I can think of angles, change things and come up with new ideas,” he says. A menu with dishes such as crab lasagne and blackened tuna steak reinforces this.

Stepping into Pete’s pub is another lesson in defying convention. The décor is wild and busy, a refreshing contrast to the minimalist aesthetic many restaurants adopt today. A car door hangs over the bar with daily specials printed on it. Food menus are displayed in the centre of a 12” record sleeve. Photographs, paintings and other reclaimed articles leave no corner of the pub exposed.

This non-conformist approach crosses over into Pete’s photography too.

“It doesn’t matter if everything’s not pin sharp. If you’ve got an image in your mind, and it’s the way you want it, nobody can tell you it’s wrong. I can’t imagine life without being creative.”

Whether it be in the kitchen, behind the camera or in the studio, Pete’s creativity seeps into everything he does.

“I find it extraordinary how some people don’t feel creative, don’t take photographs, don’t cook, don’t do art,” he says.

For him, its pure therapy. “Everything I do, writing wise or photography wise, basically I do for me. That’s the level I go to, to satisfy myself.”

“As soon as you try to do things for other people, thinking about what they might want, you’re in a right load of trouble,” he elaborates.

This creative streak has allowed Pete to approach his business from a different angle, always inventing and reinventing dishes for the restaurant and keeping one eye on how to integrate more of his passion for the arts into his day to day life.

What comes across most during the interview is Pete’s nostalgia. This is plain to see in his autobiographical books ‘Wills Diamonds’ and ‘Triggers’, which both combine his best photography with some deeply personal anecdotes on love and grief from different times of his life.

The most recent book ‘Triggers’ also conceptualises how different fragrances or aftershaves can bring back memories from the past.  Pete explains, “It’s [the book] called triggers, because it’s a mechanism that sets off a chain reaction.”

“The smell is the trigger and the reaction is the memories that it brings back.”

Explaining his nostalgia, Pete explains: “I love the idea of leaving a trail, of becoming immortal. Records, artwork or photographs; as long as they’re still around, you’re immortal.”

“Or there’s the other way of not dying, but that’s a bit more difficult,” he muses.

Pete says, “I’ve always been nostalgic, that’s really why I bought a camera. I’ve never been able to write a diary or anything like that, so I just started taking pictures.”

He’s particularly interested in what time does to a photograph.

“Age will change the photograph, because it becomes historically important rather than aesthetically important.”

In a fitting end to a conversation about defiance, creativity and nostalgia, Pete counsels that ‘what you remember is the truth and that’s all you can do.’

If you want to learn more about Pete Zulu, pick up a copy of his book or better yet head down to The Black Horse where you can fully immerse yourself in his eclectic nostalgia and enjoy some really great food in the process.



Pete Zulu
The Black Horse