Excerpted from Anger Is an Energy: My Life Uncensored by John Lydon © 2016, and reprinted by permission of Dey Street Press, an Imprint of HarperCollins. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.
BORN FOR A PURPOSE
‘Trials and tribulations!’ I wrote in the early ’80s, trying to come to grips with the chaos and confusion in which I entered the world. ‘When I was born, the doctor did not like me/He grabbed my ankles, held me like a turkey/Dear Mummy, why d’you let him hit me/This was wrong, I knew you did not love me.’ Three verses later you arrive at the conclusion that I was a very disgruntled baby.
That song, ‘Tie Me To The Length Of That’, I’m really proud of. At the time on TV, there were a lot of medical programmes where they were showing actual births. They were breaking new ground about what you could actually show, so watching all these babies popping out all over the shop, I was like, ‘Look at that, they’re smacking that poor little babby’s bottom as it comes out’.’ They do it with good reason, but I was just thinking, how traumatic must that be, from the sanctity of the womb to, ‘There’s a good slap on your backside, fella!’
My father was furious when he heard the song, because there’s a reference to him, the ‘stupid drunk – then the bastard dropped me’. This was a story my aunt told me, and one my mum later reiterated, that he turned up drunk, the proud father. He’d taken a day off work and, in the panic of it all, one thing led to another. I was born in the early wee hours of the 31st, in the bitterly cold January of 1956, and he’d been ‘panicking’ all night.
He was furious at his portrayal. ‘It whaddn’t loike dat! Well … it moighta happened but not for da reasons yer t’ink!’ Poor Daddy. I wasn’t doing it to be spiteful or get back at him. As I say, I was just trying to translate into song the emotions I must’ve been going through as a newborn. That’s why I love writing songs; it’s absolutely researching myself to the nth degree.
There’s a picture from my own parents’ wedding which is of fabulous interest to me because there, in the far-right corner, is my Auntie Agnes holding a baby. The most likely explanation is that this baby must have been me. So: I’m a bastard! In recent years, I’ve even had to deal with other children apparently born to my mum out of wedlock. I never could get honest answers out of all of the relevant family members. None of them like talk, everything is hush-hush, and so everything is a mystery. Certainly, until I’ve sorted out the mystery in my own life and my own position, I find it very difficult to deal with other alleged family members.
I had no birth certificate, and I suspected I possibly wasn’t born in London because maybe my father was worried about being drafted for National Service, so he had to duck and dive a bit. For obvious reasons, I have to be vague about it, as indeed my mother and father were with information about themselves, or anything at all. It was like trying to get blood out of a stone. ‘Hello, am I a member of this family?’ ‘Well, ye know …’ that would be my mother’s sense of humour, which was very hard to grasp when you’re young. It kept me in a constant state of alertness – to come back at things from another angle. So many games of noughts and crosses your parents can play, teasing their children. It all becomes very useful in adulthood.
It taught me to be sharp. Rather than them just ignore you, and tell you about the tooth fairy – it was a higher level than that. They’re not plying you with fantasy. It was obvious in our house that if Santa Claus tried to come down the chimney, one, he’d be burnt, and two, he’d be beaten to a pulp as a very suspicious character – a priest of child-molestation quality!
In them days, it was a little bit different to now. You didn’t trust no one. Mum and Dad were very backwards folk – not dumb, they were clever in their own way, because they were survivalist – but as to how situations in England worked, they always felt manipulated.
My dad, John Christopher Lydon, came from Galway, and he was used to working on all manner of heavy-duty equipment. He came over to London at fourteen, looking for work on the building sites, and he quickly got a licence so he could drive cranes and things. He’d never seen himself as a shit-shoveller.
His father was a violent, brawling, weird thing. He came to England before my father, and he lived nearby, but the two never liked each other very much. My dad was always over there at his place, trying to connect somehow. It was very grim. We used to call him the ‘Owl Fella’, as in the Old Fellow – he never looked much like an owl. He was a prolific smoker. He used to smell of cigarettes all the time, and he always had a fag butt sticking out at the corner of his mouth. He talked very guttural, and it was hard to make out what he was saying, because he was obviously a fully fledged alcoholic, and a definite playboy for the prostitutes. It was very odd watching their relationship.
My mum, Eileen, was very loving, but in a very quiet way. There wasn’t much said. That’s all you need when you’re little – attention from adults, but the right kind of attention. Mum always had something wrong going on health-wise. They were only seventeen or eighteen when they married and started having us.
My mother’s family, the Barrys, came from County Cork – a place called Carrigrohane. Apparently they met while he was working there. We’d have to go to their farm every summer holiday, all to please my mum, really. They could hardly bear us and, annoyingly, we had to tolerate them. They’d sit around not talking to each other. My granddad and grandmother from my mother’s side weren’t big talkers. In fact, the whole family would sit in silence for days, but for forcing words out of them. A very quiet way of being – very strange. That would drive my dad spare, because Dad was a talker, in his own way.
There was some kind of resentment buried about my father. They wouldn’t talk to him, but he endured it. I think it was all to do with … he wasn’t good enough for her, which was a very strange proposition, because again years later we find out that my grandmother from my mother’s side was ostracized from her family for marrying Jack Barry, my mother’s father, who was something of a war hero, in the ‘fight for independence’, ha ha.
Apparently her side ‘had money’ – whatever that means. It’s hard to explain outside of Ireland, but money meant you owned the farm. He built his own farm after the war, when the South won their rights. So he obviously did well for himself, but he was pre-judged, and the Irish can be incredible snobs – much more so than anything in Britain, even with the class structure. It’s always lurking there.
Life for us in London was very inner-city and deprived. Everyone around us was piss-poor. We had no concept of what money really was. We lived on Benwell Road, which is where Arsenal have now built their Emirates Stadium. It was right by the railway bridge, in a Guinness Trust block called Benwell Mansions. There was a shop out front that was occupied at the time we moved in by a tramp called Shitty Tom. You went down a hallway, and we lived around the back yard in two rooms – a kitchen and a bedroom, with an outdoor toilet, which was available to the public. You’d find drunks passed out in it at night, which meant we had to grow up very accustomed to using the pisspot. There was also a bomb shelter there, but because people used it to dump rubbish, it was full of rats.
In the bedroom was Mum, Dad, me, and then my younger brothers, as they arrived – Jimmy, Bobby and finally Martin. Then it was six – four kids, two parents. We weren’t touchy-feely as a family; you really didn’t need to be. You imagine – two double beds and a cot, in a tiny room with an oil heater, and you’re touching each other all the time accidentally. The very last thing you want on top of that is huggy-poo. Because come winter you’re all wrapped under your old coats anyway.
The rent was £6 a month, something like that. To this day, when I hear that racial slur, like, ‘Look at them Pakis, eight to a room’ – I think, ‘Well, hello, not only are those the words of racist bigots, but I actually grew up like that.’ I know most people around me did too. We weren’t thinking it had anything at all to do with the colour of your skin. It’s economic deprivation.
When Shitty Tom died, we moved into the front room. That man never ever threw anything out, so you can imagine the pile. And the smell didn’t go away for a long time, because he was in there for a week before anyone found him. There always seems to have been stinky, smelly dead bodies around me.
I had to learn botty-wiping at a very early age for my younger brothers. It was through necessity, that’s just how it was. My mum was very ill for much of the time, and somebody had to do it. I’m not at all disgusted by it now, that’s humanity. I think it was a great thing that my Mum asked me, would I? And I did. I liked the responsibility of it. I knew I could be up at the crack of dawn, and I didn’t mind making porridge. I liked sorting things out.
Around our neighbourhood I think there was a lot of that: people looking out for the younger ones. These are all community values that are sorely being dissipated. I don’t mean that in a romantic delusional way, because I imagine things before the Second World War were, ‘I hate you more than you hate me.’ I don’t imagine there was much of a sense of community other than the incredibly arrogant Victorian toffs and the incredibly starving-to-death others. But after the war I suppose community was a different thing; it had to be pulled together because that was the only way to survive.
Dad was away a lot of the time. Often we’d go with him, wherever his work was. When I was about four, we lived in Eastbourne. What a hell-hole that was. My memory of it was terrifying, because our flat was right on the ocean, and listening to the sea at night absolutely scared the hell out of me. I just couldn’t help but think a wave would come in and drown us.
For the vast majority of the time, it was Mum looking after us. With Dad not around, I absolutely didn’t mind looking out for her. Somebody had to assume the role, and I liked it a lot. It’s instinctively in me to look out for people – that’s what I do.
My mother was always very worried. In them days, it’d always be the players trying to pop round, thinking, ‘Hmmm, a woman unprotected.’ There’d be a knock on the door, and she’d say, ‘Close the curtains, be quiet, wait till he goes away.’ We grew up very wary of strangers in that respect. Of men. Don’t trust them. I felt very, very protective of her. It’s the one area where I go into overdrive, when I think my family or my very close friends are threatened. A different situation comes on. That’s where Gandhi gets a bazooka.
My mum was always ill. Endless miscarriages didn’t help her none. I don’t suppose they knew much about safe-sex procedures in them days. Indeed, they would’ve viewed that as a mortal sin, as indoctrinated into them from on high – Catholic priests inflicting children upon you.
One time she had a miscarriage, and I was the only one with her in the flat. There were relatives all around, but sometimes you’re on your own, Jack. It’s quite a thing to carry a bucket of miscarriage – and you can see little fingers and things in it – and have to flush it all down the outdoor toilet. There wasn’t a phone in the house, so I had to deal with all that first and then go to the doctor, which was a long walk. That was quite a thing.
There were various other family members on hand to help out. Auntie Agnes, who’d married my father’s brother, lived in the same housing as us in Benwell Road. Then there was Auntie Pauline, who first came to live with us when we still only had the two rooms at Benwell. Looking back on it now that I’m an adult, I can’t conceive of how difficult that must’ve been for my dad and my mum in one bed, with my mum’s sister with me and Jimmy in the other. That’s up close and comfortable – not!
But I loved Auntie Pauline. She was like the big sister I never had – fantastically warm, but at the same time absolutely remote, in the Barry style. Once Shitty Tom died, we had an extra room for Auntie Pauline, which is where Uncle George came in. I loved that fella. He was so great.
At Christmas we had to go to church but Auntie Pauline refused. By the time we came back, she’d gnawed the heads off all the toy soldiers I’d just been given as presents. To this day, I don’t know why. When George came back, he’d bought me a house-building kit on the principles of Lego, but obviously cheaper. He opened that up and stole away my tears. I played with him all afternoon and I’ll never forget it, because he spent such a long time teaching me things and got me involved.
After a few years, he married Pauline and they moved to Canada. I was very impressed at the wedding for so many different reasons, chiefly for meeting George’s brother. I can’t remember his name, but he was an absolute Celtic hooligan with a 45-degree crevice across his face. He was like, ‘Aye reet. Ah goat hit wi’ an axe!’ Gosh, how impressive! That’s a fucking street fighter, mate. Wowzers!
My mother was devoted to making me an intelligent human being. It was her who taught me to read and write at four, a long time before school. By the time I finally got to Eden Grove Primary School, a Catholic school, it was a very serious problem for the nuns, because I was left-handed, and fluent. It was like, sit in the corner and wait for the rest of the class to catch up. The indolence crept in, and – for whatever reason, even though I was very shy and quiet – resentment from the nuns. So they’d hit me with, ‘Oh, you’re left-handed, that’s the sign of the devil.’ What kind of message is that, to give a five-year-old who can already read and write? What evil, spiteful nonsense is that?
That followed through bitterly, this absolute dislike of me, for being a smarty-pants or whatever. They’d beat you with the sharp edge of a ruler on your right hand but, because I wrote with my left hand, they hit me on the left … to make sure that I’d write with my right hand! But you can’t do that. That’s the way my brain’s wired. And it was utterly ridiculous because I didn’t need reading or writing lessons. I’d done that at home.
Eden Grove was a small school directly connected to a Catholic church – all the upstairs classes led in through a gang-plank into the church, and the downstairs ones through a courtyard, so you really couldn’t avoid it. Everything was holier-than-thou, and everything you did was wrong and God would punish you – such a peculiar attitude. It wasn’t anything I’d been expecting, up to the age of five, just how wicked they were.
Priests always frightened me. Going to church was terrifying as a young kid. They just always struck me as being very similar to Dracula or characters in Hammer horror movies. Christopher Lee! They always came over in that dogmatic, dictatorship way, and that condescending judgement. The nuns were worse because they were smelly old women with a bitter hatred of mankind. Brides of Jesus? I’m sure that’s not what He had in mind.
Many of the locals weren’t too happy with Irish immigrants full stop, but they certainly weren’t happy with a Catholic school, attached to a church, in the middle of these working-class council flats. They viewed that very much, I suppose, as people view a mosque today, as an alien agenda, and considered you an outsider for having anything to do with it.
I never felt Irish. I always felt, ‘I’m English, this is where I come from, and that’s that.’ Because you’d be reminded of that when you went to Ireland: ‘Ye’re not Oirish!’ the locals would say. So it was like, ‘Bloody hell, shot by both sides here.’ I still love that Magazine song – so relevant to me, those lyrics.
My brothers and I talked the local lingo, but I’d really forgotten how broad my parents’ accents were. My mother’s in particular was very deep Cork, and very country. After Malcolm’s passing, we were looking through Sex Pistols footage, and I found a tape of my mother being interviewed. It was all buried away in warehouses and, when I heard it back, I was shocked at how broad and hard to understand her accent was. It was almost unintelligible to me.
Mum and Dad tried to be religious, but obviously that didn’t work too well. The Catholic Church is all about money, and we didn’t have any. On Sundays we’d be dragged to church, but Mum and Dad were good in that it was never early-morning church when we were very young, it was always the 7 p.m. service, which was great because that meant we missed Jess Yates doing Stars On Sunday on the TV.
At school, I was working all this out for myself. Did I know there was sexual abuse going on there? Oh yeah, abso-fucking-lutely. It’s institutionalized abuse, and covered up and condoned. Everybody knew to run when the priest came a-visiting, and by no means ever get yourself involved in the choir, or any altar-boy nonsense, because that was direct contact number one, so I learned how not to sing very successfully – deliberately – bum notes, because I knew that would be a really dangerous thing to be waltzing into. So the love of singing was kicked out of me because of bloody priests. Imagine the joy of eventually joining the Sex Pistols, and making the world a better place – in a very vengeful way.
But for all that I was a quiet but happy little bunny. There was dirt and poverty and England was just out of rationing, but a nice hot English summer’s day seems to have mattered more to me. That’s my fondest memories, moments like that. What they call salad days. I never understood what that term meant when I was young, because salad was something I dreaded. My mum’s idea of a salad was Heinz Salad Cream, and awful pale-looking green leaf things. The only joy in it, of course, was the beetroot, because I love pickled beetroot. I can sit and eat a whole jar at a time. I love it! And I loved gooseberries too; my mum would buy them in the summer. Now, I can’t bear them. They’re vile. I don’t know how on earth I could tolerate something so sour. It was punishing to eat them, but maybe it was scurvy or Vitamin C deficiency that made my body crave them.
I liked the clothes that my mum would put us in. I adored the tartan waistcoats, and the little checked suits with the jackets, shorts and waistcoats. I liked all of that. She dressed us well, very matchy-matchy with Jimmy, but that was all right. It was kind of like, our gang wear this, and that’s that. That wasn’t what other kids were wearing, so maybe that somehow crept into me, as being important to be individual.
I appreciated it very much over time, because I know how poor we were. I know how much effort it took to dress us at all. It was always there, that we couldn’t afford nothing. There’s almost a fond memory, too, of near-starvation once – no money at all, so all there was for dinner was one can of Heinz Mulligatawny between all of us. It was Dad’s homecoming present to us, so there we are, all sitting around the one can of Mulligatawny. I don’t think they make it any longer, and with good reason. It was like a curried soup, and at the time for us the curry in it was inedible – burny-hot. And so, ‘I’d rather starve.’ ‘Well, starve, den!”’
You’d see big houses and things, but you wouldn’t have any relationship to it at all, didn’t understand it. It didn’t make sense to me that people could live in such large places. I always used to think, ‘What do they do with all them rooms? How do you sleep at night knowing there’s so many windows to lock?’
I loved the summers, because it meant we could be out all day long, with no need to go home at all – in fact, even forget that was home. And be so bitterly upset when it got dark in the evening. You’d hear the yelling and the screaming, ‘Wherr aaiir ye?’ There were bombsites from the war, and thousands of kids running rampant in them. They were absolutely like adventure playgrounds, thrilling. Amazing, a wonderful thing, a bombsite, to a kid. Never get bored, always something new to unravel and explore, and of course the factories too.
Bloody hell, at five, six, seven, trying to break into the factories was thrilling. The whole area around Benwell Road and Queensland Road was still all blown up from the war but they were putting factories in and around it. There’d be a whole bunch of us – everything you did in them days, there were twenty kids involved – and we’d build makeshift ladders out of bricks from the bombsite, to climb up the walls. Once you were on the roof, everything was easy, you’d just drop in. It was a challenge, and I liked that.
There was a Wall’s Ice Cream factory at the top of Queensland Road, and that was a magnet to try and break in there, but it was impossible – it was too modern, and had iron shutters and grilles and padlocks. Instead, you’d wait for the vans when they were loading, and when the workers would go in to fill up the trolley and bring it back, you’d try to nick a lolly. Every and any way to nick a Raspberry Split – that was the lolly of the day. Wall’s ice cream inside and raspberry ice on the outside – absolutely the most delicious lolly, and anything to get one for nothing.
The ice they used to pack the ice creams in between – it wasn’t liquid nitrogen, but something like that; there’s some chemical in it to keep them cold while transferring between the factory and the truck. One time, for a dare, I put my tongue on what I thought was an ice block, and it wasn’t, and it took a layer off. ‘Go on, I dare you to lick it!’ ‘Uuuurrhh, I’ll do anything, I’m mad!’ ‘Run, here they come!’ ‘Ulluullu…ulleh!’
One time, I got caught breaking in with my cousin Peter, Jimmy and two other kids. These coppers dragged Jimmy and me back to the house, and they must have seen the anxiety on our faces. My dad answered the door, and they said, ‘Are these your kids? We caught them breaking in …’ He went, ‘Therr not mine, nottin’ to do wi me!’ It was obvious they were nodding and winking at each other, and the police go, ‘Well, we don’t know what to do with them, maybe we should take them up north and leave them there?’ Oh, the sense of abandonment! I cried my eyes out. It sounded very real.
As adults, I suppose they were having a laugh about it, both sides. It was only an empty garage we got caught in, there was nothing in there. It was a smart way of telling you, ‘Stay out of what’s not yours.’ And, ‘Don’t get caught’ – that was always my dad’s bottom line. ‘If yer goanna do stupid t’ings, don’ get caught – don’ fockin’ embarrass me!’
So we were eventually let in, but made to stand outside for a while, and think about what we were doing. It worked. It ended the ‘letting ourselves into other people’s property’ phase. Who knows where that would’ve led? It’s a slippery slope, thievery and burglary and all of that, and presuming other people’s things are your right.
But that’s how London was. Not a lot of cars, empty streets, street lighting was poor, and there were just hundreds and hundreds of kids unsupervised, getting up to God knows what on bombsites. But not really unsupervised, it was, ‘Get oat an’ lerrrrn, an’ when ye com’ home, don’ bring da police wit’ ye!’
Meningitis came from the rats. They were all over the place. They piss on the ground and, as rodents do, drag their bums leaving a urine trail. Meanwhile, I’d make paper boats and float them in the potholes in our back yard, so I’d touch the water, and then touch my mouth, and that’s how I got infected.
It didn’t come on overnight. I’d had very bad headaches, dizzy spells, fainting fits, and imagining things that I knew weren’t there, like green dragons breathing fire. That was the awful thing about it, watching myself inside myself, panicking over something I knew wasn’t there. But I could not stop my body doing that. Screaming fits of total fear.
The night before I went into hospital, I had a pork chop, and I’ve never been able to eat pork chops since. I absolutely can’t go near ’em. Even the smell. I don’t mind crispy bacon, but a pork chop – no! Because I blamed everything on that, for many a year, so I ended up convincing myself that it was the pork what did it! How very healthy of me.
The next morning, when my mother thought, ‘Oh gosh, this is getting bad,’ the doctor came and I blacked out while he was in the house. The next thing I knew I was in an ambulance, and I blacked out again, and then months later I woke up in a hospital. I was in a total coma for six or seven months. Once I went into that, that was it, there was nothing that went on at all.
When I came to, I remember them waving fingers in front of my eyes, going, ‘Follow my finger.’ I deliberately didn’t, because even though I was really seriously ill, I thought I should feign illness on top. What on earth convinced me to do that? But I remember doing it at the time, so I was always a cheeky little sod, even to myself. Quietly malevolent, even in illness!
I was in the Whittington Hospital, which always made me think of Dick Whittington, a positive association. I was on a huge ward of forty kids, many worse off than me, so self-pity was not an option. There was a great library in the middle, loads of fascinating books, some way beyond my capabilities, but that just enticed me more. It’s odd what goes and what doesn’t. I hadn’t forgotten how to read, yet I couldn’t talk – language was gone. I’d be thinking I was formulating words, but they told me after I was just making noises.
Sometimes, as much as three times a day, they’d drain the fluid in my spinal column – the ‘lumber punch’. ‘This is gonna feel like a punch up your lumber, John!’ The needle was very painful as they’d insert it in the base of the spine, and then when they’d draw the fluid out, you could feel it all the way up your back and into your head. Absolutely nauseating. I have a complete fear of needles from that. I hate them. I recommend, before anyone becomes a heroin addict, they go get a lumber punch – that’ll change their mind about it. A most dreadful thing, and so embarrassing too, even at seven and a half, to have something like that prodded up your rear. I always felt my bottom was my own, and I don’t like bottom-watchers. They’d quite literally pin me down, the nurses, while they did that. I’d be so screaming in fear of it, because I knew the pain that was about to come.
It definitely had a long-term effect on my posture. It curved my spine – if they drain too much fluid, it can do that. I was supposed to then walk around with a broom handle between my arms to arch my back and make me stand up straight but, to this day, if I try to stand up completely dead straight, I feel very dizzy; it cuts off the blood supply to the brain, so I’d rather walk around like Richard III there.
It also totally affected my eyesight. I had to wear glasses for a long time, but in the end I couldn’t bear them. I’ve got very good distance eyesight; I can see far away very clearly, but up close it’s a torment for me even to clip my nails, because it’s all a blur, so I wear glasses for that. I have to glare to focus on people. Lucky me, huh? People think, ‘That scary cunt!’ Ha ha.
A Spokesman of Terror
After another four or five months recovering in hospital, I’d become totally institutionalized. I got comfortable not knowing anything. That’s a condition that, thank God, the doctors, my parents and the whole lot of them just wouldn’t tolerate. My mum and dad dragged me out of there kicking and screaming. They told me that they were my mum and dad, and I had to believe them. ‘You belong to us, you’re our son, we love you.’ ‘Oh! How do I know that?’
Being back home was very confusing, because I just didn’t understand where this was. It was rather like being in a waiting room, and forgetting what you’re there for – you know, when you’re left so long waiting that you forget why you’re there – or like trying to sign on the dole, that kind of abandoned feeling. I couldn’t adjust; it took an awful long time. Why was I here with these strangers? It wasn’t making any sense. The only way to deal with me, because I was in a constant state of agitation and panic, was to quietly try to get me to think what it was that was bothering me, and why I wasn’t recognizing things, and that I did belong there.
Oddly, I never felt out of place with my brothers. I instantly felt right with them; they never acted like there was something wrong with me, which was what all the adults did. It was good – Jimmy would say things like, ‘Where have you been? You’ve been away a long time!’ And then the answer was, ‘I don’t know.’ He just thought I must’ve gone on a long holiday alone.
Once I began to accept my parents, it was like opening the door in my mind. It just clicked in my head, and the memories started popping back. It took an awful long time for the information to come through, but come through it did, in bits and pieces, and always it was a sheer joy. I’d run to my mum – I couldn’t wait to tell her that I’d remembered something, and that it made sense what she was telling me.
When I accepted that they were who they said they were – what an emotional breakdown, and an eye-opener too. They talk about Catholic guilt – but having doubted your own parents is a guilt that far surpasses anything religion can plonk on you. An insane guilt. But it was so wonderful to realize they weren’t lying. They really were who they said they were. What a fantastic revelation!
I still didn’t believe them for years afterwards, though, that I really did have to go to school. I never believed that. I’m making light of it, but I’m deadly serious; this is how an eight-year-old, when he’s just come out of hospital and doesn’t remember fuck-all about himself, will be. Many a time I’d forget the way home, and just wander aimlessly. I’d walk into shops. Luckily, because of the community spirit, they’d go, ‘Oh, you’re the sick one, we’ll show you where you live.’ But then you build up a resentment to that. ‘I’m not sick!’
In terms of rehabilitation, the National Health Service didn’t supply any usefulness at all – quite literally nothing. My mum and dad told me that all they were advised by the hospital was to never let up on me, never mollycoddle me, or baby me, because if I fell into a lazy-arse way about it, I’d never resolve my issues. And being agitated got me to think. Agitation’s a powerful tool sometimes.
You were more or less abandoned by the state, and you were definitely abandoned by the school. So much happens in a year – you’re so behind. Regardless of losing your mind, you’re behind anyway by a year. Everything becomes an escalated problem. Trying to blend back in was very difficult. That was a friendless first year, very friendless, and kind of lonely, because of the kids’ attitude – ‘Oh he’s sick, keep away from him!’
I hated school breaks and lunch because it meant I had nothing to do. No one would talk to me; the rumour ran around the school that I was a bit ‘out there’, and so that’s exactly where I found myself, cast out on the outside. I know what that loneliness is, it’s very, very fucking damaging. The only people that talked to me at break time were the dinner ladies. They were very kind Irish women – ‘We heard you were ill – how are you?’ I didn’t even really remember being ill, just – ‘Why am I here?’
Just to give myself something to do, I thought I’d stay late and join the Cub Scouts. Hated it! Hated bloody sitting in a circle and going, ‘Dob dob dib!’ It meant nothing to me. To me it was very antisocial because it was full of rule books and you’ve got to get this uniform, and when you earn this badge you get so many merit points. I realized within about half an hour that this was an absolutely pointless waste of my life. There was the scout master who was, well, a creep, coming across very much like a priest, dark and shadowy. You know, that smile they all had, you could see the gritting of the teeth. I only attended the one night.
One of the nuns one day called me ‘Dummy Dum-Dum’. That nickname stuck around the school. It’s deeply shocking, what them bitches put on you. From the boy who could read and write at four, to Dummy Dum-Dum. It was a real challenge to break through that, but I did. Within a year or two, I was back up in the A grade.
Those fuck-arse hateful nuns made life punishing, so I educated myself. I just got on with it. If there was a book about, I’d pick it up and read. I loved reading. Not newspapers, they bore me. It’s yesterday’s opinion – I’ve always felt that. No, it was books, books, books – anything and everything. After my illness, I got onto a course at the local library after school, and I’d go there and paint till nine at night, then take home a load of books and read them until I fell asleep, fighting off sleep all the time. I had that constant fear of not waking up, or waking up and not knowing who I was again. I tell you, that’s absolutely the worst thing that can happen.
What I learned is, the harder you work, the more you get. That’s been my experience, and I absolutely don’t mind hard work. In fact, I love hard work almost as much as doing nothing at all. I like my life to switch between those two things. When I was about ten, a friend of the family let me have a go running a minicab service every weekend. Even though I was still trying to remember who the hell I was, I was smart enough for that.
I loved that job, absolutely loved the pressure, the stress. You really had to have a very clear, concise memory. You’re running up to sixteen drivers all at once, and you have to remember where all of them are, and ring them up, and talk to them on the radio, and book jobs in advance. I loved it, always in a state of near-collapse. Just on the border of messing up – but, never! The responsibility of it – I really felt proud about myself, and that helped me no end.
I soon discovered that words were my weapons. I learned that I could get out of a tense situation and not be bullied, with comedy. Or the correct formulation of a sentence, that would leave them baffled and amused. And therefore you became accepted, as strangely strange but interesting. Of course, when I turned that artillery against the teachers, who I viewed as complete lazy fuck-ups, that interested the rest of the class very much. I became something of a spokesman of terror, with no viciousness or violence in it at all. I’d always make sure that my arguments were correct – it wouldn’t be just disruption for the sake of it. My ambition is to get to where I want, to achieve the correct information level, and then go on to the next problem.
I expected everybody else to tell me what was what, when I had no memory. It was vital to me that what they said was true, as I was desperate for the answer. I’m still like that; I want to believe what people tell me. I’m very open and trusting, but some people can push that too far, as we know in life – people who have their misguided selfish directions that they obscure from you.
The memories all came back, almost photographically, over the years. That’s why I’m not prone to exaggeration about actual facts from my life. They’re so vital to me. I hinge on them. I don’t know what you would call the system, but you siphon out fantasy from reality. There’s a significant way of doing it. Even before, when I was having terrible visions and nightmares, before I went to hospital, I’d imagine a dragon at the end of the bed, and my mum and dad would be going, ‘There’s not a dragon there.’ And I knew they were right, there was no dragon there – I didn’t see it, but my brain was telling me it was there. You know your brain is tricking you. That’s why I would put something like what you would call a soul, as separate from the brain. The two talk to each other, so I see them as separate entities.
Quite frankly, I don’t have very much fantasy going on in my head. I don’t have room for it. Maybe that’s why I’m mistaken sometimes as being a bit blunt. I really don’t like time-wasting. It takes an enormous effort for me to get up in the morning, but absolutely tenfold to get to bed. I don’t like sleep. It frightens me, in case I don’t wake up, or don’t remember myself. That will be with me, I suppose, for the rest of my life. That won’t go away, so I’m rather prone to the ‘stay awake and alert’ side of life. I may’ve had some ‘assistance’ doing that, over the years, ha ha.
For a while, after leaving hospital, I’d still have visions – terrifying ones. There was one that reminded me of a priest. To this day, it still comes back every now and again. It’s very tall and thin, black hair, black eyes, and very, very evil, staring at me. It’s a real challenge: he comes sometimes in dreams – I have to force myself to confront him. If I do that, it goes away. But it’s very hard to get myself to do that. In a state of dreaming, you’ve got no control. But somehow or other I’ve managed to control my dreams. I’ve had years of practice.
In short, I survived a major illness that had its effect on the way my brain now operates, and that’s part and parcel of the making of me. I don’t know what the mechanics of the recovery are, but when I read modern research on how the brain works, or the scientific approach to human life, I know there’s a bigger thing in there. There is a personality; it’s not just a series of chemical equations – there is a heart and soul, above and beyond the sheer machinery of the soft machine, which is the human being.
I know it was a strange childhood and all of that, but my mum and dad taught me a sense of independence, and an ability to work out what a problem is, and being able to tell a reality from a fantasy. I loved watching this TV programme when I was a kid, called Mystery and Imagination, and it was pure horror. It used to come on late on Sunday night, and they never wanted me to see it, and that of course made me want to see it all the more. I love a good horror story or a ghost story, but I know the reality of these things to be different – and that’s proved extremely useful.
I do laugh at the stuff that comes on TV because they’re missing by a mile what’s really going on, but I don’t laugh at the idea of picking up on psychic things. From time to time I’ll see things. I’m aware of atmosphere, and I don’t know quite what that is but I’ll pick up on a thing and I’ll know if the mood or the tempo in a room or a house is a bit off. I will feel presences and I do know the difference between imagining and the reality in that. I can feel the vibe. It’s an empathy for the tunings of your surroundings. There’s a way of tuning in and out. I can completely ignore it or I can let it happen and then you will see things. Sometimes the visions or situations are forced on you.
Many years later, in this old recording studio, the Manor, I definitely, totally, completely felt what I thought was a cat jump on the bed when I was in it. I knew it and I felt the way it moved. I felt it was telling me it was a cat but I couldn’t see it. But I kind of knew it was there. Whereas before I went into the meningitis coma properly, I would imagine a dragon at the end of the bed but my mind would tell me it wasn’t there. So I do have a good watchdog inside my head and I understand the difference quite clearly. Hard to explain but it’s there.
I’ve seen many things. I knew when my granddad, my mother’s father, died. I ran over and woke my parents up and told them. I’d seen a huge flash in the corridor. There was no reason for a big bright light to be there; it seemed to be looking around and searching. I went out and I followed it into my mum and dad’s room and I told them what I’d just seen. I’d seen things like that before. ‘What is that?’ It’s not Most Haunted. That’s what it’s not. For me that’s total fraudulence, whatever it is those fools get up to in the cellars of allegedly haunted castles. It’s something else: it’s clued into a pulse that’s currently available to those that know where to dial it in, on the radio that’s called your brain. It holds no fear for me; it’s one area where I am extremely brave. It either doesn’t exist at all or it does and I’ve found a way of it not presenting any damage to me.
Now, again, back to hospital, there would be images in my head of characters that would stand around the bed or off in the distance in the hospital ward. I still remember them. One of them is an extremely tall priest, an ominous, odd character who turns up every now and again. He seems taller than the space he’s occupying; it’s not in any dimension I can understand. But I know it’s malevolent and I know how to stop it. I’m usually sound asleep when this is happening and I force myself to wake up and stare at that particular area, where I’m imagining this thing to be. By doing that it’s gone, it’s dissipated. I can do that if I don’t like the dream I’m in – I can find the way out, back into consciousness. Situations like that, I’ve had practice.
It’s usual that these incidences occur when you’re alone. That’s a great skill, to come through that. It gives you a great sense of empowerment that you’ve conquered the assault on your psyche. It is an assault, a challenge. You have to win through it and it makes you feel stronger somehow. Maybe that’s just my mind going through daily exercises. I don’t do physical exercises but it’s clear I run the mental gamut – or gauntlet.
A World of Brutality
Finsbury Park: it sounds like such a lovely place, doesn’t it? Well, it ain’t, and there ain’t no horse-riding going on around there, except the police on a Saturday afternoon, chasing the youth. I was eleven when we moved up there from Holloway, just before secondary school. It finally came about because of the overcrowding in the old flat, and through my dad pulling some ‘We’re Irish too, you know’ to the local MP, who was also of Irish roots. It’s about the only time being Irish actually paid off. He was just helping out people of his persuasion, I suppose. It was all very ‘gangster lean’. I imagined there was money under a table, because council flats like our new one were very hard to get.
It was in Honeyfield, a block on Durham Road on Six Acres Estate. There was a horrible, maudlin song out at the time by Roger Whittaker that went, ‘I’m gonna leave old Durham Town’, which kind of contaminated the good vibes, but otherwise I was thrilled. Just the idea of so many rooms! I loved walking around inside, going up and down the stairs, touching the banister. ‘Oh, I think I’ll look out this window now!’ I couldn’t get enough. Of course my dad would always moan about the rent. That’s what all those extra rooms amounted to – a whacking great rent bill every week. That was the end of my minicab job too, when we moved. It was too far to go in the morning. Let’s say it was thirty yards further than before.
I was really looking forward to secondary school, because it was a fresh start. I was to attend William of York, another Catholic place off Caledonian Road. I loved the first day – everybody was equally shy and open. All of that Dummy Dum-Dum stuff was, I thought, put behind me. What I didn’t know was that the school already had me listed as a bit of a problem. On my first day, which bitterly offended me, they put me in the D stream – D for dunce. Hello! They just assumed I had brain problems, and that was that. But within a week I was out of it. Way ahead of the game.
Soon, of course, the bully system crept in, and then there was the us-and-them nonsenses that young spotty kids can compartmentalize themselves into. Then I hated it. It was all boys, which became monstrously boring as adolescence reared its ugly head. There were no priests, but there was one that came occasionally to give Maths. Again the choir thing was there, and I kept myself well out of that. Really, Catholicism is murderous on potential singers, there ought to be something done about it.
I liked some of the classes a lot, but I hated the physical education nonsense, because they made you feel really poor, because you had to wear certain uniforms for certain things, like a rugby kit or whatever – just unacceptable to me. If you turned up without your kit, it meant you couldn’t do physical education – great! – but you’d get, ‘Bend over!’ and get whacked on the backside with a slipper by the PE teacher. So I volunteered to be beaten every single time. It stung like mad.
The resentment I had for them trying to impose a uniform on me made the pain almost enjoyable, in a self-satisfying, ‘Ha! You’re not gonna beat me’ way. Many other kids did that too, and we ended up the majority, so those classes were very poorly attended, and they just got bored slippering us. We outlasted it. Fine! When it came to that particular class, I just walked straight out the gates of the school and went off to do something more interesting to me.
Around twelve or thirteen, I started to find friends of my own, like John Gray. A fabulously awkward chap was John. He was at William of York, and absolutely didn’t fit in, or go along with anyone’s agenda but his own, and I loved his individuality. He’s a diamond of awkwardness and at the same time has an arrogance based on real knowledge of things. Encyclopaedic, very useful. Anything you didn’t know, you’d go ‘John?’ and there’s the answer.
He reminds me of that movie Desk Set with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. It’s about replacing the knowledgeable staff in a business with a computer. The computer messes up, and they eventually realize that the human brain is far more reliable and emotionally a better response to things. Well, that would be John Gray.
Dave Crowe was another one – a very odd, dark, ominous fella, a bit Frankensteinian in his body frame too, so a huge bulky hooligan kind of a bloke. Quiet, very quiet, but could turn on the deadly seriousness. He was in my class, but we only started hanging out after a year or two. He’s also an absolute mathematics wizard, and Maths was something that puzzled me intensely, after meningitis, you see. I find the mathematical approach to life very confusing. I either understand a rhythm instinctively, or it’s not going to happen.
Dave got bored hanging out with the Arsenal yobs at school because he was a Tottenham supporter. Because he was an odd penny in that world, and I was an odd penny in mine, and both of us never wanted to do PE – and neither did John Gray – that’s how we all came together. A very odd bunch of characters but all totally resolved, who would rather get slippered than have to strip down into some odd outfit – for badminton.
The presumption of this squalid little Catholic school off Caledonian Road, presuming that they’d be training future badminton players – impossible in a world of brutality. All around us was gang warfare, football rows and thuggery. And then they were trying it on with sissy nonsense like that. How can you tell young chaps from an area like that to hit the shuttlecock lightly! Unacceptable! Having to wear white dainty outfits with super-short shorts. Never! No! No! Even the gay kids weren’t gonna do that. Just no way.
My brother Jimmy soon followed me to William of York, but the two youngest ones, Bobby and Martin, went to Tollington Park. By that time, my Mum and Dad had started to fall out with the Catholic Church, so William of York was a no-no. There was no way our younger brothers were going to have to endure that priest shite ever again. My dad was very good on that.
The trouble was that the school he picked for Bobby and Martin was probably the worst hooligan school in London. Tollington Park was ground zero for all the serious Arsenal elements in the area. That’s also the same place that my future manager Rambo didn’t go to, if you know what I mean. Attendance didn’t feature very high in that school.
I’m an Arsenal man all my life, so in many ways, me not going there was a sorry gap in my education. William of York was up the Caledonian Road, but that didn’t mean that you were mixing with the Callie mob. You were stuck in this isolated Catholic nonsense that was very narrow and insular, and trying to blinker your vision. Trying to suppress you as to the way the world really worked. A hardcore school like Tollington Park was absolutely about, ‘This is it, mate, no one likes ya, and we don’t care’. ‘Pretty Vacant’ to my mind would be the anthem to Tollington Park. It wasn’t a school at all.
Just as I was starting to find my feet at William of York, something terrible happened. My paternal grandfather, the Owl Fella, died and I had to identify the body. By now, he had fourteen children and was living with a prostitute. Can you imagine that, how my dad felt about representing that to me.
My aunt, who had fourteen kids of her own, came over from Galway, but my dad had to go to work, so I was left to go along with her to the morgue. They’d had to patch up his skull quite a bit, because he’d fallen backwards and split his head open while shagging a prostitute on a doorstep – that’s how he died. When they pulled out the body on the slab, he’d died with a stiffy. And it weren’t the leaning tower of pizza!
So I’m there with this auntie – Auntie Lol – and she started screaming and crying, yet that was her father. Her hysterical behaviour really freaked me out – how adults sometimes can put so much pain on you when they should be taking responsibility at that particular point. ‘Argh, urgh, I can’t look at it! It’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen!’ That’s what she said. And they went, ‘Yes, but we need someone to recognize the body.’ So, up I had to go. He looked, again, a bit like Frankenstein, with the stitch marks across the front of the skull, but I recognized him alright.
As young as I was, I realized he must’ve been a dirtier bugger than I ever knew because, for my father’s sister to behave that way, when they pulled the body out nude with a big fucking hard-on … Christ, I’m not that well-endowed – it really was big. God almighty, that’s your own father. What on earth’s gone on in this family?
This is County Galway, my father’s family. My mother’s family had different ways of telling me they died – by flashing through the corridor. For some odd reason, my mum and dad loved each other, they truly did, and had us as offspring, but both sides of their family backgrounds are incredibly crazy. It doesn’t make sense. The coldness of my mother’s family, the insane fear of whatever, and endless troops of disaster marching in from the other side.
That night at the flat in Six Acres, Auntie Lol was in the bedroom next door – Mum and Dad gave her a bedroom to herself, so that meant me, Bobby, Martin and Jimmy had to share beds. And we heard her screaming all night long – really terrified screams – and I’d have to go in because that’s what we were told to do by my dad, to calm her down. It was too much to listen to her screaming – ‘He’s comin’ back to haunt me!’
Something had happened, because you can’t be crying about your father in that way. Something evil must’ve gone on. And that’s a terrible truth and reality to know about your own family, just as I was getting over my problems.
My whole world was school and our little slice of London. What else did we know? The furthest I’d travelled was the farm in Carrigrohane, and those periods following Dad’s work in Hastings and Eastbourne. That was the extent of my travels, up until the Sex Pistols. There was a school field trip to Guernsey, and a Geography trip to Guildford. Guildford was an awful long way from London in them days – a murderously boring coach journey down very windy little country lanes, and it would take for ever. It was a week in these awful huts on Box Hill – which I referenced years later in PiL’s ‘Flowers Of Romance’ – and you’d have to deal with the PE teacher threatening to slipper you unless you took a communal shower. ‘Ah, thank you, I love the slipper!’
It was all about us kids looking for ways to get into pubs. That’s what we did. It’s a way of growing up, and you feel like you’ve achieved something – something approaching manhood – once you stretch into those no-go areas.
During William of York, Dad got a job driving cranes on the oil rigs off the coast of Norfolk. It was winter, and we stayed in a holiday camp in Bacton-on-Sea – no one there, just us. That wasn’t for too long, but while I was there, I picked up a bit of an ‘ooh-aaarr’ in my voice. When we came back to Finsbury Park, that didn’t do me no favours at all. ‘You what?!’
I used to run around in a Norwich bobble hat, without the bobble. My only affinity was I liked the colours – yellow and green. I also had another one-colour bobble hat, also without the bobble. What with the way I dressed and looked, which was always a bit different from the norm, it seemed to rub people up the wrong way at the back of the North Bank – the home terrace at Arsenal’s old ground, Highbury.
I was wearing that hat one of the first times I ran into John Stevens. Rambo, as we know him, was a mate of Jimmy’s from around the flats. He changed the face of football violence for ever, with his commitment and organization. You’d never keep up with John! He’d be quicker than a ferret into a ‘row’ – one third the size of whatever was challenging Arsenal, and always coming out of it with a big smile on his face. An eejit like me, I was slightly taller – I’d be the first to be punched in the gob. And always having difficult teeth – oooh, I must’ve broken so many knuckles just on my buck teeth.
I don’t get into the psycho aspect of the violence because I’m not like that. I don’t hold grudges too long and my anger is a temporary thing until an issue is resolved. It’s just plain and simple. Don’t shout up Tottenham or Chelsea or anything at all in the back of the North Bank. Don’t. And then once we chase you out, everything’s happy! I’m not one for pursuing the issue. But I am one for going to their grounds and yelling Arsenal as loud as you like. That’s a kind of hypocrisy, but that’s the wonderful arena that football creates.
The sense of unity was astounding. Every ground had that depth, and you knew it. You knew that this was from the bottom to the top of the terracing. It was not there for the taking, it was there for the full-on argument. Glorious, really. I loved History in school – the Roman invasion of Britain was my favourite subject when I was younger, and the Saxons, the Vikings – I always wanted to imagine myself in one of those scenarios. Well, a football terrace was exactly that. And it was done in that exact same way. Flanking mattered a lot. I also had this book from the library about the Battle of Agincourt – the tactics were all-important, and Rambo’s very tactical, even as such a young kid. Our part of Arsenal’s mob was so young, up against these enormous fucks in their thirties and forties, but we wouldn’t run.
Anyway, that night, Tottenham had a home match. There was a rumour that their mob may be coming down. Forty of us met in the courtyard of the Sir George Robey in Finsbury Park. I was there in my one-colour bobble hat. Rambo had set an ambush for them, and any of their mob returning from the match. He just took one look and went to my brother Jimmy, ‘Oh no, he’s no good, send him home!’ Jimmy went, ‘No, that’s my older brother, he’s harder than me!’ I was working on the building site at the time, so looks could be deceiving. This is, what, fifteen, sixteen. I was utterly fucking fearless. Gone were the days of when I was younger and couldn’t really handle a fight at all. But for somebody like John to come up, and he’d back you up – that’s like, wow, you don’t be turning that one down. Not at all, not ever, as I only fully realized many years later.
At school, I suppose I started to become a bit of a handful in class. Not habitually, but instinctively. If I’m puzzled, I want to know the answer. And if they resent explaining to you what it is they’re babbling on about, then fuck ’em, and then of course you will agitate them. You can’t expect people like me just to sit there and be nullified. I knew in my own heart and soul that I was there to learn, that’s what school was supposed to give me – an education. When that’s being denied by rubbish teachers, I’m furious. Not violent, but I always had the right words.
It was punishing and frustrating with subjects like History, which I loved. I’d have to ring up people like John Gray and ask them, ‘What was the lesson today about?’ They got bored explaining to me, so then I’d go down to the library and research it myself. But slowly, left to your own devices, you lose interest. The perks are gone, the novelty wears off, and it becomes just cumbersome to do that.
I was finally chucked out of William of York mid-year, mid-season. I turned up late – tardiness was their excuse, and not wearing a correct uniform, and my hair was too long. They thought I was a Hell’s Angel, because I used to wear my dad’s leather coat. I couldn’t afford the bus pass, and so I cycled to school, and they just put all the wrong things together.
It was Prentiss, the English teacher, who got me expelled – Piss-Stains Prentiss. These days I go along with the notion of ‘Let the dead rest in peace’, but in them days I hated that fucker. I despised him, yet ironically he was a brilliant teacher; it was absolutely thrilling the way he explained Shakespeare, I was fascinated. So complicated and in-depth, right down to single-word analysis, and the poetic beat of a single sentence, and the structures – absolutely thrilling! The technicalities of the English language. A really masterfully wonderful teacher, but a complete hateful git.
Because I was still under age for leaving school, and I wanted to finish my ‘O’-levels, I had to go to a College of Further Education in Hackney. It was like an approved day school for misfits – when school decided they couldn’t cope with you, that was more or less the local state-run detention centre. We were all supposedly vagabonds and reprehensibles. I’d take the bus, and then it was a ten-minute walk.
Let’s face it, Hackney was never a great place. Let’s just say it was a different class of Arsenal fan.
And that’s where I met Sid.