Jack had a spare for J. Lydon’s book chat event at Whitley Bay’s Playhouse last week. (Book chat? Book shat, more like, I didn’t say.) It was kind of him to think of me. The show had been postponed from last year.
The queue winds three sides of the theatre, beach front, side street, back lane. I find myself stood behind Stan and Hilda Ogden at the tail end. We played together at the Surf Cafe (prior to the accent acute edit) one night couple of years back. The Ogdens play an imagined (I imagine) post-WW2 dustbowl farmer swing jive, with smiles. They dress the part: Stan – popped collar, dropped brim, boots: Hilda – victory roll n rag, pearls, fitted denim two-piece. I do admire this kind of attention to detail.
“So, this is the back of the queue,” I say. “Fancy finding you here.”
“Lydon’s a culture icon,” Stan says.
“Something like that,” Hilda says. She purses her thin red lips, pinches her collar. A trio of ducks fly overhead.
The Playhouse is full. There is an almost irresistible buzz in the air. Two modern armchairs and a side table wait onstage. The backdrop reads I Could Be Wrong, I Could Be Right. An intro tape of PiL plays. The tunes are unknown to me, but that voice…
“There’s Stinky Dave,” says Jack. He is pointing down toward the front row seats. “Bald. Tee shirt. Third row.” There is such a man sat there.
“He lets off stink bombs.”
“Charlie Harper’s given him a lifetime ban from all UK Subs gigs.”
Stinky Dave, though I can only see him in profile and from a distance, is quite clearly in his 50s.
“It’s good to have a hobby.”
A thin, bespectacled, librarian man in black canvas clothing, shuffles on and commences to enliven the crowd further with calls for more cheers, more noise. “John is backstage and will come out when you’re loud enough.” I am willing to allow one brief hooray from my throat, but I find this kind of hoo-haa, this back and forth MC hyping, an awkward rigmarole. I appear to be in the minority. Good.
After not too long, Lydon bounces across the stage in a voluminous red shirt emblazoned with the PiL logo. He appears to be wearing pajama bottoms and cartoon training shoes. His hair is yellow and, with the sides and back shaved, not unlike a block of butter. “Hello, hello, hello, hello,” he says. J. Lydon’s latest book (ICBWICBR) is another retelling of his life, this time concerning his childhood. It is, I think, the third such tome. I read No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs and I seem to recall being given a copy of Anger Is An Energy (one Christmas?) when that appeared six, seven years ago, but have no memory of reading.
He is somewhat entertaining and seems to have settled into an assumed role of elder raconteur, a sort of K. Williams, but more catty than witty, which suits him. He is eager to convince us of a Dickensian 1960s north London and there are anecdotes of his beloved Arsenal, wet wallpaper, rats, bedbugs and bombsites – most of which I find interesting and probably not so far from the truth. There is a tiny picture on the side table that he keeps referring to, but it is far too small to be seen in any detail and this makes me sad as it should, given the attention he anoints it, surely be projected onto the back wall. He looks to be in better health than recent photos have him, but he speaks very meanly of P. Cook and S. Jones (which makes me tut out loud, eliciting frowns from all around me. Cook and Jones being, to me, with the passage of time, the most interesting Pistols) and D. Boyle, whom I understand has produced a Netflix mini-series (?!) about the Sex Pistols which is not to John’s liking. By this I take him to mean that he wasn’t paid enough. Still, he was never going to like it. He doesn’t have to like it. There is mention of ‘dear, old Sidney’ (to much cheering, though not from these quarters) and I sink into my seat as Lydon, now standing, rouses the audience into a tuneless and fun-free sing-a-long of ABBA’s Fernando (substituting that name for Sidney – but adding a further syllable to make it work).
After the performance Jack and I convene to the ‘spoons, AKA The Victory, in the town centre. I had only visited this pub briefly once several years back (leaving before even purchasing a pint due to the ungodly stench of the toilets that permeated the whole building), but it is the only pub open this time of the evening. The Victory is a hangover from the glory days of Whitley Bay when the town had something of a reputation as the north-east’s Blackpool. This repute would have seen its very last days, as far as I can gather, sometime in the 1980s. I still hear people speak of ‘The Scottish Fortnight’ and the stag and hen weekends of yore, with both fondness and horror, and it takes only a little imagination to picture the town back then. I am relieved to find that the pub doesn’t smell too badly this evening.
“There’s Stinky Dave,” says Jack. Stinky Dave is stood with his back to the bar, pint on his belly. He wears a scowl, black joggers, trainers and a ‘…Bollocks’ tee shirt that once may have fitted better. His head is shiny, as are his eyes. “Fuckin’ mint,” he says. “Aye, mint,” says Jack. They go way back. His handshake is non-committal. He is wary of strangers and for some reason I find that I have embarked on a fruitless reworking of R. Duvall’s line from Apocalypse Now about ‘the smell of napalm.’ Stinky Dave’s eyes narrow and he speaks to Jack. “I got a VIP ticket, met John backstage. Got him to sign this.” He taps a large cardboard sleeve that is propped against the bar behind him. “Mint bloke.”
“What is it?” I ask.
He lends his glass to Jack and lifts up the package. It is open along one edge and he slides out a picture frame within which is displayed a V. Westwood tee-shirt. I smell it to be inauthentic. It is one that you and I are familiar with (if only from photos) – a large swastika, a crucifixion scene and the word DESTROY dominates the front. “I broke the glass so he could sign it.” He fingers a scribble, a biro’d pair of breasts and a smiley face at the hem. It is both shocking and pathetic to see such an item in this day and age and I am keen to study it further, but Stinky Dave snuffles it back down inside the cardboard sleeve.
“Should be easy enough to re glass,” I say.
“Get it back up on the living room wall,” he says. “The wife can’t stand it.”
At the pissoir I chuckle at having such a scene depicted on a living room wall. But the smile falls from my face when I return to find the bar stinking of rotten eggs. The barman has his hands on his hips, the barmaid holds her nose. People are fanning and flapping the air. But Jack and Stinky Dave are feigning nonchalance. I guess punk’s not dead, it just smells funny.