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OPINION: What I learnt from punk icon John Lydon and TV legend Fred Dibnah

PUBLISHED: 11:47 18 October 2020 | UPDATED: 12:08 18 October 2020

John Lydon talked swimming and laying off red meat with Nick. Picture: PAUL HEARTFIELD

John Lydon talked swimming and laying off red meat with Nick. Picture: PAUL HEARTFIELD

Paul Heartfield

John Lydon and Fred Dibnah charmed our columnist

Fred Dibnah, who seemed to hate everything about modern life. Picture: ARCHANTFred Dibnah, who seemed to hate everything about modern life. Picture: ARCHANT

Break open the wine gums and give me a virtual pat on the back, for this week I am celebrating 20 years as a journalist.

Yes, I’ve managed to survive two decades in a cut-throat industry that seems to be forever on its knees, negotiating a journey from rookie reporter to slipper-wearing Saturday columnist while developing the perfect formula for longevity in this trade – a cheerful disposition and a thick skin.

I’ve been everything from a reporter to features writer to sub-editor, team leader and editor. I have yelled the phrase “stop the press” and indeed stopped the press, but I’ve never reported on a cat up a tree, although I once walked right through a fireman’s sprinkler when reporting on a house fire.

It’s a big milestone though, especially relating to this column and life for over-45s. Twenty years in to my proper working career I’ve probably got 20 to go, although journalists don’t ever seem to stop working. Like fine wine, The Office (UK version) and the songs of Curtis Mayfield, they just get better with age.

And it’s age that I wanted to discuss, as throughout my career I’ve always made a point of taking on board the dealings I’ve had with people not so much in their second half but those in their third quarter.

Recently I’ve especially enjoyed my weekly interaction with the journalism stalwarts whose work you’ll find in our papers – Keith Skipper, Derek James, Martin Newell, Michael Cole, Paul Barnes Helen McDermott and Christine Webber – I’ve learned plenty from talking to such wise heads on a regular basis.

There’s something that appeals about people like the aforementioned to a veritable youngster – they’ve been around, they’ve got a bit of attitude and on varying levels, they laugh in the face of political correctness. I’ve always been drawn to those qualities, and when I think of the celebrities I’ve interviewed over the years, two names jump out when I think of lovable rogues that have made a similar big impression on me.

The first was a routine chat with the famous steeplejack Fred Dibnah in 2002, the second was with former Sex Pistols frontman John Lydon two years ago.

Dibnah would have been 64 when I spoke to him two years before his death, Lydon was 62. Both had become famous in the 1970s, both had tours to plug (Dibnah’s was a spoken word tour) but there the similarities ended.

Dibnah was banging away in his Bolton workshop when we spoke, Lydon was having breakfast in Malibu.

Fred Dibnah first. I don’t think he really understood the idea of plugging his tour when I rang him. Someone in the background was making a lot of noise and the picture I had in my head was Fred holding the receiver between his chin and his chest while he was probably whacking something red hot in a vice in front of him.

“You wot, lad?” was the response I got to my first few questions. The interview was going nowhere. I quickly thought on my feet and had an idea that we could do a modern-life-is-rubbish-type thing if I asked him the right questions.

Bolton Wanderers were riding high in the Premier League at the time so I asked Fred when he last went down to The Reebok Stadium to catch them in action.

“Bloody football?” came the response. “You wouldn’t catch me watching a load of overpaid bag kickers,” he said. “Drives me mad. Same goes for gymnasiums, what’s the point of paying money to run on a machine?”

He was on a roll. I asked him some more questions about steeplejacks and his work and we got on to the subject of insurance – I asked him how much money he’d spent over the years on it, considering he spent most of his time knocking down huge industrial chimneys and watching them fall a few metres from his feet. He laughed.

“Insurance? Life insurance and that?” he said. “Never bothered with that sort of thing. I don’t intend dying at any time soon.”

John Lydon was in a similarly playful mood 16 years later.

“Ooos this?” is how he answered the phone. I identified myself. “If you’re not into peace, you can peace off... ha ha ha ha,” was his retort. I knew I was in for a fun half hour. I had a list of things I didn’t want to mention – Reg Grundy, Country Life, Sid Vicious and the monarchy. Instead we talked football, his love of Arsenal, his childhood spell in Norfolk when his dad worked on a gas terminal. But also we chatted about his health and fitness, which was a tad surreal.

He told me about his exercises: “I do swim regularly, which helps expand the lungs. I also lay off the meat when on tour as I find it slows you down.” I then asked what made him still want to do what he does in his early 60s and perform on stage.

“I want the shows to be expressive and for people to realise that I’m not going to let anyone down, whether it’s my parents or dead friends or whatever, you’ve only got one chance to do something in life,” he said.

“I give everything live. There is human wreckage when I perform. Little pieces of me are torn off.”

Two months later I saw him perform at the UEA. He was under the weather and not looking in great shape but gave a stunning performance full of energy.

He meant it, man!

He didn’t want to let his audience down which is surely a great message to take into the next 20 years of my career.

Both Fred and John were down to earth, honest, confident and charming with a twinkle in their eyes. These are all qualities we want to project in our professional lives and qualities I generally find in abundance in everyone over 60.


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