John Lydon on becoming Sex Pistol Johnny Rotten

By Ian Youngs
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

image captionThe Sex Pistols, with Johnny Rotten aka John Lydon centre, emerged in 1976

When the day finally came for a young John Lydon's parents to take him home after a year spent lying in a large hospital ward, he had no idea who they were.

The eight-year-old Lydon was recovering from meningitis, which resulted in periods of coma and memory loss so severe he was unable to recognise his own mother and father.

The disorientation was compounded by a deep mistrust bred by doctors who imposed harsh and painful treatment.

So when his parents came to collect him, his instinct was to wonder: "Are they all lying to me?"

He now vividly recalls the feeling of "not knowing your name, not knowing who you are, not knowing that these people in front of you are your parents."

"There you are in a hospital which you don't understand anything about," he says. "You don't know why you're there, you're presuming somebody must own you - but are they all lying? It's a terrible, terrible feeling."

It was a pivotal moment in the life of Lydon, who as Johnny Rotten would go on to form the Sex Pistols.

Sparking a revolution in music, the punk band also delivered a swift punch to the belly of a society built on deference and formality.

image captionA young John Lydon (left), pictured with father John Sr and brothers Bobby (centre) and Jimmy

Although he had no recollection of it, the home Lydon's parents took him back to consisted of two rooms with an outside lavatory in north London.

His father, a crane driver, had moved from Ireland with his wife, who also had three other sons.

When memories did return, they were fond ones of being taught to read and write at the age of four by his mother, and of playing in bomb sites at five and six.

"It was a great place to learn the art of destruction," recalls Lydon, who is about to publish a scrapbook of photographs from his life.

"You could destroy whatever was left after the Blitz. There were bits of glass windows and bits of factories left."

If anything, though, he was quieter than his friends and prone to illnesses that meant he was "missing from the local destruction scene from time to time".

Tough love

When the meningitis struck at the age of seven, he required agonising spinal injections every six hours.

His doctors' remedy for the memory loss, he says, was tough love.

"The nurses and doctors told my mum that, if I wasn't recognising them or had gone into a brain freeze, to be harsh on me.

"Because the only thing that would knock a memory back in was to be harsh.

image captionJohn Lydon grew up in Highbury, north London

"Just ignore it or treat it a bit harshly and it might come round," he recalls his mother being instructed.

"It must have worked because, hello, I'm here, and I fully know who I am.

"And those memories, when they come back, they're so beautiful to you."

The relief at finding the missing pieces to his jigsaw past is still clear in his voice, even though his memory did not fully return for four years.

Going back to school, he was unable to recognise his friends and was nicknamed "dummy dum dum" after missing so much education.

Describing himself as an intelligent and hard-working child, he made up for lost time in the classroom.

Yet he had not lost the sense of isolation and distrust of authority that were fostered in hospital.

"Until about 10 I'd be very, very quiet," says the singer, now 54. "Around 10 or 11 I started to find myself.

"My memory was coming back in bits and pieces, and I suppose there was a bit of anger and rage floating around.

image captionThe Sex Pistols have re-formed for several comeback tours in the last 15 years

"Not too much, but enough to say, 'Look, what you're saying is a lie.

'Teacher or not, I don't care. Figure of authority, if you're lying to me, I'm going to say so.'"

Bitter arguments ensued with teachers whom he accused of pulling the wool over his eyes - particularly in English and religious education lessons.

It did not take long for the young Lydon to be labelled a troublemaker.

"I knew how to read a book and what a book meant and I wouldn't sit there and listen to rubbish," he says.

The arguments eventually led to Lydon's expulsion from school at the age of 15.

He also recalls snobbery from those higher up the social scale, summed up by the careers officer who told him there was "not much hope for your sort".

At home, Lydon had few luxuries but speaks of loving parents who did "the best they could manage".

With hindsight, he now acknowledges the toll his illness took on his mum and dad. "They really did suffer and struggle with me," he says. "And with three other brothers it was a punishing regime.

"I am eternally grateful, because without it I wouldn't be what I am.

"I don't go round stealing, lying, cheating. That was all knocked out of us, and done so without a cane."

But home life was not without conflict. In his late teens, he rowed with his parents over his refusal to cut his long hair.

He eventually agreed, but dyed it green at the same time. That was the last straw and Lydon found himself out on the street.

So he moved into a squat, formed a band... and the rest is history.

Mr Rotten's Scrapbook is published on 1 December.

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