With Chris Ayres
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It haunts me, all this crazy stuff. Every day of my life has been an event. I took lethal combinations of booze and drugs for thirty f**king years. I survived a direct hit by a plane, suicidal overdoses, STDs. I’ve been accused of attempted murder. Then I almost died while riding over a bump on a quad bike at f**king two miles per hour.
People ask me how come I’m still alive, and I don’t know what to say. When I was growing up, if you’d have put me up against a wall with the other kids from my street and asked me which one of us was gonna make it to the age of sixty, which one of us would end up with five kids and four grandkids and houses in Buckinghamshire and Beverly Hills, I wouldn’t have put money on me, no f**king way. But here I am: ready to tell my story, in my own words, for the first time.
A lot of it ain’t gonna be pretty. I’ve done some bad things in my time. I’ve always been drawn to the dark side, me. But I ain’t the devil. I’m just John Osbourne: a working-class kid from Aston, who quit his job in the factory and went looking for a good time.”
Table of Contents
They said I would never write this book.
Well, fuck 'em – 'cos here it is.
All I have to do now is remember something…
Bollocks. I can't remember anything.
Oh, apart from this…*
In the Beginning…
John the Burglar
My father always said I would do something big one day.
'I've got a feeling about you, John Osbourne,' he'd tell me, after he'd had a few beers. 'You're either going to do something very special, or you're going to go to prison.'
And he was right, my old man.
I was in prison before my eighteenth birthday.
Burglary – that's what they sent me down for in the end. Or, as the charge sheet said, 'Breaking and entering and stealing goods to the value of £25.' That's about three hundred quid in today's dough. It wasn't exactly the Great Train Robbery, put it that way. I was a fucking crap burglar. I kept going back and doing the same job, over and over. I'd scoped out this clothes shop called Sarah Clarke's, on the street behind my house in Aston. During the first break-in I grabbed a load of hangers and thought, Magic, I'll be able to sell this stuff down the pub. But I'd forgotten to take a flashlight with me, and it turned out that the clothes I'd nicked were a bunch of babies' bibs and toddlers' underpants.
I might as well have tried to sell a turd.
So I went back. This time I nicked a 24-inch telly. But the fucking thing was too heavy for me to carry, and when I was climbing over the back wall it fell on my chest and I couldn't move for about an hour. I was just lying there in this ditch full of nettles, feeling like a twat. I was like Mr Magoo on drugs, I was. Eventually I got the telly off me but I had to leave it behind.
On my third attempt I managed to nick some shirts. I even had the bright idea to wear a pair of gloves, like a true professional. The only problem was that one of the gloves was missing a thumb, so I left perfect prints all over the place. The cops came to my house a few days later and found the gloves and my pile of swag. 'A thumbless glove, eh?' the copper goes to me, as he slaps on the cuffs. 'Not exactly Einstein, are we?'
About a week later I went to court and was fined forty quid by the judge. That was more dough than I'd ever had in my life. There was no way I could pay it, unless I robbed a bank… or borrowed it from my dad. But my old man wouldn't help me out. 'I earn an honest wage,' he said. 'Why should I give any of it to you? You need to be taught a fucking lesson.'
'For your own good, son.'
End of discussion.
The judge sentenced me to three months in Winson Green for 'non-payment of fines'.
I almost shit my pants when they told me I was going to prison, to be honest with you. Winson Green was an old Victorian slammer that had been built in 1849. The guards in there were notorious bastards. In fact, the chief inspector of prisons for the entire country later said that Winson Green was the most violent, piss-reeking, lawless fucking hole he'd ever set eyes on. I pleaded with my dad to pay the fine, but he just kept saying that it might finally knock some sense into me, being inside.
Like most kids who get into crime, I'd only ever wanted to be accepted by my mates. I thought it would be cool to be a bad guy, so I tried to be a bad guy. But I soon changed my mind when I got to Winson Green. In the admissions room my heart was pounding so loud and fast I thought it was gonna fly out of my chest and land on the concrete floor. The guards emptied my pockets and put all my stuff in this little plastic bag – wallet, keys, fags – and they had a good old laugh about my long, flowing brown hair.
'The boys in Block H are gonna love you,' one of 'em whispered to me. 'Enjoy the showers, sweetie pie.'
I had no idea what he meant.
But I found out soon enough.
Unless your life's ambition was to work in a factory, killing yourself with all-night shifts on an assembly line, there wasn't much to look forward to, growing up in Aston. The only jobs to be had were in the factories. And the houses people lived in had no indoor shitters and were falling down. Because a lot of tanks and trucks and planes had been made in the Midlands during the war, Aston had taken a pounding during the Blitz. On every other street corner when I was a kid there were 'bomb building sites' – houses that had been flattened by the Germans when they were trying to hit the Castle Bromwich Spitfire factory. For years I thought that's what playgrounds were called.
I was born in 1948 and grew up at number 14 in the middle of a row of terraced houses on Lodge Road. My father, John Thomas, was a toolmaker and worked nights at the GEC plant on Witton Lane. Everyone called him Jack, which for some reason was a common nickname for John back then. He'd often tell me about the war – like the time he was working in King's Stanley, Gloucestershire, in the early 1940s. Every night, the Germans were bombing the fuck out of Coventry, which was about fifty miles away. They'd drop high-explosives and parachute mines, and the light from the fires was so bright my dad could read the newspaper during the blackout. When I was a kid I never really understood how heavy-duty that must have been. Imagine it: people went to bed at night not knowing if their houses would still be standing the next morning.
Life after the war wasn't that much easier, mind you. When my dad got home in the morning after a night's work at GEC, my mum, Lillian, would start her shift at the Lucas factory. It was a grinding fucking routine, day in, day out. But you didn't hear them complaining about it.
She was a Catholic, my mum, but she wasn't religious. None of the Osbournes went to church – although for a while I went to a Church of England Sunday school, 'cos there was fuck-all else to do, and they gave you free tea and biscuits. Didn't do me much good, all those mornings spent learning Bible stories and drawing pictures of the baby Jesus. I don't think the vicar would be proud of his ex-pupil, put it that way.
Sunday was the worst day of the week for me. I was the kind of kid who always wanted to have fun, and there wasn't much of that to be had in Aston. There were just grey skies and corner pubs and sickly looking people who worked like animals on assembly lines. There was a lot of working-class pride, though. People even put those fake stone bricks on the outside of their council houses, to make it look like they were living in fucking Windsor Castle. All they were missing were the moats and the drawbridges. Most of the houses were terraced, like ours, so the stone cladding on one would end where the pebbledash on the next began. It looked so bad.
I was the fourth kid in my family and the first boy. My three older sisters were Jean, Iris and Gillian. I don't know when my parents found time to go at it with each other, but before long I also got two younger brothers, Paul and Tony. So there were six kids at 14 Lodge Road. It was pandemonium. Like I said, there was no indoor plumbing in the early days, just a bucket to piss in at the end of the bed. Jean, the eldest, eventually got her own bedroom, in an annexe at the back. The rest of us had to share until Jean grew up and got married, when the next in line took her place.
I tried to stay out of my sisters' way most of the time. They were always fighting with each other, like girls do, and I didn't want to get caught in the crossfire. But Jean always made a special effort to look out for me. She was almost like another mum, my big sis. Even to this day, we talk on the phone every Sunday, no matter what.
I don't know what I would have done without Jean, to be honest with you, because I was a very nervous kid. Fear of impending doom ruled my life. I convinced myself that if I stepped on the cracks in the pavement while I was running home, my mother would die. And when my dad was sleeping through the day, I'd start freaking out that he was dead, and I'd have to poke him in the ribs to make sure he was still breathing. He wasn't too fucking pleased about that, I can tell you. But all of these spooky things kept swirling through my head.
I was terrified most of the time.
Even my first memory is of being scared. It was June 2, 1953: Queen Elizabeth's Coronation Day. At that time my father was crazy about Al Jolson, the American vaudeville star. My old man would sing Jolson's songs around the house, he'd recite Jolson's comedy routines, he'd even dress up like Al Jolson whenever he got the chance.
Now, Al Jolson was most famous for these blackface numbers – the kind of politically incorrect stuff they'd flog you for today. So my father asked my aunty Violet to make a couple of Black and White Minstrel-type suits for me and him to wear during the Coronation celebrations. They were amazing, these suits. Aunty Violet even got us matching white top hats and matching white bow ties and a couple of red-and-white-striped walking canes. But when my dad came downstairs in blackface, I went fucking nuts. I was screaming and crying and wailing, 'What have you done to him? Give me back my dad!' I wouldn't shut up until someone explained that he was just wearing boot polish. Then they tried to put some of it on me, and I went fucking nuts all over again. I would not have any of that stuff on me. I thought it would stick for ever.
'No! No! No! Noooooooo!' I screamed.
'Don't be such a scaredy-cat, John,' snapped my dad.
'No! No! No! Noooooooo!'
I've since learned that craziness runs in the family. My grandmother on my father's side was borderline certifiable. Really fucking nuts. She'd knock me around all the time for no reason. I have this memory of her slapping my thighs over and over again. Then there was my mum's younger sister, Aunty Edna, who committed suicide by jumping in a canal. She just walked out of the funny farm one day and decided to throw herself in a canal. My grandmother on my mother's side was a bit Radio Rental, too. She had my granddad's initials – A. U. for Arthur Unitt – tattooed on her arm. I think about her every time I see one of those gorgeous chicks on the telly with ink all over her body. It looks all right when you're footloose and fancy free, but, believe me, it doesn't look too fucking hot when you're a grandma, and you've got a floppy dagger and two wrinkly snakes on your biceps when you're rocking your grandkids to sleep. But she didn't give a fuck, my nan. I liked her a lot. She lived until she was ninety-nine. When I started to drink too much she'd hit me on the arse with a rolled-up copy of the Mirror and go, 'You're getting too fat! Stop drinking! You smell like a bloody beer mat!'
My folks were relatively normal in comparison. My dad was strict but he never beat me up or locked me in the coal house or anything. The worst I'd get was a smack if I did anything bad, like when I tried to kneecap my grandfather with a hot poker while he was asleep. But my dad did have big fights with my mother, and I later learned that he slapped her around. She even took him to court once, apparently, although I knew nothing of that at the time. I'd hear them shouting, but I never knew what any of it was about – money, I suppose. Mind you, no one who lives in the real world spends the whole time going around saying, 'Oh yes, darling, I understand, let's talk about our "feelings", lah-dee-fucking-dah.' People who say they've never had a cross word are living on another fucking planet. And being married was different in those days. I can't even imagine what it must have been like, working every night while your missus works every day, and still not having any dough to show for it.
He was a good guy, my old man: simple, old-fashioned. Physically, he was built like a featherweight, and he wore these thick, black Ronnie Barker glasses. He would say to me, 'You might not have a good education, but good manners don't cost you anything.' And he practised what he preached: he'd always give up his seat on the bus for a woman or help an old lady across the road.
A good man. I really miss him.
But I can now see that he was a bit of a hypochondriac. Maybe that's where I got it from. He always had some kind of trouble with his leg. He'd have bandages wrapped around it all the time but he'd never go and see a doctor. He'd rather have dropped dead than go to a doctor. He was terrified of them, like a lot of people his age were. And he'd never take a day off work. If he ever stayed at home feeling ill, it was time to call the undertaker.
One thing I didn't inherit from the old man was my addictive personality. My dad would have a few beers when he went out, but he wasn't an excessive drinker. He used to like Mackeson Stout, of all things. He'd go to the working men's club, have a laugh with the boys from the factory, and come home singing 'Show Me the Way to Go Home'. And that was it. I'd never see him rolling around on the floor or pissing his pants or throwing up in the house. He'd just get merry. Sometimes I'd go with him to the pub on a Sunday then play in the street outside and listen to him singing his head off through the door. And I'd think, Fucking hell, that lemonade my dad drinks must be amazing… I had an incredible imagination. I spent years wondering what beer must be like, until I finally drank some and thought, What the fuck is this shit? My dad would never drink this! But I soon found out how it could make you feel, and I loved anything that could change the way I felt. By the time I was eighteen I could down a pint in five seconds.
My dad wasn't the only one in our family who liked to sing when he'd had a few. My mum and my sisters did, too. Jean would come home with these Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley records, and they'd all learn them and organise these little family shows on a Saturday night. My sisters even had some of those Everly Brothers harmonies down pat. The first time I ever performed was at one of those Osbourne get-togethers. I sang Cliff Richard's 'Living Doll', which I'd heard on the radio. Never in a million years did I think I'd end up making a career out of singing. I didn't think it was possible. As far as I knew, the only way I could make any dough was to go and work in a factory, like everyone else in Aston. Or rob a fucking bank.
And that wasn't completely out of the question.
Crime came naturally to me. I even had an accomplice – a kid on my street called Patrick Murphy. The Murphys and the Osbournes were tight, even though the Murphy kids were proper Catholics and went to a different school. We started out scrumping apples, me and Pat. We didn't sell them or anything – we just used to eat the fuckers because we were hungry. Every so often you'd get a rotten one and you'd shit your guts out for days. Not far from where we lived was a place called Trinity Road, which backed on to a lower street, so you could just lean over a wall, turn your shirt into a kind of sling and fill it with apples from the trees on the other side. Once I was standing on the wall like a pregnant fucking apple smuggler and the owner of the land set these two German shepherds on me. They rushed up at me from behind and I fell head first over the wall, into the orchard. Within seconds, my eye swelled up like a big black balloon. My old man went fucking nuts when I went home. Then I went to hospital, and the doctor gave me another bollocking.
It didn't stop me and Pat, though.
After the apples we moved on to robbing parking meters. Then we got into some petty shoplifting. My folks had six kids and not much dough, and if you're in that kind of desperate situation, you'll do whatever you can for your next meal. I'm not proud of it, but I'm not one of those guys who'll go, 'Oh, I'm fine now, I've got plenty of dough, I'll just forget about my past.'
It's what made me who I am.
Another scam we came up with was standing outside Aston Villa's ground on match days and charging the fans a half-shilling each to 'mind' their cars. Everyone would leave their car unlocked in those days, so during the game we'd get inside them and just fuck around. Sometimes we'd try to make extra dough by washing them. That was a brilliant plan until we decided to wash one poor fucker's car with a wire brush. Half the paint was gone by the time we'd finished. The guy went fucking insane.
I wasn't really a bad guy, even though I wanted to be. I was just a kid trying to be accepted by the local gangs. We used to have great games, I remember. One street would fight the other by throwing stones down the road and using dustbin lids as shields, like it was the Greeks versus the Romans or something. It was fun until someone got hit in the face with a rock and had to go to the emergency room with blood gushing out of his eye socket. We played war games, too, and made our own bombs: you'd get a load of penny bangers, empty the gunpowder out, flatten one end of a copper tube, drill a hole in the middle, pack it with the gunpowder, fold the other end over, then take the fuse out of one of the bangers and put it in the hole. Then all you had to do was put a match to the fuse and fuck off out of the way, quick.
Not everything we did was as dodgy as bomb-making, but most of it was just as dangerous.
Me and Pat built this underground den one time, carved out of a hard clay embankment. We put an old bed frame in there and bits of wood, and there was this hole in the roof for a chimney. Next to it were these rusty oil drums, and we'd jump off the drums onto this piece of old corrugated metal that served as a perfect springboard – Boing! – then we'd land on the roof of the den. We did that for weeks until one day I crashed through the fucking chimney hole and almost broke my neck.
Pat thought I was a goner for a few seconds.
The bomb building sites were the best, though. We'd fuck around on them for hours, building stuff out of the rubble, smashing things, lighting fires. And we were always looking for treasure… our imaginations went crazy. There were also a lot of derelict Victorian houses to play in, because they were doing up Aston at the time. They were magnificent, those old houses – three or four storeys – and you could do all kinds of shit in them. We'd buy a couple cigarettes and lounge around in bombed-out drawing rooms or whatever, having a smoke. Woodbine or Park Drive, they were our fags of choice. You'd be sitting there in all this dirt and dust, smoking a cigarette and breathing in all this thick, yellow Birmingham smog at the same time.
Ah, them were the days.
I hated school. Hated it.
I can still remember my first day at Prince Albert Juniors in Aston: they had to drag me in there by the scruff of my neck, because I was kicking and screaming so much.
The only thing I ever looked forward to at school was the bell ringing at four o'clock. I couldn't read properly so I couldn't get good marks. Nothing would stick in my head, and I couldn't understand why my brain was such a useless piece of fucking jelly. I'd look at a page in a book and it might as well have been written in Chinese. I felt like I was no good, like I was a born loser. It wasn't until I was in my thirties that I found out about my dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. No one knew anything about any of that shit back then. I was in a class of forty kids, and if you didn't understand, the teachers didn't try to help – they just let you fuck around. So that's what I did. And whenever anyone gave me shit for being stupid – like when I had to read out loud – I'd try to entertain the class. I'd think up all sorts of insane things to do to make the other kids laugh.
The only good thing about having dyslexia is that dyslexics are usually very creative people, or so I've been told. We think in unusual ways. But it's a very bad stigma to have, not being able to read like normal people can. To this day I wish I'd had a proper education. I think books are great, I do. To be able to lose yourself in a book is fucking phenomenal. Everyone should be able to do it. But I've been able to get through an entire book only a few times in my life. Every blue moon this thing in my head will release, and I'll try to read as many books as I can, because when it closes up it goes straight back to the way it was, and I end up just sitting there, staring at Chinese.
For as long as I can remember people called me 'Ozzy' at school. I haven't got a clue who first came up with it, or when, or why. It was just a nickname for Osbourne, I suppose, but it fitted my clownish personality. As soon as it stuck, only my immediate family kept calling me John. I don't even recognise my birth name now. If someone says, 'Oi, John! Over 'ere!' I don't even look up.
After Prince Albert Juniors, I went to Birchfield Road Secondary Modern in Perry Barr. They had a uniform there. It wasn't mandatory, but most of the kids wore it, including my goody two-shoes little brother Paul. He'd turn up every day in the blazer and the grey flannels and the tie and shirt. Me, I'd walk around in fucking welly-boots and jeans and smelly old sweats. The headmaster, Mr Oldham, would give me a bollocking every time he set eyes on me. 'John Osbourne, tidy yourself up, you're a disgrace!' he'd shout down the hallway. 'Why can't you be more like your brother?'
The only time Mr Oldham ever said a good word about me was when I told him that one of the older kids had tried to kill the school fish by putting Fairy Liquid in the aquarium. He even praised me in assembly. 'Because of John Osbourne,' he said, 'we were able to apprehend the villain responsible for this dastardly deed.' What Mr Oldham didn't know was that it was me who'd tried to kill the school fish by putting dish soap in the aquarium – but I'd chickened out halfway through. I knew everyone would blame me for all the bubbles in the tank, 'cos they blamed me for everything, so I thought if I blamed someone else first, I could get away with it. And it worked.
There was one teacher I liked: Mr Cherrington. He was a local-history buff and he once took us to this place called Pimple Hill, the site of an old castle in Birmingham. It was fucking great. He talked about forts and burial grounds and medieval torture devices. It was the best lesson I ever had, but I still didn't get good marks because I couldn't write any of it down. Funnily enough, the only thing I got gold stars for at Birchfield Road was 'heavy metalwork'. I suppose that was 'cos my dad was a toolmaker and it came naturally to me. I even won first prize in a class competition for a metal window catch. It didn't stop me fucking around, though. The teacher, Mr Lane, would end up slapping me on the arse with this big piece of wood. He would hit me so hard I thought my arse was going to fall off. He was actually a nice guy, Mr Lane. Terrible racist, though. Fucking hell, the things he'd say… you'd get put in jail for it today.
My favourite prank in heavy metalwork was to get a penny and spend three or four minutes making it really hot with a blowtorch, and then leave it on Mr Lane's desk, so that he'd see it and pick it up out of curiosity.
First you'd hear: 'Waaaaahhhhhh!'
Then: 'Osbourne, you little bastard!'
The old hot-penny trick. Priceless, man.
I got bullied for a while when I was younger. Some older kids used to wait for me on the way home from school and pull my trousers down and fuck around with me. I was maybe eleven or twelve at the time. It was a bad scene. They didn't fuck me or wank me off or any of that stuff – it was just boys playing boys' games – but it made me feel ashamed, and it freaked me out because I couldn't tell my parents. There was a lot of teasing in my family – which is normal when you've got six kids in one little terraced house – but it meant I didn't feel I could ask anyone for help. I felt like it was all my fault.
At least it made me determined that when I grew up and had my own kids, I'd tell them, 'Don't ever be afraid to come to your mum and dad with any problems. You know what's right and you know what's wrong, and if somebody ever messes with parts of your body that you don't think are cool, just tell us.' And believe me, if I ever found out that anything dodgy was happening to one of my own, there'd be fucking blood.
Eventually I worked out a way to get around the bullies. I found the biggest kid in the playground and clowned around until I made him laugh. By doing that he became my friend. He was built like a cross between a brick shithouse and Mount fucking Snowdon. If you fucked around with him you'd be drinking your school dinners through a straw for the next month and a half. But deep down he was a gentle giant. The bullies left me well alone once we became pals, which was a relief because I was as crap at fighting as I was at reading.
One kid at school who never
- On Sale
- Jan 3, 2011
- Page Count
- 416 pages
- Grand Central Publishing