Updated: Jan 4, 2021
"Punk is musical freedom. It’s saying, doing, and playing what you want. In Webster’s terms, nirvana means freedom from pain, suffering, and the external world, and that’s pretty close to my definition of punk rock." —Kurt Cobain
Extract from upcoming novel by Willy Mitchell, Northern ECHO:
The train chugged southward out of Glasgow Central as I stared blankly out the window at the passing cityscape. I had an increasingly love-hate relationship with Glasgow and, in fact, much of the United Kingdom by then. I found it sad. I was a former servant to the queen who’d been in the British Army for more than a decade of my life, yet as I looked around at the shit state of the train, the other passengers, and the staff, I wondered, What was it all for?
"The tenements, the high-rise tower blocks—I struggled to understand what made anyone want to live in them. Maybe they have no choice. Maybe they have no path to a brighter future."
That thought also made me sad. “Poor fuckers,” I whispered aloud. The man sitting across from me glanced over at me with a puzzled look on his face and then went back to reading his newspaper.
I remembered the punk rock revolution that had hit the shores of Old Blighty back in 1976. The backdrop of political turmoil, the former Hollywood actor, and the Iron Lady had united. Nations had built up nuclear arsenals, posturing and threatening to throw them at each other. I recalled the union strikes, the demise of whole industries, high unemployment, and the sense of hopelessness that had existed with Britain’s youth. Many years had passed since those turbulent times, yet they were as fresh in my mind’s eye as if they’d occurred only yesterday.
"From that sense of having no future, a movement had arisen like a phoenix from the flames, an opportunity for the youth of the day to rise up, protest, and demonstrate their discontent through music, fashion, and a way of life that many just plain didn’t understand."
Many of the older generation considered punk rock nothing more than noise, and they considered the kids who loved that rebellious form of rock to be scum.
The mid-1970s had marked the beginnings of the punk rock movement. I had been in on the ground floor. The chaotic nature of punk had captivated my imagination.
It had tapped directly into the rebel in me, and it had set me free to get into plenty of trouble with my equally rebellious friends.
One friend in particular, Tim Timpson, whom we all called Tiny Tim or just Tiny, had pushed the so-called proverbial envelope on what he could get away with, and I’d tagged along for the ride.
Tiny was on my mind as the train left the city proper. The gray industrial atmosphere gave way to the sprawl of any big city in those days, and the scenery became more bucolic as the miles ticked by. Tiny had occupied my thoughts a great deal of late. He’d said he had something important to tell me and that it had to be in person. That was unlike Tiny. I knew in my heart that something was up and that it probably wasn’t good.
The conductor entered the far end of the car and began collecting tickets. In anticipation of his arrival at my seat, I shuffled in the back pocket of my jeans and fished out my return ticket to Windermere, the tourist town where I’d grown up.
I watched the conductor make his way down the carriage. He was in his early twenties, I guessed, and wore his uniform like a bag of shite. His forage cap slanted to one side; his hair was in need of a cut, flowing out the sides of his cap; his gray-blue trousers were covered with tramlines from too many misguided ironing sessions; and in contrast, his shirt looked as if it had never seen an iron at all.
“Fucking egit,” I whispered to myself, and I turned my attention to the accountant type who sat opposite me. He was oblivious, sliding an old Bic pen into his ear, seemingly cleaning out his earwax. “What the fuck?” I stared at him as he slowly became self-conscious about what he was doing and apologetically placed the scabby pen on the table between us. “For fuck’s sake,” I said. He picked up the pen and jammed it into his jacket pocket.
Nearby I saw an old couple holding hands, a handful of football supporters going to some game somewhere, and a woman with two bairns screaming their heads off. She was smoking Marlboro Reds and drinking a can of Stella, yelling at the two children in her barely understandable Glaswegian drawl.
“Fucking classy.” I had a habit of talking to myself, often aloud. The conductor arrived. “Tickets, please.”
I waited for the accountant to rummage around in his briefcase and eventually find his rail pass. He was a frequent traveler heading to work for the morning, I guessed. People’s lack of savvy pissed me off; the conductor had been calling for tickets for at least the past three minutes.
“Fucking egit.” I glared at him, and he just looked away, doubly embarrassed and self-conscious."
As I settled in after giving the conductor my ticket, my thoughts again returned to Tiny. Our meeting would be at the Royal Oak, which had been a favorite haunt of ours for many years. Tiny was a friend, protector, promoter, and hero—my hero.
My best friend’s wife had been taken away by cancer. She’d been too young to die and too beautiful, both inside and out. I swore I saw her in every train station, airport, and shopping mall, following me, staring at me, smiling, never saying a word. She’d joined the numerous others on the growing list of lasting memories of people who had passed away. The list grew longer by the year, and the names on it lingered with me as the faces faded into the oblivion of the passing decades.
I had left Glasgow on the 12:40 p.m. from platform 1 and headed south to Oxenholme Station. After a fifteen-minute wait there, I was then on the old bone shaker into Windermere, the last part of the journey, which brought back memories—some good, some bad, and some conveniently forgotten—and whisked me back to my youth.
I hadn’t made that journey for more than thirty years—thirty-three, to be precise—and that was my first return to the northern town where I’d grown up, on the same train I had left on way back then.
As the train wove its way past Kendal, Burneside, and Staveley toward Windermere, I felt pain and anxiety rising from the pit of my stomach.
"It was like traveling back in time to a place far in the past, a place full of happiness and joy yet sadness of times, memories, and people long gone."
The familiar downpour of rain was there to greet me like an old adversary as I stepped onto the once-familiar platform and walked to the big red double-decker to take me down to Bowness. I sat on the top deck, as I had years earlier, and looked out the rain-spattered window as we passed through Windermere, close to the Odana Café, the Windermere Hotel, the Elleray Hotel, an old friend’s place, and the Queen’s Hotel. We went down past the clock tower into Bowness, past my old family home, the old cinema, the Nisi Taverna, the Old England Hotel, and the Stag’s Head to the lakeside, my final stop.
It was like going back in time. Things had changed but not too much; it was pretty much the same place I had left all those years earlier. I recalled my mother and father waving me off at the train station when I’d left to join Her Majesty’s British Army to find some glimmer of hope in what had seemed hopeless times back then.
"That day was a typical February Sunday afternoon in the north of England: cold, wet, and miserable."
Tiny had sent me a text late on Friday night, asking if I would like to meet up “one last time.” I assumed the text was fueled by alcohol or some other substance; nevertheless, we had always promised each other that in times of need, we would answer the call.
All those years later, I was confused. I felt unclear on why I had never returned, but deep down, I knew the answer to that—a secret buried deep within, conveniently and deliberately parked away in the depths somewhere, never to be spoken, never to be heard, rarely coming to mind apart from the occasional times of loneliness and the frequent times of darkness. Churchill had called it his black dog. I called mine the black bastard; he was both dark and extremely cruel.
It had grown over the years, becoming deeper. With each passing day came another event, loss, death, mistake, regret, or suicide. They all piled up one after the other. Most of the time, from the outside, people saw me as strong, but inside, I was vulnerable. I put on a good show. I had learned how to do that, usually passing off tragedy and sadness with humor. That was how we’d dealt with it in the army. It seemed to work, at least on the face of it.
Although Tiny and I had maintained our bond from a distance, we were also torn apart by our secret, which neither of us could ever share with anyone else. Not ever. I’d tried for years to run away from the secret, our evil deed. The fear of facing up to what we had done kept us apart. We’d talked regularly at first, but over the years, our communication had subsided as we compartmentalized our memories and our lives.
"Pushing that thought to one side, I realized there were many good memories too. We were brothers-in-arms on our journey of discovery and partners in crime."
The music of Morrissey, former front man, singer, and songwriter for the Smiths, played in my head from the moment the train pulled into the station and during the ride down the hill, ringing in my ears, haunting me.