John Lydon and John Bird judge The Great British Postcard Competition

John Lydon and Big Issue founder John Bird on Brexit, Britain and the artworks they auctioned at The Great British Postcard Competition

Never Mind the Bake Off! Here’s the Sex Pistol John Lydon and punk publisher and Big Issue founder Lord John Bird at The Great British Postcard Competition.

On a lively night at the Proud Gallery in Camden, London, Bird and Lydon shared top billing, entertaining the crowd with irreverent speeches before their original art works were auctioned off to raise money for The Big Issue Foundation.

John Lydon was head judge for the inaugural competition, sponsored by SAXOPRINT, and the £5,000 prize for the winning entry made it second only to the Turner Prize in cash terms.

Filthy lucre

When Bird and Lydon got together, sparks flew. Could this double act have legs?

“I’ve offered him a million pounds to come on the road with me,” quipped Bird, when The Big Issue spoke to the pair before they took to the stage.

“You filthy liar – I don’t do nothing for money!” was the retort from Lydon.

At a time of social change, political upheaval and economic turmoil, the range of postcards submitted ranged from the satirical to the strident, with some adopting the saucy seaside postcard style of a bygone era.

For me it is politics as usual. Nothing happens with those people!

Brexit was the dominant theme of the art works submitted. But Lydon avoided the overtly political when choosing his winning entires.

“I think it is too clichéd, I don’t want to zoom in on it,” he said.

“I still don’t know what the referendum was about because both Labour and Tories offered me no information at all that was in any way practical towards making a decision.

The Great British Postcard Competition, Proud Camden
The Great British Postcard Competition, Proud Camden

“But people made a decision, and then they tried to hum and haw on that decision and now they are indecisive on it. So for me it is politics as usual. Nothing happens with those people!

“They are under-qualified, they have not had life’s experiences, they have never gone through any real pain, they are privileged, they all seem to know each other in a super-splendid sort of way, and I don’t trust none of them.

“One of my only few pleasures in life is that whenever a politician comes up to be super happy with me, they are going to get a super unhappy time. If I detect fake and faults, down you go mate.”

Lord Lydon?

With these strong opinions our Lord Bird sensed he had found an ally.

“What about you in the House of Lords?” he asked Lydon.

”Oh Lordy!” grinned the singer. “Well, I’ve known enough barristers over the years with endless court nonsense – and I have always found them to be really all right and proper.”

Britain is a very talented place

The Great British Postcard Competition began when The Big Issue, The Big Issue Foundation and online print company SAXOPRINT teamed up with Lydon to challenge the creative community to design a postcard that reflects their personal experiences of Britain in 2017.

The result was hundreds of entries, ranging in style, which impressed the judges.

“I was very impressed with the quality. Britain is a talented place!” was Lydon’s verdict.

“I was overwhelmed by some of it. It made my decision making process difficult, which actually I am damn grateful for. Because I became so involved with each little postcard achievement. Art is such an individual choice. I ignored all the blurb and text and let it hit me emotionally.”

English garbage

The winner, announced on the night and taking home a cheque for £5,000 – second only to the Turner Prize – was Helen Nodding for her work End Of The Road.

The painting depicts Britain’s neglected back streets, tattered English flags hover above overgrown bushes and heaped rubbish.

“I nearly fell off my chair laughing,” said Lydon. “That’s our English garbage. I love it. It reminds me of having a cigarette outside the pub in the back yard. The sense of detail really affected me. I would love a huge big print of that.”

Other prizes on the night went to Lee O’Brien, who won the online vote for his depiction of that perennial British summer time treat, the soggy barbecue. The Liverpool-based teacher pledged to use the winnings to fund the art department of his school.

And the Young Talent Winner, chosen by Dr Nicky Ryan, Dean of Design at London College of Communication, was Madeleine Kay’s Welcome to Brexitland. This print was passionately anti-Brexit, depicting a colourful, cartoonish collection of key players in last year’s decision to leave the EU. She wins a trip to Dresden (home of SAXOPRINT) and £1,000.

The Big Issue Foundation CEO Stephen Robertson was another to speak at The Great British Postcard Competition show. He talked about how, in these uncertain times, people can be certain that buying a Big Issue from vendors like Carlos, who was selling magazines at the event, is helping them “change their lives through business”.

Public images

At the end of a riotous evening, paintings by Bird, Lydon, artist John Sheehy and art provocateur Richard DeDominici were auctioned, raising money for The Big Issue Foundation.

Sheehy, who began painting at the Big Issue arts group, read a poem to explain the thinking behind his work Soot – which recalled his time working with a chimney sweep in North London during the 1960s.

John Sheehy postcard
John Sheehy's design for The Great British Postcard Competition

Lydon’s painting, Fog Of War (Benwell Rd London N7), was also a personal piece, reflecting on his early years, living in North London.

“It’s about the street I grew up in, Benwell Road, where they have now put the Emirates Stadium,” he said. “We only had two rooms and a toilet, which we shared by the local attendees of the two pubs on the street corner.

DID YOU KNOW…

In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.

“I should have – but in those days, there was a sense of community, they were all locals in those local pubs. It was a community spirit.

“I started the painting based on that road. I thought, let’s not be too self important, what about the people who came before us – so I went back to World War II and the Blitz and put that in the background.

Fog Of War (Benwell Rd London N7) by John Lydon
Fog of War (Benwell Rd London N7) by John Lydon

“Painting the Blitz also looked like bright lights, big city, which was the way out of this dead end street. Because that is where the library was, in the middle of that flame. And that is what saved me when I was ill, when I lost all my memories at seven. I spent a lot of time in that library.”

Bird’s painting, although more abstract, was also from the heart.

“It is really about this idea of using art to bring about social transformation,” he said, before explaining how learning printing skills and taking up painting helped him turn his life around.

Mr Rotten beat you to the punch!

Lydon noted the similarities in their stories.

“Making the best of what can be perceived as a catastrophic background. But you have to have the smarts to be able to see an opportunity and grasp it,” he said.

“Turning poverty into its opposite,” agreed Bird.

When we started the Big Issue, it was quite interesting. It was the first time people who were on the street could be honest. And you realised you were talking to someone who was trying to turn their life around.”

Lydon grinned: “I think Mr Rotten beat you to the punch on explaining things from a working class sensibility or background,” he said. “I got the opportunity to join the Pistols and I jumped at it. I had no concept how to do this other than I loved reading and writing, and I found a voice for me and my peeps that was not self pitying…”