Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Britain is still a country for an old, tea-drinking, Scots stand-up comedian called Billy Connolly

Billy Connolly is 75 years old and last week BBC TV broadcast two programmes entitled 'Billy Connolly : Made in Scotland'. The first programme concentrated on his teenage years in Glasgow in the 1950s and his work as a welder in the shipyards on the River Clyde and how the city inspired the banjo-playing, stand-up comedian, who left the city to seek his future in the 1960s. He finished this episode with : "Life was a five-string, windswept minstrel that was the thing for me."

The second episode was far more downbeat and emphasised his present travails centred around his affliction with the effects of Parkinson's Disease, with which he was diagnosed in 2013. "Parkinson's is strange" he said "because its not going to go away. All my life I've got sick, I got the flu and I got pneumonia and various things and they all went away This isn't going anywhere. It's going to get worse. It takes a certain calm to deal with and I sometimes don't have it. Sometimes get angry with it, but that doesn't last long."

Towards the end of the programme Billy became very philosophical about the time he had left : "My life is slipping away and I can feel and I should. I'm 75. I'm near the end. I'm a damn sight near the end than I am the beginning, but it doesn't frighten me. It's an adventure and it's quite interesting to see myself slipping away as bits slip off and leave me. Talents leave and attributes leave. I don't have the balance I used to have. I don't have the energy I used to have. I can't hear as I used to hear. I can't see as good as I used to. I can't remember the way I used to remember and they all came one at a time. They just slipped away, thank you. It's like somebody's in charge of you and they're saying "Right, I added all these bits when you were a  youth, now its time to subtract." I can't work my left hand on the banjo. It's as if I'm being prepared for something - some other adventure which is over over the hill. I've got all this stuff to lose first.and then I'll be at the shadowy side of the hill, doing the next episode in the spirit world."

This broadcast led to a flurry of concern on social media, that the old chap was on his last legs, to the extent that his wife Pamela Stephenson posted a video on her Twitter account showing him relaxing, playing his banjo and laughing saying : "Not dying. Not dead. Not slipping away. Sorry if I depressed you. Maybe I should have phrased it better."

Both programmes were shot through with insights into the Glasgow and Scotland that made Billy, Britain's first stand-up comedian, bring his reflections on everyday life to the stage and have his audiences rolling with laughter in their seats. To show "how being around the people of Glasgow and the pubs shipyards and clubs turned me from being 'Billy Connolly the welder' into Billy Connolly 'The Big Yin.'"

He said with obvious sincerity : "I'm a hard-working, lazy man. My ambition has never been that great, but I've been lucky enough to have a talent that's taken me further than I could have dreamt of. And while the fame and the crowds have got bigger, what's important to me has shrunk in scope but become infinitely more rewarding. It's a sin really. I'm so blissfully unaware how this has come about."

He reflected : "When I was nominated for a knighthood, the woman interviewing me said very nicely : "It will be strange for you, having a knighthood - coming from nothing" and I said : " I don't come from nothing. I come from something."

That something was Dover Street, in Anderston, a working class district in Glasgow in the 1940s and 50s. "Comedy, like drama, is about conflict and Glasgow is my city of conflict. The views, the smells the sounds of these streets are jammed with memories of being cold and warm, in love and heartbroken, crying with laughter and regret. I love Glasgow, but that love has always been matched with an urge to leave to see over the horizon and that pull has made me a proud citizen of the world. There's always been a string in my heart that I'm glad pulls me back to where I'm from. To all the things that made me good and bad - Scotland."

When Billy was 15 he left school and got a job in a bookshop before moving to an apprenticeship in a dockyard on the River Clyde which "provided us with more than just work. It gave us, an entire city, our identity. It was what made our men stand out from other men." Work in the dockyard "was all rough and the language was all, really rough. There was a lot of swearing. Swearing and "Fuck this and fuck that and the other thing and the gate was closed and it was all guys and the jokes were furious and the language was strong. and if you didn't like it, get the fuck out of there."

Billy in his teens wanted to learn to play the banjo : "Eventually, I got one and like a teenager discovering his todger, I became obsessed with playing it. I was relentless and then one day someone in the yards changed my like forever - Willie Mcinnis a welder."

He said : "what you doing ?" I said "I'm going to be a folk singer. I'm gonna quit at the holidays. He said : "If you were really keen on it, you would do it now." The most important thing to me he said : "You don't want to be sitting here as an old men knowing you could have got out." He said : "I've known guys like that and it destroys their whole life. Just telling themselves they could have done better and didn't take the chance." He said : "You've got the chance go and do it. " So I did it. I was off being a hairy banjo player. touring the world, singing a song thanks to Willie Mcinnis."

"Since I've got Parkinson's Disease I've cut back on my work, but the fame remains and I've never known anything like it and it's a very pleasant feeling. People saying : "How nice it is to see you" and "How good you're looking". What's wrong with that ? Now I've got a funny idea of what the world's like. I think everbody's laughing and smiling, cos they are to me."

"The good things are there. The love we have for people is still there and with a bit of luck, the love they have for you is still there and I'm very lucky inasmuch as I made a bit of a mark and you think "Well I must have done something right and that keeps you company when you're older. There's the fact that when you were creative - you created well. It accompanies you. It's a great companion. You can volunteer to take life seriously but its gonna get you . You know they're going to win over you. It's harsh. You can either breakdown and complain how miserable your life is or have a go at it and survive. I think that's the basis of it all."
* * * * * * * * 
Other other insights Billy offered along the way :
* "My beginnings were no better or worse than the other 20,000 boys and girls that were the same year as me in Glasgow. No-one thought we were poor till somebody come along and told us. There was a lot of debris around an endless supply of bricks to throw at things."
* "My primary school was like a Dickensian hangover - violent and abusive. Before I was even aware of it, I inherently knew that the arts, be it music painting or literature, were vital somehow. All the colour I needed and the answers I was looking for were just waiting to be discovered. People often say : "Well football and boxing are the way out of the working class", if indeed, you want to leave it, but the library is where the tunnel is if you want to escape. The library is the key. All the knowledge in the world is there. You just want to lift it up. The great brains are there to be picked. Books are your ticket to the whole world. Its a free ticket to the entire earth. It's some nice person saying : "Come in and listen to this. You've never heard this before. It'll change you for the better."
* "For most boys of my generation, leaving school and ending up in the shipyards was pretty much inevitable. The pull was as strong as gravity and almost as pointless to resist. It was good because you knew it was going to make you a man. You're a schoolboy with a yodelly voice and it was time to become a man. Working on the Clyde was hugely intimidating to a boy and when you're 16, you might have hairs on you chin, you might get drunk, you might even get somebody pregnant but you're still a boy. That's the first thing that strikes you when you join the shipyards, it's the deafening sound of caulkers almost make you want to quit. They had a pneumatic gun with a chisel at the front. "Da-da-da-da-da". It was deafeningly loud. Especially if you're an apprentice and you're just started you think you're never going to survive this deafening noise and of course you do by becoming deaf."
* "As a boy you clamour to be heard above the crowd, but when you're walking into a man's world you quickly learn to shut up, listen and watch. Guys would talk round the fire and try to be funny to each other and they were always very observant about each other. There was a guy called Willie and they called him 'Wull the Gull', 'cos if you threw your crust away he was like a sea gull - he's dive and catch it."
* "I loved calling myself a welder. Being something bigger than me. It was comforting. Especially when you're young and still trying yourself out for size and finding your voice. All the same, like every other man there, come Friday, I couldn't wait for the weekend to begin."

* "I used to go to the Barrowland Ballroom. Looking for love, or at least pretending to, has proved to be the greatest source of embarrassment and embarrassment the greatest source of comedy imaginable. The Barrowland, Glasgow's premier dance hall was my arena of public humiliation. It was big ball room and the girls stood along the wall and the men stood along the edge of the dance floor, so you tried to get the nerve up to walk across the no mans land : "Are you dancing ?" was the question "You dancing ?" and if she said "Naw" Oh my God all you could do was turn and walk away and then mingle and go to another bit of the room and see and see if you could get someone else. What you mustn't do is say : "OK" and ask the next one to her. "Are you dancing ?" "Naw". "Naw". "Naw"...right out the door and away."
* "My whole romantic life was one disaster following another. I used to look out the bus window at the streets teeming with people, and I would look at women and say : "Shes done it." "She's done it."  "He's done it with her." "When will I ever get to do it ?"
* "Scottish Cup Finals, we always had a 110,00, 111,00. I remember leaving Hampden Park with my feet off the ground, as I was gong down those passageways just squashed by the adults, being lifted off the ground. and levitating my way out. You never see crowds like that any more, thank God. It was much noisier and a lot more Celtic supporters used to sing hymns : 'Hail Glorious Saint Patrick. Dear Saint of our isle On us, thy poor children bestow a sweet smile.'"

* "I enjoyed drinking but it's a thing of the past. I was too drunk for my own good but it was lovely when I was doing it and then the fun went away and I stopped it. That's the sign to watch for. when the fun disappears. But tea is the best substance in the world. Tea. I love tea. It makes me feel good. It makes me feel jolly. Tea is the substance."

* "I may not drink any more but I still love the culture that goes into a pub, The noise, the unspoken rules, the language of the crown. It was all music to me. It sounds outrageous, but women  weren't even allowed in here until 1989. Everybody speaks about the male-only thing as if there was something wrong with it, but it was a lovely thing. You know mixing with the guys and there's a thing about male company that I like very much and it isn't just dirty jokes or talking about football. There's a mixture of things that men like to talk about to each other. It was a lovely bit of my life and I kind of miss it. Politics, books, film, family, football, religion - everything was on the table to talk, argue and take the piss out of each other with. But the thing that united tens of thousands of men across countless pubs across the city was the job."

* "Ships were lined up right along the Clyde - putting stuff off and taking whisky on and all those other things that we exported, railway engines and stuff like that. It was a fantastic place. And where I lived there was big steep hill called Gardner Street. If you stood on top of it you could see the ships. It looked as if the ships were sailing through the houses. It was a lovely thing."
* "The Clyde is very different almost unrecognisable now. The quiet is almost overwhelming to my memories of a once relentless noise. Its a constant sort of puzzle to me where did all these thousands of men go ? All those men who worked in the dock, all those stevedores and dockers all the riveters and hole-borers fro the shipyards. platers and welders. Thousands and thousands of men. Where have they all gone ?"
* "There's no denying it - I'm 75, I've got Parkinson's and I'm at the wrong end of the telescope of life. I'm at the point where the yeasteryears mean more than the yesterdays because it's back there in my childhood and youth that all those things that made me, live keenest in my memory now. So, I'm going on a Proustian wander through Scotland to the places the objects the sounds that brought me to where I am now."
* "I get away with murder. If I'm walking along the street and there's men down a hole fixing some pipes or the sewage or something, I like to say : "Come on get your back into it. No wonder the countries in the state its in". And they'll burst out laughing. Well anybody else would get a kick in the arse you know."
* "Being famous and Scottish I'm often asked : what Scotland means to me ? For me Scotland isn't so much a place, but a state of mind. It's an outlook on life that comes from trying to balance what I would call the Yin and Yang of the place. Our landscapes are beautiful, but full of midges, our love of language is only matched by our love of profanity. We're pragmatic and deeply sentimental. Really, it's no surprise that Jekyll and Hyde was written by a Scotsman. The Scottish experience is a Celtic-flavoured sweet and sour affair, something I was aware of from my earliest memories."

No comments:

Post a Comment