By Thomas Clark
Gin ye grew up in a partícular pairt o Scotland at a partícular pynt in time — say the wast coast, say the Eighties — Billy Connolly wis the anely thing that maitered. Set by yer Sex Pistols, forget yer Clash — nane o that stuff iver got throu tae us. The C30s that we swapped around in cless warnae bootleg Bowie; they war taped fae dusty auld vinyls we found in our faither’s cupboard, clatterin sangs on banjo about wellies an jannies an mad wee dugs gaun loco. Like the jokes, we didnae ayeweys unnerstaund thaim — whit exactly wis ‘the broo’? — but we knew the warld they cam fae, kent the hairmless jakies an alcoholic dreamers that líved in it.
An we learned. As we listened, we learned. We learned hou tae tell our ain stories, ridículous anes, lingerin on the lip o credibility, interruptit aye an anon bi the wheezy lauchter o the teller. We learned hou tae haud aff an haud aff an keep haudin aff, tae pit aside the story’s endin like a last wee bite o cake. An we learned that the wey ye tell a story maiters, says somethin important about ye, an that if ye coudnae tell a story kindly, than it wis mebbe a story that wis better left untelt.
Tae tell a story kindly disnae juist mean bein nice. It means tellin the story in a wey that’s true tae the fowk that it’s about; respectin their chyces, respectin their mistaks. Tak a keek at the píous, pre-emptive eulogies for Billy Connolly that hiv been croppin up aw ower the shop, an tell me — are they kind? Are they nice? Or are they juist the kind o guff that Billy spent his hale career deflatin — or used tae, onygates, afore he went an broke our herts?
There’s the wey ye talk tae fríends, an there’s the wey ye talk tae co-wirkers. There’s the wey ye treat the faimily ye love, an the wey ye treat the faimily ye dinnae. There’s nice, but as well as that, there’s nicey-nice. The phone vyce equivalent o fríendliness, the smile wi’out the een. An whaniver somebody gears thaimsels up tae say somethin guid about Connolly nouadays, it’s as if they’re clappin a scabby auld dug that micht hae ane mair snap left in it.
It’s in the natur o epitaphs — and yon’s really whit we’re talkin about — tae be reductive. Sae it’s nae surpríse at aw tae see Billy Connolly dung doun bi fowk wha niver really cared for him, lowdent tae a kind o Caledonian Chuckle Brither, an end o the pier act fae a lang-shut muisic haw. Yon disrespect, ah ween, isnae juist for Connolly. It’s for the notion o stand-up comedy as a hale, the idea that there micht be — hae been — artists whase art juist happened tae be makkin fowk lauch. Fowk wha hiv legítimised the form, the wey Ali did for boxin or Fischer did for chess. An mak nae mistak, Billy Connolly wis o their kind. Billy Connolly wis a genius.
Aye, that’s richt. Billy Connolly, the chiel wha inventit the jobby wheecher, a genius. Think about it. A place isnae real till it’s been fully imagined. An in the thirty year that Alasdair Gray wis imaginin Lanark, Billy Connolly mapped out a wirkin-class Glesga that tae this verra day remains canonical. It’s there in Frankie Boyle an Kevin Bridges an Limmy’s Show. It’s there in hou Gleswegians think an talk about theirsels an each ither. Even whan fowk are tryin tae get awa, it’s Connolly’s Glesga that they’re strivin tae escape. Mair sae than Gray or Kelman or even McIlvanney, it wis Billy Connolly, a lowly banjo picker, wha defined the topography o our common Glesga — its mercats, its parks, its nightclubs, its tenements. Leuk on his wirks, ya bampots, an despair.
Sic a thing cannae happen again; no in this day an age. There’s ower muckle gaun on, nou, for a body tae become as vital tae a cultur as Connolly wis tae Glesga’s. There’s ower mony Glesgas tae be celebratit — gay Glesga, transgender Glesga, Asian Glesga; Glesgas which war aw vyceless afore — for juist ae carle tae represent thaim aw.
Unity; it’s a kittlie an gey unstable thing, aft as no mainteened at the expense o thaim excludit fae it. But whan ye’v got it, while ye’v got it, it’s the anely thing that seems tae count. Connolly gied us unity wi ither, but lat us think our unity wis wi him. But it wisnae. An that’s whit’s makkit necessar this talk about forgiein him.
Maist o whit’s been scrieved about Connolly in 2017 haes haed this gey redemptive air, like whan some weel-loved showbiz personality taks a mad turn in his dotage and stairts supportin UKIP or threapin for the tawse in schuils. Think Patrick Moore’s gay-bashin, think Roald Dahl’s anti-semitism. Awbody is suddently in a richt hurry for thaim tae get on wi it an shoot the craw, juist so’s we can aw forgie thaim an gan back tae thinkin o thaim the wey we used tae. An, efter aw, whit coud be mair Christian than that? Tae forgie? Weel, aye; ’cept that forgieness aft becomes a kind of wappen, a wey o daikin aff the roch edges o a person, renderin thaim as they shoud hae been, no as they really are. An forby, forgiein somebody lats us establish somethin about thaim that it micht itherwise be awfy haurd tae pruive — that they did somethin wrang.
Sae, naw. Ah dinnae think there’s much honour in the virr wi which we’re aw forgiein Connolly, or the wey we’v waitit till he’s least likely tae repone. No tae mention the wey we’re aw pussy-fittin around saying juist whit it is the man’s supposed tae hae duin wrang. A recent vísitor tae Earth wad boggle at it, tryin tae wirk out whit hithertil nameless chairges the Big Yin haes tae answer tae.
Weel, naebody wants tae be the tragic wee shape that actually comes out an says it, but whit we’re aw forgien Connolly for, or tryin tae, is that he abandoned us. Pit thegither these airts in which we líve, than left us tae it an buggered on aff tae Hollywood. Gin Billy Connolly is the faither o modren Glesga, as ah’m tryin tae propose, he’s lang syne been an absent ane.
Writers like Kelman an Gray, they create moniments. The warlds they mak are the warlds we aw líve in. But stand-ups dae something a wee bit different. It’s no places they big, it’s vyces. The Glesga o Connolly’s devisin wis no sae much a conurbation o tenements an playgrunds as an attitude; gallus, garrulous, quaistenin, self-flagellatin; a vyce that coud exist juist as weel on the Muin as on the Clyde.
But a vyce, unlike a scrieved wird, is a thing that dees. It cannae be replenished or replaced. McIlvanney’s Glesga will líve on doun the ages. But Connolly’s Glesga, like Brigadoon, is dwynin awa wi the man. An suin aw that we’ll be left wi are the echoes.
Sae the abandonment issues we’re talkin about here are uggsome on a kind o spíritual level, especially here in single parent Glesga, second cíty Glesga, yer da’s a no-user Glesga. Tae us, Connolly’s exit stage richt wis as personal a disappearance as iver it is tae ony wean o D.I.V.O.R.C.E. In a warld full o soap opera storylines an gleg volte faces, it wis still the maist dramatic heelturn o our lifes. But than, leuk at whit we war proposin as alternatives. Connolly as cíty mascot. Connolly as court jester, as disembodied tour guide for aye. Connolly as indentured servant. Whit we wantit o him micht hae seemed raisonable, but even we coudnae mak out that it wis fair.
At the same time, whit Connolly haed duin wis whit comic faithers o comic faimilies hiv ayeweys duin; he’d pentit hissel intae a corner. Like mony artists, he’d biggit a name for himsel bi celebratin a wey o life which wisnae really hou he wantit tae líve. Whitiver genuine affection Connolly haed for the miners an the shippy men, he didnae want tae juist be ane o thaim, an he coud niver be happy pretendin that he did. A Newport moment wis ayeweys in the staurs.
The analogy wi Dylan breaks doun awfie trig, o course. Whan Dylan went electric, the result wis Highway 61 Revisited. Whan Connolly went mainstream, the result wis Garfield 2.
Lat’s no pile on — whit Connolly did in films wis wirthy eneuch. But naething in his later years wad merk him out as byous. He wad niver be as beloved bi Hollywood as he haed ayeweys been bi Glesga. Weel, aye; but than, wha but Connolly micht ken hou haurd sae fidgin-fain a love micht be tae líve wi? Hou fearsome? Face it. Awbody in Glesga thinks o thaimsels as the cat wi the white pent up its back. Naebody wunners if they micht be Pepé le Pew.
Sae ye cannae exactly blame Connolly for gettin the hell out, even if his Blonde on Blonde juist niver came tae be. Nae dout he haed bigger things in mind than a bit pairt on The X Files. But gin it haed been left up tae us, Connolly wad still be strampin about the Pavilion in his big banana feet, swappin pratfalls wi Andy Cameron. He mebbe didnae hae that mony lines in The Hobbit, but ah think ye still hiv tae caw that a bullet dodged.
Wi ony break up, the moral high grund ayeweys winds up bein about wha pullt the rug out fae unner wha. Which ane wis awready checkin out o the relationship whan ye wir leukin at the weddin rings? We aw like tae think that he pullt the fast ane on us, but the truth is that Connolly wis ayeweys whit he wis. The persona o the Big Yin wis whit we projectit on tae him, and it wis his genius tae reflect it sae weel; but our incredulity at his turnabouts — his kneelin for honours, his quiet opposítion tae independence — wis juist a function o our endless capacity for self-deceit. Connolly niver kiddit us on about this stuff, but we didnae tak him seriously than, no whan we didnae want tae. Nah. Insteid o that, we juist went on believin that the truth about Billy lay in our herts, an no in aw the things he said an did.
Ah cannae love Connolly the wey ah used tae. It wad be unkind an unfaithfu tae the spírit o the chiel tae lat on itherwise. Gin hertbreak is inevitable in this warld, that can anely chynge the wey ye act, no the wey ye feel deep doun. Whan ah leuk at Billy Connolly nou, wi his hipster specs an his David Foster Wallace haircut — still sellin out tours, still makkin films — ah hivnae it in me tae feel happy for him. Ah juist feel sorry for masel, the bourach o council estate bairndom he left us aw sittin in. The empty drivewey, the narra wee hous like the trash compactor out o Star Wars. It wisnae his faut, ye ken. Faur as ah can tell, naebody wis tae blame for whit wis happenin in wirkin-class Scotland. No the corporations, no the government, naebody. It wis juist wan o thae things about the warld, that the cream wad ayeweys rise.
It’s no juist Trump that’s in the business o pittin up waws. We’re aw at it. Ivery election, ivery referendum. On this side, me. On the ither, youse. An sometimes the waws are actual, concrete barriers; but ither times they’re juist distance, spaces atween us an somebody wha is walkin awa. The sleekit thing tae dae is tae watch thaim as they disappear, and kid on that they’re getting smawer. The honest thing, the anely honest thing, is tae lat thaim be. Lat thaim gan.
Sae afore we start tidyin him up for murals, allou the man Connolly that much at least. Allou him the consequences o his chyces; allou him the gap atween us that he chose, an wantit, an pit there. Allou that we cannae meet him honestly on even grund again. An dinnae juist speir if we’d hae makkit the same decísions, if we’d been him. Juist leuk at our ain lifes. Ask oursels if we did.
Thomas Clark is a makar an scriever fae the Scottish Borders. He is currently editor o Scots at Bella Caledonia, an poet-in-residence at Selkirk FC. He gabs awa at www.thomasjclark.co.uk and on Twitter @clashcityclarky.