“Sister Philomena, had paintings of Hell on her walls. They were probably illustrations from Dante’s Inferno, but back then I assumed that they were her summer holiday photos.
I became an expert in the sex lives of pigeons on the roof opposite my class and so I got belted pretty much every day.”
All roads lead home.
‘After my knighthood was announced, a woman from the BBC came to Glasgow to interview me. We sat down in a lovely hotel in a nice part of town, and she hit me with her first question: “This must mean a lot to you, with you coming from nothing?” I looked at her, and I laughed.
“I did’nae come from nothing,” I told her. “I come from something.”
I grew up in the tenements of post-war Glasgow. I am very proud to be working class, and especially a working class Glaswegian who has worked in the shipyards. I come from the working class. And, most of all, I come from Scotland.
Scotland is a unique and wonderful place. Its national motto says a lot about it: Nemo me impune lacessit. A decent translation might be: ‘By all means punch me in the nose but prepare yourself for a kick in the arse.’
I did’nae come from nothing: I come from Scotland. And this book is about why I will always be happy and proud that I do.’
Sir William Connolly, CBE is a much loved Scottish comedian, musician, presenter and actor. Billy was born and raised in Glasgow and now lives in America.
Where do you come from?
It’s one of the most basic human questions of all. Luckily, it is easily answered, what kind of prick doesn’t know where they were born? But there is another question, which might sound a wee bit similar but is actually very different:
What do you come from?
And, let me tell you, that question can take you all sorts of strange places
Last year, just in case you didn’t know, I was knighted. On 31 October 2017, I went down to Buckingham Palace and Prince William put his sword on both of my shoulders and made me Sir William Connolly CBE. I got it for ‘services to entertainment and charity’.
When I was young, I would have hated the very idea of being given a knighthood. The hippy Billy Connolly would have thought it was all nonsense. But I’ve mellowed as I’ve got older and I have come to appreciate being given things by people. If somebody or other in authority wants to tell me, ‘You’re very good, therefore you’re entitled to this,’ it is a charitable act. They are doing it for the very best reasons and to turn it down would be churlish, in my opinion. Just take it. Be nice and appreciate it.
So, I took it and I said, ‘Thank you.’ It’s not like having a knighthood has made any great difference to my life. I don’t spend my days now hanging out with other goodly knights or rescuing damsels in distress. The only thing that it has changed is some people’s attitudes towards me. I have noticed that some people get a great delight from calling me ‘Sir Billy’: ‘Sir Billy, will you do this, please?’ Well, good luck to them, but it doesn’t really mean anything to me.
In any case, if I am honest, I didn’t really cover myself in glory when I got knighted. Prince William asked me a few questions but I was very nervous, and what with that and my Parkinson’s disease, my mouth suddenly stopped working at the most inopportune moment. I flubbered and I bejabbered. The prince asked me something, fuck knows what it was, and I said, ‘Flabgerbelbarbeghghghgh.’ Honestly, he must think I am a complete simpleton. I’d love to meet him again to apologise, and to show him that I’m not a total idiot.
After my knighthood was announced, a woman from the BBC came to Glasgow to interview me. We sat down in a lovely hotel in a nice part of town, and she hit me with her first question:
‘This must mean a lot to you, with you coming from nothing?’
I looked at her, and I laughed.
‘I didnae come from nothing,’ I told her. ‘I come from something.’
I mean, I have never hidden that I come from humble stock. I grew up in the tenements of post-war Glasgow. In fact, I used to specify exactly where, onstage: it was on a kitchen floor, ‘on the linoleum, three floors up’. The early years of my life were spent in grinding poverty but it wasn’t nothing. It was something, something very important. There is this viewpoint that if you have come from the working class you have come from nothing, whereas the middle and upper classes are something, and I don’t hold with that opinion. I think the working class is something. It is everything. They are the builders of society, and without them the whole house falls down.
I am very proud to be working class, and especially a working class Glaswegian who has worked in the ship yards. It is something, and don’t you forget it. I come from something. I come from the working class. And, most of all, I come from Scotland.
It’s weird how I always get so closely linked with Scotland. I am probably more famous for being a Glaswegian than for anything I have actually done. Yet I don’t mind this focus in fact, I enjoy it and I understand it. I have always sounded very Scottish. Nobody is ever going to mistake where I come from. And when I started out, my humour was totally bound up in Scotland and Scottishness. How could it not be? It was what I knew. It was all that I knew.
I love Scotland, with a fierce passion that has never dimmed. I love talking about Scotland and, most of all, I love being there. I have lived in America for many years now, but I have never stopped feeling Scottish. Nearly twenty years ago, in a book that she wrote about me, my wife, Pamela, said, ‘Billy is constantly drawn back to Scotland. It’s as though he’d fade into depression without a regular fix.’ Well, it’s as true now as it was then. I need to feed from Scotland from the land, and from the fierce craic of the people.
It’s a strange thing to be proud of where you come from. It doesn’t really make any sense. After all, it’s not something that you have earned or worked for it’s a simple accident of birth. But being Scottish is a very lovely thing. Scotland is a unique and wonderful place. Its national motto says a lot about it: Nemo me impune lacessit. ‘You will not strike me with impunity.’ A decent translation might be: ‘By all means punch me in the nose but prepare yourself for a kick in the arse.’ J. P. Donleavy explained it well: ‘I’II thank you not to fuck about with me.’ It’s also notable that the national animal of Scotland is a unicorn. Occasionally, people say to me, ‘But that’s a mythical animal!’ To which I answer, ‘Oh, yeah? You’ll be telling me the Loch Ness Monster is mythical next!’ And that is Scotland in a nutshell.
Glasgow made me, but I love all of Scotland. There’s a beauty and an intensity there it is hard to find anywhere else in the world. The west coast of Scotland, and the Highlands and islands, are probably still my favourite places on the planet. My long-time manager, Steve Brown, who sadly died in 2017, was a farmer for years and he used to tell me how he got great spiritual strength from the soil. He used to sink his arms into it, right up to the elbows, and draw comfort from it. I guess that’s how I feel about Scotland. It’s a very lovable place.
I would love Scotland just as much even if I didn’t come from there. Luckily, I’m steeped in the country and in its culture, which I have absorbed over so many decades. I mean, I’m seventy-five years old now. Seventy-fucking-five! Me! I am well versed in Scottish history although the only problem with reading history is that it tends to be littered with royal families, which I find boring. Royal families always strike me as being like the Mafia, using their family name to conquer people and steal their stuff. Not that I mentioned any of that to Prince William. He might have found another use for that sword. I took the safe option and just said, ‘Flabgerbelbarbeghghghgh.’
The funny thing is that I wasn’t offended when the woman from the BBC asked me that daft question. She asked me very nicely, with no malice at all, and it is true that I have always talked about my roots in poverty. I suppose I can see exactly where she was coming from. But she was dead wrong.
I didnae come from nothing: I come from Scotland. And this book is about why I will always be happy and proud that I do.
P. G. WODEHOUSE, ONE OF my all-time favourite writers and one of the funniest men who ever lived, said, ‘It is never difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine.’ He appeared to feel that my people possess a certain dourness of nature and he certainly had a point. In fact, the instinctive response of most Scots, confronted with a gorgeous sunny day, is to shake their heads and mutter, ‘Ah, we’ll pay for this!’
Where does this pessimism come from? I think it is partly from the malign influence wielded over the country for too many generations by religion (and we’ll come to that later) and partly from the bloody weather. There’s a great Scottish word that sums up that mix of cold, cloud and drizzle that dominates our climate: dreich.
This dreich can draw a pall over the country and drive people into a deep gloom. I don’t get that. I’ve always told my audiences, ‘Stop calling rain “bad weather”! Because if rain is bad weather, we’re fucked!’ Or ‘There is no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes!’
Scots are sometimes perversely proud of being looked on as dour but I don’t subscribe to that mindset at all. I have always been a glass-half-full sort of guy. It’s just the way I am. I’m an anthropological rarity, a Glaswegian who is a natural optimist. It’s probably just as well that I’m like that, because if I wasn’t, I could have quite a misery memoir in me.
I’ve always hated misery memoirs and that shite ‘woeis-me’ style of writing. I just don’t see the use of it. I also loathe that thing of ‘I’m from a working-class slum, didn’t I do well?’ That whole stance leaves me cold. I meet people like that all the time, who say, ‘We came from nothing, haven’t we done great?’ They always seem to expect me to join in, but I never do. It’s all way too smug for my liking. What do they want, a medal? I feel like saying, ‘Get over yourself, you prick!’ Even so, there is no denying that my early years, whichever way you look at them, were pretty grim.
I was a war baby, born on 24 November 1942, and that made sense, because everyday life pretty soon began feeling like a battlefield. My dad, William, was away with the RAF in Burma so I began life with my mum, Mamie, and my eighteen-month-old sister, Florence, at 65 Dover Street in Anderston, central Glasgow. We lived on the third floor of a tenement block in a tiny two-room apartment. My mum slept in one room and Florence and I slept behind a curtain in a little alcove in the kitchen. We had no bathroom and so we all washed or bathed in the kitchen sink, normally in cold water hot was virtually unheard of. My cot was a drawer from a sideboard.
It sounds fucking Dickensian but the big point is that we were not the only people living like that. It was the same for everybody around us. People weren’t up in arms about their living conditions. We all just accepted it as normal. We might have been surviving, rather than living, in utter poverty but it didn’t feel that way to me. When you’re a child, what you know is all you know, and I have fond, faded memories of my mum looking after us as I played at home with Florence.
Florence and I would play out in the street every day if we could. Our games were not complex. We’d throw marbles against the kerb or just chase each other around. There was no traffic to worry about. The doctors and the school teachers had cars in 1940s Glasgow, but nobody else did. Dover Street had no shops. It was just all tenements, except for a dark, forbidding church on one side of the street. It didn’t seem to have any windows. I guess that those particular devout people worshipped in the dark.
When you see photos of Glasgow from that post-war era they are all in black and white, and I think my memories are as well. Everything is monochrome and sepia. There again, that didn’t stop us having some pretty colourful experiences.
A family called Cumberland lived in Dover Street. They were a big family: they had nine children and we’d sometimes play with them. One evening the dad came home from work in the docks, because all the local men worked in the docks, had his tea and told his wife he was off down the pub. His wife was a wee bit pissed off by this announcement and told him in no uncertain terms that he could get their kids in from the street and into bed before he went. Mr Cumberland was desperate for a beer so he went out, grabbed the first nine kids he found and slung them into the bed. Two of the kids he stuffed into bed were Flo and me. Mum couldn’t find us and only tracked us down when she found two little Cumberland kids still playing out late, which gave her a wee clue where we might be.
I can still remember lying in that huge bed, amazed at what was happening. Flo whispered to me not to worry, we’d be OK, and I thought the whole thing was hilarious, a joyous adventure. I’ve told the story on stage for many years, but one night I met one of the grown-up Cumberland kids, who was angry at me for doing so. They said that it made their dad sound like a pisshead. Well, fancy that!
Another time, I was out drawing on the street with a piece of chalk and a policeman caught me. He asked where I lived and was marching me upstairs when Mrs McGee, who lived in the bottom flat below us, came out. She gave him a tongue-lashing ‘Leave the boy alone and go catch some thieves!’ and sent him packing.
There again, the police were a funny lot when I was a kid. After the war there was a lot of immigration into Glasgow from the Highlands because there was no work up there. The women were great nurses and the men became policemen. The Highlands men were huge, roundfaced yokels who all seemed to be called Morrison. When I was older, we called them teuchters. There’d be jokes about them in the music halls: ‘The teuchter asked the boy: “Did the window break on both sides when you threw the stone?”’ Or: ‘A teuchter found a drunk man asleep on Sauchiehall Street and dragged him into Hope Street because he couldn’t spell Sauchiehall Street.’
Like any child, I thought my mum would be there for ever. She was kind and loving and when I was tiny she looked after Flo and me. We never gave a thought to what her life was like but if I imagine it now, it must have been unbearable. Mum was only seventeen when she had Florence and nineteen when she had me. She was a teenager, looking after two toddlers in a war. The Nazis were dropping bombs on the docks on the Clyde by where we lived. My dad was far away with the RAF: who knew when, or if, he was coming back?
When I was four, Mum met a man who said he loved her. It must have been the first time in years anybody had shown kindness and love to her. He asked her to go away with him and she just got up and left one day, telling nobody, leaving me and Florence behind.
It’s strange but, seventy years on, I don’t blame my mum for going. It was all too much for her. In any case, even if I did, what would be the point of going through life holding it against her? That kind of anger and resentment eats you up from the inside. It doesn’t pay off, in my view.
I still remember the day she went, though, and wasn’t there any more, and l was alone in the house with Florence. It wasn’t that scary it was just weird. We got hungry and neighbours heard us crying and called our Auntie Mona, who came around and took us away. Mona took me and Florence to live with her, her sister Margaret and their brother James in their tenement, three or four miles up the road in Stewartville Street in Partick.
It looked, from the outside, as if she was our saviour but, really, Mona was a totally destructive influence on my young life. She mocked me, she beat me and she bullied me. I’ve no idea, even today, why she would treat her young nephew so badly, was she angry because looking after me and Florence reduced her own chances of meeting somebody, settling down and having a family? Whatever the reason, she made my life, and Flo’s to a degree, a misery. Many, many years later, I said this about Mona on TV, on The South Bank Show: ‘It was very big of her to take on the responsibility [of looking after us] but, having said that, I wish people wouldn’t do that. I wish people wouldn’t be very big for five minutes and rotten for twenty years. I would rather have gone to a children’s home and been with a lot of other kids being treated the same.’
I was about five when my dad came back from the war and moved into the tenement with us. He would take me and Florence out at weekends but the war had damaged him and he never talked about my mum or where she was. He was silent and distant, and he didn’t seem to notice how badly Mona treated me. Or, if he did, he didn’t do anything about it. Occasionally he’d give me a beating himself if I’d been particularly bad. Pamela was horrified when I first told her that my dad would hit me so hard that I would fly over the sofa backwards, in a sitting position, just like real flying except that I didn’t get a cup of tea or a safety belt. But that was what he did every now and then.
Life didn’t get any better when I went to school. In fact, it got a whole lot worse. I enjoyed kindergarten and could write by the time I left but St Peter’s School for Boys was something else entirely.
Like a lot of Catholic schools in the 1950s, it had a huge bleeding Christ on a crucifix in the foyer, and that pretty much set the tone of the fucking place. The headmistress, Sister Philomena, had paintings of Hell on her walls. They were probably illustrations from Dante’s Inferno, but back then I assumed that they were her summer holiday photos.
The teachers put the fear of God into us, literally, psychologically and physically. It’s fair to say that the Scottish education system in the Forties and Fifties was not a haven of liberal or progressive thinking and St Peter’s was a fearful, violent place. You’d get beaten for any kind of misbehaviour. For talking, messing about, anything. This was bad news for me, as I was always talking and messing about, so I got a lot of nasty leatherings.
The teachers’ main weapon was the tawse. This was a leather belt, about a yard long and a quarter-inch thick, with two or three tails, and a rounded point at the other end. Sometimes they’d thrash us with the tails and sometimes with the handle end. Just to mix things up a bit, you know.
We got the tawse from age five or six onwards. The teacher would make you hold out your hands and hit you with it. On a cold and frosty morning, it was really painful. You would be going home with huge welts up your wrists. It seems crazy today to think of adults being allowed to beat children with a piece of leather. And you couldn’t ask your parents for any help. If a boy told his dad about it, he would hit him as well, for getting into trouble at school.
I had a teacher called Rosie McDonald who was a complete fucking old psychopath. She belted the shit out of me for years. Her trick was laying pencils on her desk, making you put your hand on them, then beating you with the tawse, to make sure it hurt you even more. Rosie terrorised her class and seemed to pick on me the most. I’d get in to school, aged six, and hang around outside her classroom door, too scared to go in. When another teacher went past and shoved me in the door, she would tawse me for being late. She would thrash me for breaking a pencil, for scruffy homework or for looking out of a window. I did a lot of the last one, I became an expert in the sex lives of pigeons on the roof opposite my class and so I got belted pretty much every day.
Rosie left an indelible mark on me. Decades later, my daughter, Cara, graduated from Glasgow University and I went to her ceremony. There was a garden party afterwards and as I was stuffing my face with strawberry tart, a guy came up to me.
‘Billy, I’ve never met you before,’ he said, ‘but I believe you were taught by an auntie of mine.’
‘Oh, really?’ I said. ‘Who was that?’
The second he said it, all my anger came flooding back. I don’t think it had ever gone away.
‘She was a fucking psychopath!’ I said.
‘Well, she had her own way of doing things …’ the guy began.
‘No, no, she was a fucking psychopath!’ I told him. ‘Don’t get me wrong!’ I was so het up I think I was probably spitting strawberry tart all over the poor sod.
I just couldn’t get on with school. It was a foreign country to me. The lessons made no sense. I used to loathe algebra, and parsing where you would try to break sentences down into pronouns, adverbs, etc. What the hell was the point of that? Nothing in school caught my imagination except for reading. I liked it when the teachers would read us Robert Louis Stevenson, or we’d read it ourselves. But there was nothing else that I liked and I was no good at anything else.
Looking back now, I think I was so fucked up in the head from the atmosphere at home that I couldn’t cope with the lessons. Going from Mona’s viciousness to Rosie McDonald was a curse that you shouldn’t wish on anyone. I think it was bound to end in tears.
My report card used to say, ‘Billy has a fertile imagination’, and the teachers clearly did not regard this as a desirable state of affairs. My feud with Rosie went on and came to a spectacular head when I stopped doing my homework. I just decided one day not to be part of the stupid school goings-on any longer. Rosie asked me if I had done my homework and | calmly told her that, no, I hadn’t.
‘What?! Come up here now, Connolly!’
She gave me a good belting with the tawse and did the same thing every single day thereafter when I gave the same answer, but I didn’t care. I had had enough. I couldn’t be bothered with the system and I opted out.
. . .
Made In Scotland. My adventures in a wee country
by Billy Connolly
get it at Amazon.com