by Billy Connolly
336 pages, Two Roads
Review by Pat Black
I was born a sort of fart…
Signed by the author. That’s what it said on the Waterstone’s email promo. I don’t think I would have bothered actually buying a copy, had the autograph been by any other author living or dead outside of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.
There it is, on the flyleaf. Billy Connolly’s signature. An autograph by a guy with Parkinson’s. Perhaps there’s a joke to be told there, but I’ll leave that stuff to the experts.
Tall Tales and Wee Stories is a best-of, a transcript of his best comedy routines. We all know it.
Jobbie wheekers… I needed somewhere to park my bike... Tarantulas and their wily ways... This awful longevity of sex... “I know you…” But in the North Sea, you don’t…
You can hear him saying it as you read. The thing you lose on the page is Connolly’s sublime talent as a mime; to paint a picture in your mind by gesture, movement and the sound of his voice. The only editorial intrusion on these basic transcripts comes when the book fills in the gaps where it needs to. The descriptive parts that he never actually said jar a little against the recording that plays in your head. The routines are so good, though, that the book made me laugh out loud at jokes I’ve heard many times before.
They are bastards, and they do it on purpose… “It’s him, mammy… it’s him again”… This thing arrives at your f*cking house in a taxi... And there it is, a wee beige jobby...
There are murals with Connolly’s face on them on the side of buildings in his home city, Glasgow. It seems remarkable that this iconography should be bestowed upon someone still alive, but it’s apt. Billy Connolly feels like a folk hero even while he’s still alive. Which is hardly an inconvenience, for him or us. It feels a wee bit like – yes - the songwriter who laments being far away from Scotland, while he’s still there.
Glaswegians, or those of us privileged to live on the outskirts, feel as if he is one of us. He has seeped into our consciousness at a national level. He is single-handedly responsible for Glaswegians thinking themselves funny, as opposed to hard. Mixed feelings for many people, on that last one.
The first time I saw him was at Celtic Park, when he opened a rebuilt stand – I think before Celtic played Sporting Lisbon in a friendly, in 1996. Ancient history in itself. I remember thinking: I’ll always tell people that I saw Billy Connolly in the flesh.
I remember he had a purple beard. He’d only just brought the beard out of retirement. It suited him better, no doubt about it. He didn’t always advertise his football allegiances, but everyone knows the talented guys support the Celts. I grew up thinking he supported Partick Thistle. (“I thought they were called Partick Thistle Nil.”)
“Just phuck off.” Peas and mince. It saves a lot of time…
Then, a few years later, I saw him up near Woodlands, in Glasgow, when I was a passenger in a car. He was right behind us in a Range Rover, and you could not mistake him for anyone else. I was 24 years old, and when I spotted him I did something utterly ridiculous – I turned around and waved, as he took a turn on a roundabout. I suspect he was going to see up-and-coming comedians at The Stand, which was not too far away. “Hullo Billy,” I said.
Our eyes definitely locked. I can easily imagine his response. If “prick on a roundabout” becomes a thing in his routines, it was probably me.
Next time I saw him, it was at a live show, at long last, in 2012. The Doncaster Dome. Ominously, he repeated one or two old bits and pieces, but still got big laughs for them. It’s fine for a band to play the hits, but that is less well accepted in a comedian’s act. Connolly proves a rare exception to that.
Also, if we’re being critical, he has punched downwards once or twice in his career. Overweight people and the disabled have been awkward components of some of his patter, through the years. But we forgive him, as we do not forgive others.
“Now say Jesus!” “Jeeeesus!”
The next time I saw him was five or six years later - his last stand. The Parkinson’s was becoming apparent. He slapped “flies” out of the air and referred to them non-stop. And despite my initial scepticism, it turned out there were one or two bugs flying around.
Finally, he hit one, and I could see a black thing on the stage floor. “Got ye, ya bastard.” But whether he was plagued by flies or not, I think it was either a stalling tactic for him to remember his lines, or a means of distracting his hands from doing what they wanted to do – which seemed to be to crawl up his chest and strangle him. He was in a bad way.
He grew confused once or twice, badly losing the place and filling it with dead air. It was excruciating. He stopped what he was saying completely, and did not return to that line of thought. This was at a gigantic arena in Sheffield. The silence, and the sympathy, was near absolute.
After one extra-long gap, he said: “I just want to leave.” I’ll never forget it. As one, about 10,000 people inhaled.
But, like a pro, he got on with it, and he finished the show. There was an air of sadness outside the venue as everyone filed out into the car park. I thought, like many others: that’s the last time I’ll see him. We’ll never know how much he suffered to bring us those last shows, what he must have put himself through.
A hero is a person who does the right thing, no matter what they have to suffer. He was my hero that night. He was my hero anyway.
The true Billy is the guy on all those home videos – and before that, the vinyl records, including a load of scratched ones I was duped into buying when I’d had a few pints, one time. He's the guy the whole family settled down to enjoy. As a very young child I was well aware of the slightly scary, bearded man from as far back as I can remember; but I also remember my dad’s reaction, howling with laughter at the videos and vinyl records. Billy came from the same streets, the same flats and tenements, the same back courts, the same uniquely Glaswegian background. He was one of us.
As a boy, I thrilled at the bad language before I got any of the jokes. I remember a wonderful night with the buzzy old black and white turn-dial portable in the bedroom I shared with my brother, both of us in bed watching a repeat of An Audience With Billy Connolly. (“Spot the dead celebs” becomes more horrifying with every fresh viewing of that one.)
A couple of years later, my eldest brother brought home a VHS rental of Billy And Albert. “What are you laughing at?” my dad barked at me, during the masturbation gag. In truth, I didn’t know. The correct answer was: “I’m laughing at the funny man.”
A hero could also be described as someone who brings sunshine to people when it’s been raining. Billy is my hero for that, too.
A reservation on the outskirts… The place with the vans…
Billy’s still with us, even though the family members who I watched the videos and TV specials with are long gone. The bastard will outlive me, now that I’ve written that.
Regardless, when he goes, this is how people will remember him – the warmth and laughter among family and friends; the bits and pieces that ring true for us, whether that’s as Glaswegians or simply as people; the parts we repeated among ourselves in playgrounds, pubs and workplaces; and the universal laughs at ourselves and our bodies and our embarrassments.
He is up there with the Beatles and the Stones, the Pythons and David Bowie. Someone who defined an age. I can see him painted as a Renaissance figure, certainly with a ruff collar. Someone, please do it.