The VERY colorful secret success of my success with the LADIES
He was deafened and mercilessly teased as an apprentice shipyard welder. But as his enchanting memoirs reveal, BILLY CONNOLLY had an ace up his sleeve...
WITH characteristic humour, Billy Connolly recently apologised for ‘depressing’ fans after describing his life as ‘slipping away’. This followed a TV documentary about his life which showed how he’s suffering from Parkinson’s disease. Here, in the final part of our serialisation of the 76-year-old’s funny and searingly honest memoir, he tells how he succeeded in moving from his job as an apprentice welder at a Glasgow shipyard to begin a career in showbiz . . .
When I was a boy, I had a vague idea, buried deep within me, that I’d like to be a comedian, but, really, I might as well have wanted to be an astronaut, for how likely it was.
In fact, I only ever mentioned it once. My school science teacher, Bill Sheridan, asked me in class: ‘Connolly, what are you going to do when you leave school?’
‘Sir, I’d like to be a comedian,’ I said. The class erupted in laughter.
‘Well, I saw you playing football at lunchtime,’ Mr Sheridan told me. ‘I think you’ve already achieved that ambition.’
More realistically, I assumed I would end up in the shipyards which dominated Glasgow.
If you stood at the top of the hill near our house, you could see the huge ships. It looked as if they were sailing right between the houses.
There was this stark industrial beauty to the scene. Ships were lined up right along the Clyde, with workers loading on the whisky, railway engines and all the other things we exported in those days. It gave the city its heart and soul. Really, I just wanted away: to experience the exciting and exotic world the ships were sailing off to each day. But if I couldn’t get on the ships and sail, at least I could help to make them.
So I signed up with a shipyard called Alexander Stephen & Sons to be an apprentice welder.
I was 15 the day I walked into Stephen’s for the first time, in 1958, and it felt totally exhilarating. I sensed that this was where I would become a man. I was going in as a wee schoolboy with a yodelly voice and I would come out the other end as . . . something else entirely.
I’ll never forget the noise of that first day. It was so deafeningly loud in there I thought my ears were going to fall off, and it might even have been a blessing if they had.
I thought there was no way I could survive the constant deafening barrage but luckily, a couple of weeks in, things became a lot easier for me after I suffered permanent hearing damage, just like everybody else. So that was good.
There were six of us spotty teenage apprentices, gathered together in a tiny wee welding school inside the yard. I’ve stayed in touch with one of them, Joe West, for my entire life. We’d started school on the same day aged four-and-a-half. We joined the Cubs together, joined the Scouts together and then became apprentices together. Sixty years on, we’re still mates.
In fact, he came to my 60th birthday party. There were rock stars there, and celebrities, and Prince Charles, and Joe fitted right in. I introduced Joe to Robin Williams [the actor], saying: ‘This is my oldest friend.’ ‘Less of the old,’ said Joe. As we got better at the job, we got sent out to do little welding jobs on the ships as the tradesmen needed us.
One day, I put a washer on the Qe2. I was passing by and the guy said: ‘hey, welder, will you do this washer for me?’ I thought: ‘Oh, great, it’s the Qe2 !’ and I did it.
Many years later I was in Sydney, in a hotel right opposite the Opera house, and the Qe2 pulled in. I went along and watched all of the passengers coming off, and I thought to myself: ‘I wonder how my washer is holding up?’ It seemed to be doing OK.
As well as being an apprentice, I was the tea boy for the journeyman welders. A cup of tea then was not what it is now: there was not a lot of earl Grey or ginseng going on. They drank black tea, no milk, with four or five sugars, out of Ministry of Food national Dried Milk tins.
As soon as Stephen’s doors clanged shut in the mornings, it was a man’s world in there — rough, rude, raw and hilarious. everybody smoked and everybody swore. every second word was ‘f***’.
They talked about work and the factory bosses and football, and amazing, grown-up things like getting drunk and sex.
FOR me, it was heaven. I have no doubt that that is what my comedy first grew out of — trying to do the same thing of telling stories and riffing away.
The tradesmen at Stephen’s had insults for the other trades. If a plater cocked up on a job, he would get told: ‘You couldnae plate soup!’ If you wanted to wind up a joiner, you told him: ‘You couldnae join hands at hogmanay!’ An electrician who failed to get things working was informed: ‘You couldnae get juice out of a Jaffa!’
Stephen’s felt like exactly where I was supposed to be.
I met the most extraordinary characters in there. I remember a guy working the big steam hammer — ThUnK! ThUnK! he had a wire wrapped around his forehead and dangling in front of him, with a lit cigarette in it hanging in front of his mouth. It was his own invention and I thought it was fantastic.
We apprentices had a wee bit of a bad reputation for playing practical jokes on the tradesman.
One trick was creeping up behind people and welding the metal horseshoes in the heels of their work boots to the deck. Or we’d paint the heels with silver paint. It was really funny seeing these big guys walking away with painted heels, like early glam rockers.
There again, we got a fair bit of p*** ripped out of us, too.
The welders were fond of sending us to the stores on nonsensical errands. They’d ask us to get them some tartan paint or a bubble for the spirit level, and off we’d run only to be met with a gale of mocking laughter at the stores.
health and safety wasn’t really a big priority in the Clyde shipyards in the late Fifties.
Sometimes when welding in the bottom of a ship, the thick yellow fumes turned my lips black. I would stop to go out and have a smoke and the guys working on the pipes in the engine room up above would be snowing asbestos on me.
I’d look as if I’d turned grey-haired. It’s quite remarkable I’ve lived to this huge age. When the whole yard was going, it was so noisy you couldn’t hear what anybody more than two feet away from you was saying, so the workers used their own sign language to warn each other if a boss was behind them.
It was like a rogue strain of Scottish industrial semaphore. If any of us saw a manager coming, we’d pat the top of our head to let everyone know.
If it was a foreman, we’d tap three fingers on our upper arm, like a sergeant’s three stripes.
There was another bit of sign language I didn’t understand for a while. Whenever anybody wanted to know the time, they would put their hand by their belly and flop it outwards. I used to wonder, what the f*** is that? Then I worked out they were miming having a fob watch. If they did it to you, you’d have to try to mime the time back.
At the end of every day the big shipyard hooter would sound and the thousands of tradesmen would all bolt for the exit.
There were quite a lot of disabled workers at Stephen’s, many wounded in the war, and they went a few minutes before everybody else so they didn’t get flattened in the rush. Anybody who happened to be passing the gates as they hobbled out must have thought: ‘Jesus! That shipyard is a bloody dangerous place!’
I suppose it was like one big rite of passage in Stephen’s and as I got well into my apprenticeship I began to feel less like a nervy boy and more like a man.
It helped that I had suddenly had a major growth spurt and wasn’t
such a midget any more. When I sat with the welders at lunchtime or tea breaks, I’d start having the confidence to pipe up a bit.
My comic turn was impersonating the drunken would‑be Dean Martins and Frank Sinatras I used to hear staggering home from late‑ night parties in my childhood: ‘When the moon hitsh your eye like a big pizza pie . . . That’sh Amore! Hic.’
I could get them off pretty well. I still sometimes do it in my act.
Having a wage meant that in my late teens, when I started going out drinking and dancing, I could buy some nice clothes. I wore American shirts with long, pointed collars, like in the Mafia movies, and a three‑button suit with vents at the bottom of the trousers.
My shoes would be winklepickers or white moccasins, until I got a pair of basketweave shoes with Cuban heels. I also bought some pink shirts and pink underwear, much to my father’s horror. The weird thing was that wearing pink made me popular with the ladies, even as it made me deeply suspect among the men. My Saturday nights out in Glasgow started at the Corporation Baths. I would get the bus into town in my going‑out clothes and pay half a crown for a lovely deep hot soak in a big metal public bath. I would put my best clothes back on, get myself a shoeshine at Glasgow Central station then head off down to the Saracen Head. The Sarrie Heid, as everyone knew it — and still does — is in the heart of Glasgow. It claims to be the oldest pub in the city, and it is definitely the most famous. In many ways the Sarrie was not the wisest pub to attend in a sharp three‑button Italian suit with matching hanky and tie, white shorty raincoat and moccasins. The Sarrie’s most famous feature used to be a ceramic sherry barrel that stood on a gantry. The little guy who collected the empty glasses from around the bar used to pour the dregs of the drinks in there. When it was full, they would sell you a glass of it. It was called White Tornado and it was quite a favour‑ ite among the customers. It used to drip on to the floor beneath the barrel, where it had eaten a hole in the floorboards. But it wasnae bad. After we had all made our breath stink of scrumpy and cigarettes in the Sarrie, we’d go across the road to the Barrowland to dance. Or, if I am honest, to try and pull a girl.
The women all stood along the wall and the men stood along the edge of the dance floor. You would pick one, then have to get your nerve up to walk across the no‑man’s‑land to where she was standing and ask that all‑important, timeless question: ‘Are you dancing?’
If the girl told you ‘No’, what you should never do was say ‘OK’, then ask the girl right next to her. Because you could end up going right down the line . . . ‘Are you dancing?’ ‘No!’ ‘Are you dancing?’ ‘No!’ ‘Are you dancing?’ ‘No!’ ...right down the line all the way to the door.
I didn’t have too bad a success rate at getting the lasses to dance with me — it must have been my three‑button shirt and Cuban heels.
It’s been 33 years now since I last had a drink, and I don’t miss it for a second.
ONe Glasgow morning last year, a guy having a fag in the doorway of a pub spotted me and staggered across. Celtic had won the Scottish Cup two days earlier and he was still celebrating.
‘eh, Billy, come and have a wee drink with us!’ he suggested.
‘I’ve not had a beer in more than 30 years,’ I told him.
‘Aye, well, you’ll be needing one, then!’ he said.
I am lucky that I managed to stop drinking — but a lot of other people weren’t so fortunate.
The tradesmen in the shipyard were always trying to get money for brews. When I think back on it now, a lot of them were deep in alcoholism, but at the time it all seemed completely normal.
On Sunday nights there would be two tables set up in the cemetery next to Stephen’s. At one table would be a moneylender, lending the men money at extortionate interest rates. At the other table would be a guy selling cheap booze — wine that tasted like vinegar.
The workers would get their short‑term loans then head straight over to the next table to p*** it away.
On Friday nights, the money‑ lenders stood outside the shipyard waiting for the men to come out with their wages and pay them back, with interest. They’d always have a heavy with them to encourage the men to pay up.
I loved it at Stephen’s but at the same time I couldn’t shake off the feeling that there had to be more to life. I knew that I wanted to... be a somebody, even if I wasn’t totally sure who or what.
By the end of my teens, I had got heavily into folk music and would daydream about playing it one day.
As I got into my 20s I also began to experiment with my appearance and to develop the extreme hairiness that I have persisted with until this day.
The following year my appren‑ ticeship came to an end.
By now everybody in the yard knew I wanted to leave to try to be a musician. One day Bugsy, one of the older workers, asked me when I was going to quit the yard. ‘I think in six months,’ I said. ‘Och, you’ll no do it,’ he told me. ‘What do you mean?’ ‘If you’re putting it off now, you’ll put it off again. Those six months will pass and then you’ll say you’re leaving six months after that. Then you’ll do it again.’
Bugsy looked at me as I took his words in.
‘Believe me, there’s nothing worse than being an old man, still in here, thinking about what you could have done if you had got out when you were young,’ he said, with feeling.
F***! I figured I had better quit there and then! It took me about two weeks to get my s*** together and then I was out of Stephen’s.
I didn’t keep in touch with the shipyard workers all that much. When I went back a couple of times to have a pint with the guys in the pub by the yard, I had an earring, was wearing court jester trousers and was festooned with beads. Naturally, they took the p*** mercilessly.
In 1971, edward Heath’s Tory government declared that they would not subsidise any more ship‑ yards or ‘lame duck’ industries, as they charmingly called them. The shipyard went into liquidation, even though it had a full order book and was on target to make a profit the following year.
I was a few years out of that world by then, but I went to the demon‑ strations to show support and to get behind the tradesmen.
One day, the whole of Glasgow marched with the workers: there must have been 80,000 people.
Anthony Wedgwood Benn was the main speaker, and I took my banjo and played a few wee songs. It was a wonderful day and I was proud to be part of it.
I’ll never forget the nobility of those workers even after they had been laid off.
I’ve always been a union man, I still am, and I was so proud of them. I totally identified with them and what they were going through. I would march with them tomorrow, if it all happened again.
THe shipyards gave Glasgow the dignity of labour for generations. We built the best ships in the world: the Queen Mary, the Queen elizabeth, the Qe2. We could say: ‘That’s ours: that’s what we do.’
A while ago I went with Pamela [my wife] to see the Queen Mary, which is docked in California now.
We were in the ballroom on the ship just looking at the marquetry on the walls, which is magnificent work. I said to her: ‘That was made by wee men in bonnets and overalls.’ They just did it and sent it out to the world.
I believe the shipyards made me the man that I am. I think back on them with great fondness and affection, and with love.
But by my 20s I could take the high road, right out of there, and that was what I did.
I wasn’t that wee yodelly‑voiced boy any more. I didn’t know quite what I was yet, but I knew I was hairy and bearded and the world was there for the taking.
When I quit the yard to play music and try my hand at entertainment, I gave myself three months. And that was 50 years ago.
AdApted from Made In Scotland: My Grand Adventures In A Wee Country by Billy Connolly (BBC Books, £20). © Billy Connolly 2018. to order a copy for £16 (offer valid to January 28, 2019, p&p free), visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640.
Pride of the Clyde: Working alongside the shipyard workers of Glasgow (below left) gave Billy Connolly the raw material for his act as an entertainer. Above: Billy with his wife Pamela Stephenson in the mid-Eighties