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...

Scottish Daily Mail - - News - by Billy Con­nolly

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 mail­ 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

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