Saturday night was a Billy Connolly tribute night. In our house, at least. Does anyone, nowadays, watch television according to the planners' wishes?
Hard to imagine there was once a time when glittering television careers could be built around the idea someone was 'a brilliant scheduler'. Mind you, with only two main channels to worry about, life was different then. Easier? I don't think so, not when you consider the fierce battles that raged between BBC and the ITV network over audience share at the weekend. And star names like Morecambe and Wise, Bruce Forsyth, David Frost and the Two Ronnies reigned supreme.
Only one of the three programmes available on Saturday was new and two were being shown on the same night. All three came courtesy of the BBC. Held over from Thursday, and still to be watched, was Billy and Us
, the first in a new six-part series from BBC Scotland which, on last week's showing, promises a heap of delights for Connolly fans, if not much that is strictly new.
It's easy to forget the Big Yin (sorry, Sir Billy) has been figuring in our lives for more than 50 years. My own earliest memory of seeing him on a proper stage was circa 1970. He and Gerry Rafferty, teamed as the Humblebums, had been hired to keep a sell-out Kelvin Hall audience occupied while they waited for Shirley Bassey.
Amazingly, in terms of time going quickly, his first appearance on Parkinson
occurred five years later, the first of 15 appearances, a record for the show. People of a certain age will remember this was the moment he exploded on the UK conscience with his joke about the man who needed a place to park his bike... Oh, alright, no need to repeat it here. You've all heard it, I know. Is there anyone anywhere who hasn't heard it?
Billy and Us
was a happy reminder of what he was like then. On stage: original, outrageous, funny. Off-stage: approachable, considerate, joyously articulate, serious when needed. With a smile that could light up a theatre, or, perhaps even more important, a TV studio.
A trip to India, in search of his great-great grandfather, Daniel Doyle, was full of surprises, few of them comforting; and a bleak reminder that Who Do You Think You Are?
wasn't designed to spare its subject's blushes. Daniel Doyle, we learned, was an Irishman from County Wicklow who served with the British army in India at the time of the great mutiny. 'Syphilis and diarrhoea,' Connolly remarked gravely to the gently-smiling Indian lady who revealed the reason for his ancestor's hospitalisation, 'what a happy young man he is'.
Down Among the Big Boys
was the last of our Saturday night treats featuring the man from Partick. First shown in 1993, it tells the story of two Glasgow families, from distinctly different social orders, about to be joined in holy matrimony. Trouble lurks when the father of the bride, a local crime lord, robs a bank and his unsuspecting son-in-law-to-be, a CID officer, is put in charge of the investigation. Connelly brings just the right amount of fake decency and quiet menace to the role of senior criminal, supported by a wealth of Scottish acting talent, including Douglas Henshall, Alex Norton, Ashley Jensen and Maggie Bell. Written by Peter McDougall and directed by Charles Gormley, Down Among the Big Boys
, is a joy. For that, and so much else, thanks, Billy.
My toes have overheard too much television recently. As an unwelcome result, my daily exercise routine now finds them social distancing from my fingertips by an increasing amount. With a bit of a shove, however, they still meet up. And it is all thanks to a school gym teacher – Butch Fleming. During my undistinguished career at school, he taught us a series of 20 exercises to do at the start of each gym lesson. The first 10 were done standing and the rest were floor-based. The first session of each term left us hurting and limping for a couple of days but we did not mind. Those first 10 exercises have stayed with me through life. In my 30s, they kept my weight down after sport went its way. In my 40s and 50s, they helped when country walking was exchanged for weekend working. In my 60s and 70s, they helped, particularly after an aortic valve needed to be replaced. Now in my late 80s, they are battling Stay at Home.
Fortunately, there is a wee hill near our house that can be walked up most days but without the exercises one doubts if the flexibility would be there. Teachers are influential in most folk's lives – some for ill and some for good. In the 1940s, I never dreamed that an immaculately white-flanneled Butch Fleming would be the most important for me.
It's been a strange week for me and perhaps most of us, what with the albeit slight easing of lockdown in 'UK' followed swiftly by the countermand in Scotland that the changes applied to England only, my heid was burlin'. Then there was the news about unemployment rocketing, this time unfortunately with the impact felt across the entire UK.
So this has not been one of the more positive weeks in our new normal (sorry about that) and in an effort to completely shut out the effects of this cruel world, I have gone introspective, disappearing back into my own deep personal space to draw on things. The things that allow me to cope and absorb against the less welcome aspects of lockdown.
Well let me think, there has been the late spring shimmering light at dusk to enjoy. Then there are Billy Bragg's online gigs (according to his biography, his wife spent some of her formative years growing up in Whitburn). Elvis Costello with his virtuoso pianist and long-time collaborator, Steve Nieve popping up on various lockdown events (EC's paternal grandmother hailed from Motherwell). Writing this, it is slowly dawning on me that I have far too much time on my hands.
Like most other watchers, I have been captivated by the intense and so convincing on-screen chemistry between Marianne and Connell in Normal People
, which for me is best thing on UK television since Sean Bean's faultless performance in Broken
from a couple of years ago. It was so good, my wife Karen and I binge-watched over a couple of nights and now feel bereft, having completed the journey alongside them.
In a rare feat this week, I managed to beat Karen at Scrabble. The margin of victory being large enough to ensure my bragging rights for the entire weekend, though I remained magnanimous through muted celebration. Monday's calling of the Premiership resulted in family celebrations stretching from Edinburgh, through Glasgow and on to London. And as today – Wednesday – is due to be the warmest of the year so far and perhaps our designated 2020 day of summer, we are excitedly expecting a rare 'Parkas aff day' here in Edinburgh.
Come to think of it, not such a bad week after all.
There is a war now
and we have been told to retreat.
With no planes overhead the sky
is hushed, holding its breath,
the air clean and clear, scented
with the smells of Spring.
We step out
into our shrunk-down world to discover
its minutiae. Armed with Harrap's guide
we nose out campion, violet, celandine,
cowslip, speedwell, coltsfoot, water
avens, ribwort plantain, lady's bedstraw,
charlock, solomon's seal, cuckoo flower, sticky
mouse-ear, groundsell, herb robert.
These that I used to give but a cursory glance
have names to marvel at.
They contain secrets
and through every conflict keep the peace.
There has been insufficient discussion of the fact that in these strange times, routinely described as 'unprecedented' by politicians and journalists, the bulk of supermarket shopping is done by men. Women are now in a minority in sites and venues where they were once a majority, if not a totality. This is a fact of empirical observation, taking Morrison's at Anniesland on a random Saturday morning during lockdown as the test sample. The phenomenon deserves the attention of contemporary sociologists, and will be of interest to future social historians.
The reasons for this phenomenon are hard to establish, and analysis is rendered more difficult by the fact that it is impossible to question male shoppers themselves during the period of anti-social distancing, partly as a consequence of Nicola's law and partly as a fresh manifestation of the well-recorded lack of self-confidence in the Scottish male as established by Carol Craig in her meticulously researched books, The Scots' Crisis of Confidence
and The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow
Everything has been exaggerated by the COVID-19 crisis, and (un)confident tears are flowing more copiously in Glasgow at the moment, particularly in the aisles of the city's supermarkets. There is a paradox here. On the one hand, people are more friendly on the street, meaning that even complete strangers, duly gloved, mouth-masked and cut off from the world by musical-devices in the ear, behave in a very un-Scottish way, greeting casual passers-by with traditional phrases normally only traded with family or close friends, such as 'How's it gaun?' or perhaps the monosyllabic, upwardly inflected interrogative 'Aye?'
On the other hand, these same individuals, particularly those of the male persuasion, become either as hostile as a cornered wolf or as timid as a rabbit once they enter an enclosed shopping space. I had the experience of clearing my throat as I moved into the vicinity of one young man in a supermarket aisle, causing him to bolt at speed, dropping his almost full basket in his rush, thereby perhaps dooming his family to a week's starvation. Male shoppers are reliant on lists, presumably prepared by distrustful spouses, and this means unintended, unspeaking groupings form, so on that occasion a spontaneously formed gang of men nearby turned the real male glance, a mixture of overt distrust and barely suppressed hatred, in my direction.
This may be a heightened expression of the lack of social skills already noted, but the influx of men to unfamiliar sites, like supermarkets, is a fact of contemporary life. It may be a resumption of a traditional role as hunter-gatherer, leaving the female of the species in the safety of the hut or cave while he takes on the dangerous task of prowling abroad. Either way, the phenomenon of the mass movement of males on shopping trips cannot be denied, and deserves examination. Perhaps in this way too, society will be irrevocably changed by coronavirus, but whether for better or worse I will leave others to judge.
This year the places I will probably never go back to – and where I should be now – would have been in Brasil, a country I first went to in 1986. Obviously people age in different ways, but when I made the booking in January, I had every intention of returning for the umpteenth time and doing a circular trip by bus from Rio to Paraty, Sao Paulo, Sao Jao del Re and Belo Horizont,e then back to the beginning for just one more caiparinha. You can keep your cornettos. The point is that halfway through the trip I would become 85, so it was going to be a bit of a 'Can I still do this?' event. However, events dear boy, as Harold MacMillan said, intervened. So I spent that so-called special day in the house feeling relieved in the knowledge that I might have chosen to go in March and found myself in something of a predicament.
I mention age not because I am claiming to be some decrepit Peter Pan forever on the go, but because I grew up when holidays – not something one had during the war – were spent in faraway places like Ayr or Elie, while London could have been on the mountains of the moon for all the chances one had of getting there from Lanark. Then came the years of Europe by train, first with a seat and then a couchette, followed by the arrival of cheap air flights, and the destinations just got ever further away.
Many things will be changed in the new world of tomorrow. The ability to pack a bag, take a plane, and book an hotel or hostel on the smart phone as you go from town to the next town which I have enjoyed to the full, is something the footloose or fancy free armed with plastic look like being unable to do again. Nor will the elderly be able to cruise. It will be back to Elie, Ayr, Seamill and Dunoon – or perhaps all those places in Scotland I never bothered visiting.
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