As we approach the winding down of another thoroughly abnormal year, those of us who typically receive a mound of weighty tomes for Christmas can eagerly await a rich bounty of new volumes from the 'Big Man in Red'. Despite further delays to some publishers' schedules, readers can expect to see such varied volumes as Jeremy Paxman's Black Gold
(a new history of how coal shaped Britain), Private Eye
stalwart Dr Phil Hammond's Covid Casebook
and Paul McCartney's The Lyrics
, protruding from Christmas stockings in just 31 days.
In spite of devoting nearly 1,000 pages to recounting his life and lyrics, McCartney also features in another recent publication – Billy Connolly's Windswept & Interesting
, in which he recounts a vivid dream in which he brutally murdered 'Macca' before burying him under the traffic lights in Glasgow Cross. Whilst Connolly concedes that, in light of this, McCartney was particularly generous in dubbing him 'the first rock 'n' roll comedian' recently, this incident – which would surely make the celebrity court spat between Coleen Rooney and Rebekah Vardy look like a minor dispute over a space in a supermarket carpark – is one of hundreds of eclectic anecdotes recounted with the easy-going charm, lightness of touch, and good grace that makes Windswept & Interesting's
author Scotland's premier 'welder statesman'.
In a sense, Connolly's long-awaited autobiography takes the form of a series of semi-structured reminiscences, which intertwine personal anecdotes with snippets of social history as well as some of his most enduring and loved jokes and sketches. Whilst Dominic Maxwell (in The Times
on 14 October 2021) rightly suggests that those who know anything about Connolly or have seen his live performances will not be 'wildly surprised by anything in here', Windswept & Interesting
is akin to a lively and intimate chat with somebody whose ever-presence over the last 50 years has led millions (including me, I suspect) to think, perhaps erroneously, that we know him personally. In short, as Maxwell concludes, Pamela Stephenson's 2002 book, Billy
, remains the deeper 'inside story', whereas Windswept & Interesting
is 'where to go to hear Connolly's life alchemised into anecdote'.
He recalls how he learned in the shipyards on the Clyde that you can be both 'funny and profound' and chapter titles take the form of punchy and irreverent pieces of advice, including 'avoid people who say they know the answer'; 'interfere with yourself on a regular basis'; 'stay clear of musicals'; and 'don't eat anything that comes in a bucket'. Whilst Billy already has seven volumes to his name, he acknowledges that this is the first time his story has been told purely in his own words, recorded into 'Otter' (a dictation app) which he suspects 'has never heard a Glasgow accent in its f*****g life' and most probably believes what his friend Sean Connery once called the 'music of Scottish speaking' to be little more than a 'f*****g speech impediment'.
Likewise, although Billy suggests that one of the reasons for not chronicling his life previously was that it would appear 'too jumbled and thoroughly piss people off', it is evident that he retains a keen eye for what makes folk tick as well as his knack for the telling and often profound turn of phrase. Corkers include his assessment at the BAFTAs in 1998 that Connery had 'done awfully well for a man with a speech impediment', his observation that Scotland suffers from the 'kind of rain that can remove your tattoos', and his personal theory that 'there's a pervert somewhere, with pockets full of diced carrots, following drunk guys'.
In addition to word-perfect one-liners and the eclectic digressions that made his stage appearances riotously funny, Windswept & Interesting
allows Connolly the opportunity to suggest how Scotland and its people have changed over the last 50 years, reflect on subjects as varied as male culture, working life, ageing, and speaking to babies, and recount harrowing physical and psychological as well as sexual abuse at the hands of his Aunt Mona and father respectively. Throughout, he demonstrates an inherent and unshakeable optimism as well as his mastery of the 'I wanna tell you a story impulse' that I previously suggested would make him an ideal member of the 'Max Bygraves school' of contemporary historians who seek to write the history of our country in our own times.
In this vein, Windswept & Interesting
also provides a revealing insight into how Connolly plied his trade as the country's primary raconteur (both on stage and now firmly on the page), recounting how he typically prepared for a gig in a new town by walking the streets, taking in the ambience of a place and 'just getting to know what people there saw every day'. Billy recounts how Chic Murray instructed him in the importance of understanding an audience's patch and using their local vernacular, recalling how Pete Seeger once started a concert in Glasgow by declaring how pleased he was to be in 'Auld Reekie'.
Despite having lived in America for many years, Billy retains a strong and deep affection for and understanding of Scotland, continuing to be as one reporter once said, 'an urban witch doctor, running his hands over Glasgow [and Scotland] and unfailingly finding the nerve centres'; someone who is able to 'tickle until you are in hysterics' or 'press hard enough for it to hurt'. Nowhere is this more evident than when Connolly describes his burgeoning alcoholism, which – by his own admission and in keeping with both Glaswegian and Scottish culture in the immediate post-war period – resulted in alcohol playing 'a central role' in his and his first wife Iris's lives.
It seems fitting that Windswept & Interesting
was published a month before the conclusion of COP26 in Connolly's hometown. As he recently told his wife Pamela Stephenson in an exclusive interview for The One Show
, Glasgow has 'always been an important place for ideas' and is crammed full of 'intelligent people doing amazing things'. For 50 years, Billy has been one of the most interesting and intelligent Glaswegians, revolutionising British stand-up and becoming what Stephenson called the 'King of Comedy, Master of Mirth, and Chancellor of Chortling'.
In an age of YouTubers and Instagrammers – where anyone from any background and anywhere in the world can become 'internet famous' through the power and global reach of social media – Windswept & Interesting
is a delightfully easy-going chronicle of lasting international stardom and a radical, rebellious and extraordinary life.
Tom Chidwick is a contemporary historian, who splits his time between London and Edinburgh. He is currently writing a history of the 1979 referendum on the creation of a Scottish Assembly