Travels with a witty misfit: Billy Connolly on the dangers of nylon sheets, bungee jumping naked and why New Zealand reminds him of Scotland: rain, puritanism and no late-night restaurants!
- Sir Billy Connolly’s memoir is an easy-going ramble around his life and times
- READ MORE: My terror after ‘aggressive’ Kiwi biker gang mistook me for a Hells Angel
BOOK OF THE WEEK
by Billy Connolly (John Murray Press £25, 310pp)
With the death of Sir Ken Dodd in 2018, Sir Billy Connolly succeeded as our greatest living comedian — so I do hope he can cling on a little while longer.
As he implies in Rambling Man, the outlook has been rather worrying. On a Monday not long ago, he was fitted with hearing aids. On the Tuesday, he was prescribed medication for gastrointestinal reflux. Come Wednesday, Billy was told he had prostate cancer and Parkinson’s disease.
No doubt, on Thursday and Friday, he stared into space swearing loudly, or else got cracking visiting graveyards.
‘It just felt lovely in them,’ Billy reports of his cemetery inspections.
‘With my Parkinson’s,’ says Billy, ‘I sometimes shake so much I can just sit in my living room with my eyes closed and pretend I’m rattling along in a freight train.’
Comedian, actor and musician Billy Connolly pictured in 1974. His new memoir is an easy-going ramble through his life and times
Which is something Billy has done for real, hopping aboard trucks and carriages, hitch-hiking, bumming about, emulating old-fashioned super-tramps, drifters and vagrants, roving along the open roads and mountain tracks, ‘wandering wherever I pleased’. Browsing through Billy’s memoir, I kept singing val-der-ree, val-der-ra . . .
If Billy has never liked sailing, it’s because ‘once you’re on a boat you’re trapped there until you reach your destination’ — far too claustrophobic a notion for our temperamentally restless hero.
He has always been agitated, dissatisfied: ‘I could never follow the established rules and paths.’
School was predictably a disaster. Home life was problematical. It was only later, when he accepted his misfit status, and acknowledged that for him, as for Mr Toad, ‘there was something more to life in a place somewhere beyond where you were’, that Billy found a route to fame.
For years, Billy has lived on his wits, playing music and telling stories.
‘I was a funny folk singer and eventually I graduated to doing solo concerts’, and he likes to be ‘alone on the road’, travelling the world doing 54 consecutive gigs.
Nothing is written down in advance. Billy’s performances are spontaneous. ‘I am much more inventive during a show than when I am off-stage.’
Rambling Man is an easy-going if selective ramble around Billy’s life and times. In between accounts of his travelogues — to the Yukon, Australian bush or Florida, where you can ‘ride a motorcycle without a helmet or shoes’ — Billy tells us he was 11lb 4oz at birth.
Billy went riding with cowboys as they rounded up cattle for ITV’s ‘Journey to the Edge of the World’
He toiled as a welder on the Clyde shipyards, thinking nothing about being suspended way up high on a narrow plank.
He’s clearly a courageous man — I’d not known Billy served as a paratrooper in the Territorial Army, ‘jumping off towers, balloons and eventually helicopters and aeroplanes’. Billy enjoyed participating in war games in Cyprus and Malta.
Bungee-jumping (naked once) is a blast: ‘I remember seeing a group of large boulders coming towards me, because I was leading with my face.’ This will be why Billy, a daredevil, feels no fear when confronting his audiences. ‘I would walk on, and all that fear would fall away.’
Only once has he been attacked — by an Australian of Scottish descent in Brisbane, who, disliking the rude words, clambered on stage and thumped him, declaring: ‘My wife’s ears are not garbage cans!’
As we hear about Billy’s adventures on foot or by bike, ship, tram, plane and sleigh, pictures from his past emerge. He traipsed around France in the 1960s with an out-of-date phrase book.
‘We have reason to believe there are Germans in your cellar’ was his dumbfounding chat-up line.
It was no joke having sex in cheap hotels with nylon sheets, as ‘your pubic hair stands up and sparks come off it’. Don’t we know it.
Billy was the proud owner of a Harley-Davidson three-wheeler motorbike — and ‘motorcycles always made me more attractive to women’.
Billy was the proud owner of a Harley-Davidson three-wheeler motorbike – and believed motorcycles always made him more attractive to women
It sounds as if he was something of a tearaway. A prank at the shipyard was to electrocute people when they stepped into puddles.
In the Army, recruits had to strip off and clench a newspaper in their buttocks, which was set on fire.
There was a lot of high-spirited boozing — and ‘I gained a reputation for unruliness, and people would flock to see this hairy nutcase’.
Billy was the same on stage and off, his comedy routines and banter motivated by rage, particularly against human stupidity, racial prejudice and religious bigotry, of which there was plenty on offer in Glasgow. ‘I get angry about anything that’s remotely unfair’.
By 1979, he was ‘a fully-fledged alcoholic’, prone to blackouts and violence. Pamela Stephenson, a qualified psychotherapist and his second wife, sorted him out. He hasn’t touched a drop now for 40 years.
This doesn’t mean, however, he is any advocate of healthy living. Conscientiously sticking to brown bread and lentils, Billy argues, may just about save you a fortnight of extra life — a fortnight more in the care home, incontinent and ‘being fed out of a blender and wishing you were f***ing dead’.
He is a proud and patriotic Scot, so ‘I lived in the Hollywood Hills for 20 years’. Nevertheless, he visits when he can, appreciating the way in Caithness ‘waterfalls go up instead of down’.
He loves the ‘pink-purply haze on everything’ in the Highlands, and in Scotland all four seasons can be experienced in 20 minutes: howling gales, blazing sunshine, snow, rain.
Billy embarked on a remote journey through he treacherous Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific for ITV’s ‘Journey to the Edge of the World’
Billy feels at home in New Zealand, because it reminds him of Scotland — the glens, the drizzle and the puritanism, with no restaurants open in the evenings after his concerts, the only food available ‘a granny’s salad’ of two lettuce leaves, two slices of tomato, a boiled egg and a bit of ham.
Trying his best to convince us his preferred state is solitude, Billy describes a sojourn in the Arctic Circle, where he built an igloo.
‘It was a patchwork of snowfields, tundra planes, ice floes and mountains towering above me.’ He goes on to say: ‘I’m a very weird person. Not easy to be with.’
Undoubtedly, but what an illusion (or delusion) this is. His bohemian behaviour and image require a lot of support: managers, promoters, production crew, valets. ‘I don’t like answering the phone,’ he confesses. So there is someone to do that.
Billy toured Florida in a 1965 fire engine red Chevy for the programme ‘Billy Connolly’s Ultimate World Tour’ in 2018
Much of the exotic travelling in Rambling Man was conducted for television programmes. We shouldn’t forget, therefore, the invisible presence in these pages of television cameras, stills cameramen, technical crews, researchers, producers, people booking the hotels, planning the itinerary.
There is a funny paragraph about visiting a Toilet Seat Museum in Texas. Billy didn’t simply chance upon that now, did he?
Billy is only playing at being a hobo. He benefits unthinkingly from all the services placed before a big, rich star. He was hardly in real danger from polar bears or howling wolves, frequently mentioned here, but then he is 81.
On his gravestone, he wants the inscription ‘You’re standing on my balls!’ What a legend. He does make me laugh.
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