Ahead of a new exhibition celebrating a century of the nation’s comedy greats, Allan Brown reveals the true home of ‘Scottish humour’
SOME time in the 1980s, the Glasgow Herald, as it was then, ran a diary item, telling of a German tourist in Glasgow who encounters a harassed mother smacking her errant child.
The tourist interrupts: “In Germany,” he says, “we do not hit our children.”
“Is that right?” the mother replies. “In Partick we don’t gas our Jews.”
Reflect upon this remark. Think of its aggression, its swift, rhetorical kick to the tender regions. It is a boxing kangaroo of a comeback, up on its hind legs instantly, lashing out. Its antagonist invokes for comic purpose what is perhaps the darkest hour in human history, the Holocaust, merely to disoblige an impertinent stranger – an impertinent German stranger, who, being so, was probably sheepish about the matter anyway.
You might be tempted to think the comeback said it all about what’s considered Scotland’s sense of humour; its forthrightness, its darkness, its reluctance to take prisoners. The remark was Billy Connolly by way of Jerry Sadowitz, spiked with the lateral logic of a Chic Murray or an Ivor Cutler. Scottish humour, you imagine, has always been this way. Humour is crucial to civilised life and we’ve always made a decent fist of it. Supporting evidence is furnished in Tickling Jock, a forthcoming exhibition at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, a gang show of portraits and paintings depicting a century of those who built the Scottish sense of humour.
Here, however, we encounter a category error. Scotland has no sense of humour to speak of, none whatsoever. Everything we consider humorous and Scottish is, in fact, Glaswegian, wholly and utterly; Glaswegian by birth, nature and inclination. When it comes to wit, the entirety of Scotland is but Glasgow’s colonial outpost. There just is no Scottish comedy that is not Glaswegian. Remove Glasgow from the comedic equation and Scotland is a wasteland, an eternity spent in Ronnie Corbett’s anecdotal armchair. Identifying a Scottish comic figure of consequence who is not Glaswegian is like naming an American map-maker or a great Welsh painter. It can’t be done.
You’re welcome to try, of course. You could point out that Alastair Sim, star of the St Trinian’s films, was from Edinburgh, as was Muriel Spark, whose early novels were exquisitely comic, if not best read aloud to last house on a Friday. Aberdonians might cite Scotland The What?, the bizarre and dusty stage revue only Aberdonians are able to decode. Neil Munro, author of the Para Handy stories, was an Inverary man. Will Fyffe, author of the music-hall standard I Belong To Glasgow, hailed, wouldn’t you know it, not from Glasgow but Dundee.
The exercise is effectively fruitless, though. For a nation of six million souls, over the span of a century, Scotland as a whole has proven pitifully deficient in the provision of wit, shown itself to be a woefully unfunny place; less amusing per head of population than, say, Finland. The city is what linguists term a synecdoche, a part that stands for a whole. In respect of humour, Scotland is simply the chaff around the grain that is Glasgow. The nation’s comic productivity was outsourced entirely to the city by the Clyde.
But why is the balance so weighted? Why is the vast bulk of Scotland as cheering as the sight of Frank Skinner in a clown’s costume scratching on your bedroom window? The answer is two-fold: the kirk and the lack of ethnic integration. Glasgow solved both problems simultaneously with industrialisation. The city’s population increased hugely, and little of it would be mollified at the end of a working week with Bible stories. In the decade after 1841 the Irish community in Scotland increased from 4.8 per cent of total population to 7.2 per cent. With workers drawn by naval engineering, Glasgow absorbed a third of the population of the west Highlands. Jews arrived too, fleeing Russian pogroms. By the end of the First World War, 9,000 Jews were living in the city, almost the entirety of their population in Scotland, employed mainly in tailoring. Glasgow had become home to the UK’s third-largest community of émigré Italians. And few of them could afford to settle anywhere but the Gorbals, the notorious slum district just south of the river.
The Gorbals came to be among the most overcrowded areas in Europe, a sump of dereliction and despair, where the ethnic poor competed for survival in a Colosseum of disadvantage. In pubs, jails and pawnshops, or in the shadow of the hellish Dixons Blazes ironworks, where five vast blast furnaces belched smoke unceasingly, the character, the tenor and timbre, the very identity of modern Glasgow was being forged, in literal and metaphoric fire.
For comfort and diversion the city wrapped itself in the patchwork of its people. It transformed the fatalism of its Jews, the vigour of its Highlanders, the verbal ingenuity of its Irish and the machismo of its Italians. Glasgow welded together its own mongrel argot: from the flinty consonants of the Doric and the whispery poetry of the Gaels; from the fragranced expressions that floated over from Edinburgh; from the glottal weaponry smuggled in from Ulster; from American songs and cinema – but, most of all, from the contingencies of hard, industrious lives, in which each word was galvanised, stressed and tempered until it flashed the keenest edge.
This process of collectivisation and compression happened only in Glasgow. No-one would argue that working in the jute mills of Dundee or on a Peterhead trawler was anything less than arduous but there was little ethnic component in either, no interplay of creed and heritage. In Glasgow, there was nothing but. Thus were sown the seeds of a jostling breed of flaneurs, patter merchants, comperes and comic philosophers. Glasgow had the infrastructure too; 26 theatres and, influentially, the headquarters of BBC Scotland and STV.
Most crucially of all, the city’s humour had a theme, the experience of being Glaswegian. Pound for pound, per head of population, no city on earth has produced such a torrent of comedy, made principally by, and for, its own folk. A close analogue here is Jewish humour. The comedy of Glasgow too is less a type of entertainment than a philosophy, a prism, a telescope, a way of seeing the world; or, to be more exact, a way for Glaswegians to see Glasgow better. This was as true for Tommy Morgan in the 1920s as it is today for Kevin Bridges.
Bridges, though, does not feature in Tickling Jock. The exhibition covers only up until 1975, the year Billy Connolly made his epochal debut on Parkinson. Some inclusions are bizarre. Lulu is here, presumably acknowledging the tragicomedy of her re-releasing Shout! every six months. James Robertson Justice is featured, despite being an actor from Lewisham.
There are some baffling omissions: Sandy Mackendrick, director of Whisky Galore!, perhaps the best-loved Scottish film of all time; Joe McGrath, who made a bunch of Swinging Sixties capers; Matt McGinn, whose songs are still the first comic experience many Scots enjoy. The space is taken up by some “greats” of quite breathtaking obscurity: William Flint, Nellie Wallace, Sammy Murray et al. You could spend an afternoon in the Mitchell Library and leave uncertain on the credentials of maybe a dozen of them. Consequently, the artistry can leave something to be desired: the rendering of Francie and Josie, in particular, resembles something won at a fun fair.
There are joys too: John Byrne’s fanciful portrait of Billy Connolly, an Emilio Coia sketch of John Laurie from Dad’s Army that looks like a futurist circuit diagram; a photographic study of Una McLean which has the comedienne as a hybrid of Boudica and Grace Slick. Altogether, it is a collection of ancestral portraits, of the great-grandparents of the comics we know today. But they are faces and biographies that remind us of the central fact of Scottish comedy; that, really, there is no Scottish comedy, no funny bone that runs from Gretna Green to John O’ Groats. But there is Glasgow, and the wit it lends out like a library book.
Tickling Jock: Comedy Greats from Sir Harry Lauder to Billy Connolly, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, 23 February to 25 May. The Glasgow Smile: An A-Z Of The Funniest City On Earth by Allan Brown is published by Birlinn in September