Book review: Rambling Man, by Billy Connolly

Full of choice lines and amusing anecdotes, this account of the Big Yin’s rambling life is the kind of Christmas present that will cheer anyone up, writes Allan Massie

As a boy, Billy Connolly wasn’t likely to become one of the two most famous living Scotsmen and a Knight of the Realm to boot. (Nor was the other, Sir Sean.) Indeed, as a small boy and then a not so small one, Connolly felt for a long time out of things. Then one day he saw a picture of a cottage with a lovely garden and a homeless man standing at the door eating a jam sandwich that the woman of the house had given him, and he looked so free and happy that Connolly thought “that’s the life for me.” So, years later, when he had completed his apprenticeship as a welder in the shipyards Glasgow still had then, he picked up his banjo and set off. He has been what he calls “a rambling man” ever since, more often on a motor-bike than on foot. This rambling book consists of memories of his rambling. Very engaging and good fun it is, and with lots of stories to make you smile or laugh.

He was first to be a rambling folk singer, but became, while still singing when he felt like it, what we now call a “comedian”, though when we were both young we knew them as “comics”. I would say Connolly is in the last line of these comics, before we started talking of “stand-ups”. The Scots comics all had a rich humanity and great lines, as he has himself. Here he gives us a lovely Chic Murray one I’d forgotten, about being at the Olympic Games and seeing a chap with a big stick on his shoulder. It’s on page 157, but there are lots of lines to make you smile or laugh before you get there, later too. I like the parrot who, when he heard the jangle of keys, said “is that you going then?”

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Connolly has rambled (on two wheels) all over the world, or at least the English-speaking world, but has never quite left Glasgow, or at least the rainy, dark grey city of his childhood and youth. He has held the stage wherever he has gone, and plays the audience as surely as a guitar. His act is – and has always been – a rambling one, something that takes nerve, a well-populated mind and real skill too. There’s a nice passage on how to deal with hecklers; politicians and other public speakers should study it.

Billy Connolly in front of Buckingham Palace, 1974 PIC: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty ImagesBilly Connolly in front of Buckingham Palace, 1974 PIC: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Billy Connolly in front of Buckingham Palace, 1974 PIC: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

There’s also a lot of good stuff on food. Rambling men have a rich variety of culinary experience. He doesn’t recommend a kangaroo curry, but adores real Indian food – Madur Jaffrey is one if his heroines. Surprisingly, this rambling man doesn’t much like eating at outside tables: too many flying beasties disturbing the meal.

There are odd moments everywhere on his travels. He has played elephant polo in Nepal. If elephants were native to Scotland, we would probably, he thinks, have thought up elephant golf. Probably not welcome at St Andrews, certainly not at Muirfield, but a nice idea all the same. At his home in Aberdeenshire he keeps Highland Cattle and once imported a life-size metal cow from New Zealand, just to see what the beasts made of it.

Connolly makes me think of Arnold Bennett’s Denry Machin, hero of his novel The Card, beautifully played a long time ago in the film by Alec Guinness. One dour character asks to what great cause Denry has ever committed himself, and gets the reply “To the great cause of cheering us all up”. Well, that is just what Connolly has done over the last half-century and more. His rambling days may be physically over, but he still rambles happily in his memories of them.

This book is destined to be a Christmas present that will cheer anyone up. Well, perhaps not quite anyone. It might, I suppose, struggle to draw a smile, let alone a laugh, from that that other great Scots Comic’s creation, the Rev IM Jolly. But there might be a flicker even from his doleful lips.

Rambling Man: My Life on the Road, by Billy Connolly, Two Roads, £25

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