Joking apart

EVEN IN THE stylish gloom of a London hotel foyer, Janey Godley is instantly recognisable.

Years later, her fianc, Sean, proclaimed: "No woman needs more than one dress and one pair of shoes." So, at 18, she got married in a 58 nylon dress and a pair of plastic shoes. Her new in-laws - the Storries - were not enthusiastic about the match. This large Catholic family wielded significant power in Glasgow's underworld. Their wedding-day greeting to Protestant Janey was to spit on her. The marriage was predictably rocky, lurching from crisis to crisis, and Janey repeatedly ran away - almost always bare-foot.

Which is why I assumed that Janey Godley, now 44 and a successful comedian and playwright, just might have developed a shoe fixation. But her sturdy beige cork wedges assert nothing so exotic. They are the style choice for firmly on the ground sort of feet. And that in itself is quite an achievement, considering the title and opening image of her newly published memoir Handstands in the Dark.

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"My palms were sore from small hard biscuit crumbs on our kitchen floor digging into the skin, but my legs still leaned against the wall. I liked doing handstands. I loved the world upside down. It made me dizzy but I liked that feeling. The ceiling was marked with grease stains and smoke stains. The washing hanging from the ceiling pulley looked like ghosts were wearing the clothes. Maybe my secrets and sore bits would disappear if I were to stay like this."

But this secret and its soreness stained Janey's life, and darkened both the surnames she has used, so that she eventually told her husband: "I don't want to be Janey Storrie any more, because your family let me down, and I don't want to be Janey Currie [her maiden name] because my family let me down. I'm going to use my middle name and legally become Janey Godley. The only family who haven't let me down are the Godleys because I don't know them."

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Her secret was the long-term sexual abuse to which her Uncle David Percy subjected her from the age of about five. At school, she was nicknamed "Shakey Cakey" because she trembled so much. She learned to write and draw with her left hand, because her right hand was the one that her uncle forced her to touch him with. Her teachers concluded simply that she had "behavioural problems". Finally, she told her mother what was happening. The effect was dreadful.

"My Mammy stood still, put both her hands firmly on my shoulders and looked me directly in the eyes as she hissed: 'If you ever tell this to your Dad, he will kill my brother and then he will go to jail and you will have no daddy! Is that what you want, Janey? Are you sure you know what you are saying? Don't you ever talk to me like that again!"

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And so the abuse continued, and cast its long shadow. Janey discovered that her elder sister, Annie, was Uncle David's first victim and, in 1993, 30 years after it all began, the sisters made a formal complaint to the police. Three years later, in November 1996, The Scotsman reported: "Two sisters hugged each other yesterday as the man who had abused them 30 years ago began a two-year jail sentence. Janey Godley and Ann Crawford waived their right to anonymity as they saw justice catch up with their uncle, David Percy."

"Waiving the right to anonymity" was crucial to Godley. Secrecy equalled shame, and she knew she had no reason to feel ashamed. She wanted justice, not revenge, and not the dubious refuge of a blacked-out photograph in a newspaper. Because amid such dark subjects it's easy to forget that Godley is very much a limelight sort of woman. Not just courageous, but mouthy and irrepressibly funny.

The first 15 years of her marriage to Sean Storrie were spent running a pub in Glasgow's East End, the Calton. Four of the pub's regulars were the men accused of the infamous Miss X murder, in which a prostitute was strangled and horribly mutilated. Godley hated booze as much as she hated drugs, but she watched the effects of both with a clear-eyed candour which would later mark her out as a unique comic voice.

Even so, it isn't easy to grasp this radical change of focus - from gangster pub landlady, to writer and performer. Though Godley sees it differently.

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"It was absolutely straightforward. A guy came into the pub one night and said 'you should do stand-up. You're really funny behind the bar'. So I went along to one of those open-mike nights, and I won the gong. And that was me started."

She had always known she had a gift for writing, and jotted down comedy sketches and vignettes when the pub was quiet. Even better, all those years supervising some of the scariest characters in Glasgow had given her an assurance that no heckler could crack.

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"I don't regret my years in that pub. To this day, when there's a rowdy crowd, I'm the comedian who can sort them out."

How exactly, I ask.

Godley chuckles. "I was playing a club in Leicester a few weeks ago, and there were 25 or so big, baldy-heided taxi drivers all half-cut and shouting: 'Oggy, oggy, oggy'. So I said: 'Right, where I come from, oggy, oggy, oggy is a gay chant. So if later on you lads want to start licking each other or something, I'm sure there's some girls in the crowd here who'd like to watch. So just shout out." She laughs again. "Well, you know they're not going to say a word for the rest of the night!"

The crisis which forced Godley, husband Sean and their young daughter, Ashley, to quit their pub was the death of Sean's father, Old George Storrie, the "Don" of the clan. The six brothers began to quarrel and conspire over the vagaries of Old George's will and the pub, which was still in his name, became just another area of conflict and claim. Instead of accepting the "new terms" outlined by the warring brothers, they decided to quit and build a more wholesome future somewhere else. But not before they awoke one night to the tread of policemen's boots thundering upstairs, and charges of possession of 11 handguns, 14 shotguns, one automatic rifle, 376 rounds of ammunition and an electric stun gun. An unknown legacy from Old George which his disappointed girlfriend had decided to report to the police - complete with a map indicating their location in the back garden.

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"Even now, a lot of the people who contact me about writing projects present me with gangster-based stuff. But I don't consider myself a gangster's wife, and I never did."

More than that, however, Godley feels it is time to move on and widen her horizons. "I'd like to write some fiction and investigate other people's feelings and perspectives. Because my stand-up is about me, and my play (Smack, the Point of Yes) is about me, and my book is about me."

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And the woman who ran every morning around Glasgow Green in the chill grey dawn to channel her frustrated energies prefers not to stand still in any sense. After the court case, she underwent some formal therapy, but admits: "It didn't really work for me. I attended a group, but so many of the women there didn't want to move on, and if you did they seemed to find that threatening, and resent it, as if you were trying to say you were better than them. It's not that I don't understand how abuse can affect everything in your life, but there comes a point when you have to say: All right, I know I'm a moody cow, I can see how that happened, but maybe it's time to do something different.

"It was the same thing with Calton Athletic [the drugs rehabilitation centre], which was right next to our pub. These boys were great, but I sometimes thought, why are they still there two years on? What would happen if they left - maybe got a job? But they didn't. And that's it. I don't mean to criticise what's been achieved there, it's brilliant - but to stay in that moment forever, where you only feel safe if you're with the group, that's surely just swapping one addiction for another."

Godley is reflective now. Her "new life" has brought her not only acclaim, but contentment. Her daughter, Ashley, is about to start university, her marriage to Sean has survived, and they celebrate their silver wedding later this year. Though probably without Sean's brothers. "People assume I'm going to be a complete nutter," she grins. "But, as you can see, I'm just an ordinary wee wifey who happens to like performing and writing. In fact Sean says if I don't get on a stage once a week, I turn into a snarling wolverine." So it's lucky that she has a packed house at the Soho theatre to face this particular night. A werewolf footnote to her already gothic biography might just be a headline too many.

Handstands in the Dark by Janey Godley is published by Ebury Press, priced 14.99.