Some interviews stick in the memory more than others. My latest with artist and writer John Byrne was to discuss his new musical play Underwood Lane. It had me recalling a conversation five years previously when he was unveiling his first ever exhibition at the National Galleries of Scotland.
Byrne, then 74, was talking me through his 14-hour day, seven-days-a-week workload, and his belief that he was painting “better than ever”. He railed against the modern-generation of “so-called self-style artists” and their work, comparing it to electronic music, and admitted he felt he was seen as “persona non grata” by Scotland’s arts establishment but made it sound like a badge of honour.
But the long-awaited repeat of his much-loved TV drama Tutti Frutti, and even being named Scotland’s most stylish man, shows he has been embraced more than ever in recent years. This perhaps explains why Byrne, who will turn 80 in 2020, has finally managed to get a brand new theatre production off the ground, some 40 years after making his name with The Slab Boys.
I spoke to Byrne about Underwood Lane, the show he is staging in memory of fellow “Paisley Buddy” Gerry Rafferty, one of his many musical collaborators, shortly before I attended the launch of the National Theatre of Scotland’s new season at its Rockvilla headquarters in Glasgow, where I also talked to another much-loved artist of Byrne’s generation. Liz Lochhead, who turns 72 this month, is the writer behind another theatre production which, like Byrne’s new show, is shaping up to be a highlight of Scotland’s cultural year in 2020.
The revival of her adaptation of Medea after a near 20-year hiatus is a double triumph for Lochhead, after much lobbying of NTS to take on the show, which will also see her work performed at the Edinburgh International Festival for the first time.
Before the week was done, I was writing about a lifetime achievement award for the artist and writer Alasdair Gray at Scotland’s book and publishing Oscars. Gray, who has been unable to walk since a serious fall four years ago, sadly missed the ceremony at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. However, in a message, the 84-year-old revealed he was still working on a number of paintings, although he conceded it was unlikely he would ever finish a new play or book at his age.
Gray is not the only one defying both the passage of time and serious illness. Sir Billy Connolly has had one of his most high-profile periods in the public eye in recent years, thanks to his insistence on touring for several years after being treated for prostate cancer and Parkinson’s Disease. A reluctant retirement from the live arena last year seems to have simply given him more freedom to make increasingly thoughtful and moving new TV series.
As I write this in a coffee shop in Glasgow, the unmistakable vocals of Sir Rod Stewart being blasted out are a reminder of yet another Scottish cultural icon who has just staged three sell-out shows at the Hydro and released a new orchestral album despite having treatment for prostate cancer himself.
All of the above are hugely different artists who have never been remotely seen as Establishment figures. They are also united by a drive to keep making new work and getting seen and heard as much as possible. Anyone trying to get a career as an artist off the ground would do well to explore how hard they have grafted throughout their careers, but particularly in their later years. Long may they all continue.