For a young Billy Connolly, the library was his salvation. He discusses his love of literature and how it has accompanied him through his adult life.
For a young Billy Connolly, the library was his salvation. He discusses his love of literature and how it has accompanied him through his adult life.
When I was an unhappy little boy, going to the library changed my life. It may even have saved it. Amazing as it sounds, literature can do that for you. Books are your ticket to the whole world. They’re a free ticket to the entire earth. They’re an entry to conversations you wouldn’t be privy to otherwise.
People often say that football and boxing are the ways out of the working class and they are your ticket out of that kind of life, if you happen to want to leave it. But, for me, the library is the key. That is where the escape tunnel is. All of the knowledge in the world is there. The great brains of the world are at your fingertips.
With my aunt making my life hell and Big Rosie beating the shit out of me on a daily basis, I lived in a dark and forbidding world as a kid. But I only had to leave our home and walk over the tramlines to Partick Library and a whole new world opened to me. Reading books showed me that there was something better, something other, out there.
It made me realise that, despite the constant misery of my day‐to‐day existence, the world might actually be a good place, and an exciting one.
Partick Library was heaven. When you walked in the door the library was on the left and on the right was a newspaper section. They had the newspapers, on sticks, ready to be read in an upright position. Old men used to come in to read the papers in the warm. There was a wonderful atmosphere of the old guys reading the papers and looking for somebody to talk to, and young guys darting about and having a laugh. Partick Library was a lovely place to be. I’m so glad it’s still there today.
I can still remember joining the library, being given my little member’s card and being all proud, and being led over to the children’s section. There were books that I have never seen since, such as Cowboys Cowboys Cowboys and Pirates Pirates Pirates. You were allowed to take one home to read and bring it back a week later, and it felt such a privilege to be allowed to read a library book at home.
I loved everything about the library. It would be a big social event. I’d meet up with my friends in there and we’d consult about the books:
‘Have you read Cowboys Cowboys Cowboys?’
‘No, but I’ve read Pirates Pirates Pirates.’
‘Oh, I must read that! I’ll read Pirates Pirates Pirates and you read Cowboys Cowboys Cowboys . . .’
When you got to twelve years old, you went up a grade in the library system and you were allowed to take two books a week home.I remember swanning up the street with my two books, hoping that somebody would see me. I was in the big league now – two books! – and I got moved to a different section of the library. There was more sophisticated reading matter there, like Seven Years in Tibet, which fascinated me – Tibet sounded so remote, like it was on a different planet.
My love of literature has stayed with me through life. I don’t go to libraries so much anymore but I love bookshops. One of the things you can do in a bookshop that you can’t do buying books online is you can put your nose in a book and smell it. Once you have got the smell of books, your heart races and you are hooked for life. Oddly, Bibles tend to smell pretty good.
There is a town called Wigtown, just east of Stranraer in the Scottish borders. It used to be an agricultural town and not doing too well – the shops were all closing down. But then some bright spark had the idea of holding a book festival there. It happens every September and, during that month, the population of the town rockets from 900 to 12,000. Some people now know Wigtown as Booktown. That makes me very happy.
If you’ll allow me to climb on my wee soapbox here, reading books is wonderful. They even make you sleep well. Not electronic books and Kindles and all that shite: they will keep you awake. They mess with your eyes. I’m talking about regular, paper books. Start reading one at night when you go to bed and you will inevitably nod off and wake up with the book on your chest, your light still on, and one leg out of the bed. God knows how many times I have done that over the years.
You must never stop reading books, even if the way that you read changes over the years. Somebody recently showed me a quiz called ‘What Kind of Reader Are You?’ Now, I don’t know about you, but I can recognise myself at various points in my life in these different archetypes:
But there’s no right way to read. You are not studying for an exam. The important thing is that books do you good. They improve your life, and the lives of the people around you. They improve you. So, assuming you are dying to be given a suggested reading list by an elderly comedian, here are some of the books that, over the years, have made my life better . . .
The Call of the Wild by Jack London
I read The Call of the Wild and its companion book, White Fang, as a schoolboy. They did me a lot of good. The stories are both narrated by wolves and they tell you of their troubles trying to cope with the human race. After I read White Fang, I used to march around Partick imagining I was an intrepid prospector striding through the snowy Canadian wilderness in search of gold.
On The Road by Jack Kerouac
There are some books you should read at a certain age and On the Road is one of them. So is The Dharma Bums: most Kerouac, in fact. I read them as a young man, a young hippy, in the Sixties and I was taken with them. But I’ve tried to reread them later in life and I can’t. There is a trendiness about them that irritates me, and all that ‘I’m trying to find out who I am, man, I’m looking for me!’ crap gets on my tits. But when I was in my late teens and wanting to go travelling and meet girls and smoke dope and stay up all night, those books spoke to me – they offered me a world of possibility that just didn’t seem to exist in Partick.
Blandings Castle by P.G Wodehouse
My father made me read P. G. Wodehouse. That makes it sound like a punishment but it wasnae. I remember the first time I read Blandings Castle, I actually fell out of bed from laughing. I was reading about a conman who was pretending to be a missionary, and who was giving a speech about a safari he had supposedly been on. He said, ‘I was walking through the longolongo grass when I was set upon by a wild bongobongo. Luckily, I heard the noise of a jongojongo, played by a member of the wongowongo tribe who leapt over the zongozongo . . .’ and at about the eighth ‘ongo‐ongo’ word I totally lost it. I was laughing so much that my limbs wouldn’t work properly and balance and gravity didn’t seem to be the same any more. I slid right onto the floor. Once, I went to Stephen Fry’s birthday party and he introduced me to his parents. I said, ‘I don’t believe they are your parents. I think you were written by P. G. Wodehouse.’ Stephen said it was one of the greatest compliments he had ever had. If you read Wodehouse it will change you and change your language.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
I’m a huge Mark Twain fan: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But I tried to read Tom Sawyer to my children and I failed. I read it as a child but it is a mistake to think it’s a book for children – it is much more sophisticated than that. It was too much for my kids when they were wee, so I waited until they were older and then put them on to it.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
When I was a teenager I saw Jane Eyre on television, and I immediately read it and then read all of the Brontës. They are such brilliant storytellers. They are great at writing about weather – when you read the Brontës you can feel life on the Yorkshire Dales, and the drizzle, and going to church on cold evenings. In actual fact, I went to the Brontës’ house in Yorkshire and bought all of their books for my daughters from there, and they absolutely loved them.
Hard Times by Charles Dickens
Dickens was a genius. He’s so good to read. You zip through his stuff and you don’t know why you are reading so fast, but it’s because he serialised his books before he put them out as novels. So, they were written as a series, just like those serials you used to get in the cinema – don’t forget to look in next week! They have cliffhangers and a great fast dynamic so that is how you read them.
Dubliners by James Joyce
James Joyce frightens a lot of people mainly because of Ulysses. They think it makes them look unintelligent because they cannae read it. But somebody in Ireland once explained it to me. They said, ‘Most books are about something; Ulysses is something.’ Once you get that into your head, it all makes more sense. It’s a book that you can just plunge into at any place, because it doesn’t go logically from one to ten. It just ambles around. I remember sitting up in bed and reading it and loving having my brain thrown around by James Joyce. Dubliners is a collection of early short stories of Dublin and is one of the ‘easier’ Joyce books, but it’s still great stuff.
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky are two excellent books about murder and different ways of looking at it and dealing with it. I devoured all that I could of Dostoyevsky, which was a lot. You mustn’t be scared by the size of his books, just treat each of them like a series. If it was a television series in sixteen episodes you wouldn’t say, ‘Oh God, that’s too long!’, you’d just get on with watching it. In fact, that’s true of all the great Russian authors. Don’t be put off by the size of the Russians! A novel like Tolstoy’s War and Peace is – let me use a technical term here – a big bugger, but you’ll get into it and it’ll pay you back. Or Nikolai Gogol – there is a Russian that nobody talks about. He wrote mainly short stories, like The Overcoat, and they are very funny.
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
Here’s another great Russian novel. Many years ago, I was looking for one of Dostoyevsky’s books and went to a bookstore on Princes Street in Edinburgh. They didn’t have it but the woman in the shop recommended this. It’s a book about the Devil coming to Russia and is a very thinly disguised allegory about Stalin and his reign of terror. Now, that may sound dry as dust to you but it’s absolutely brilliant, a colossal book.
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
This is probably my favourite book of all time. I’ve read it so many times and I still go back to it today. It’s set in New Orleans and it’s the story of a grotesque waster named Ignatius J. Reilly. It’s weird and a bit surreal and it stays with you long after you have read it – for your whole life, in fact. It’s the only book that John Kennedy Toole wrote. He committed suicide, and some people say that it was because he couldn’t get A Confederacy of Dunces published, but who knows if that is true? His mother got it published after his death. One of the loveliest things that you can do for a person is give them a book that you have enjoyed, and I’ve given away more copies of this than any other book. In fact, I once went into a local bookstore and said to an assistant, ‘Oh, I’m glad to see you that have got a few copies of A Confederacy of Dunces.’ She said, ‘They are for you!’ I had bought so many copies from the shop to give to friends that they had ordered extra stock in just for me.
But this is a book about being made in Scotland, so I have saved up a couple of my very favourite Scottish writers until the end – two people that, if you have never investigated, you should certainly do so as soon as you have finished this sentence. Or maybe this one. What, are you still here? What the hell are you waiting for?
The Complete Poems and Songs of Robert Burns
When I was working in John Smith’s bookstore in Glasgow as a spotty teenager, one of my duties was to sweep the floor each morning. I would be the only person in the bookshop, which was a great luxury, and I would scour all the books. I found a wee book of Rabbie Burns’ poems and it kind of changed my life. I best remember one called ‘To a Louse’, which Burns wrote on seeing a louse on a woman’s neck in church: ‘I fear ye dine but sparely/On sic’ a place.’ It made me laugh out loud. Burns gave me back a love of Scottish words that I knew but had dropped, like sleekit, which means sly, cunning, sneaky like a fox. I use it to this day: ‘Ah, Donald Trump is a sleekit man!’ Burns’ language takes some sorting through, even for me, because he was born on a farm in Ayrshire and some of his rural Scots terms leave me frowning in ba ement. But Robert Burns was a genius. His great poem, ‘Tam O’Shanter’, is a work of the very highest art. For me, he is Scotland’s Shakespeare.
The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg
Now, here’s a character! James Hogg was a shepherd from a village in the Borders called Ettrick. They call him the Ettrick Shepherd. In fact, I think somebody once called him the Electric Shepherd! I was first attracted to Hogg when I read a quote by him in a bookshop in Inverness. He said, ‘I spent most of my youth trying to lose my innocence and succeeded only in finding a higher form of innocence.’ I read that and I thought, Oh, I like you! It felt like he was writing about me. Because with all the reading I was doing, and the playing instruments, and trying to make something of myself and change my life . . . I wasn’t becoming somebody else. I had thought I would become this other person, but all I was becoming was a bigger version of what I already was. Hogg wrote this work of genius, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justifed Sinner, about twins who are desperately unlike each other. You eventually – spoiler alert! – conclude that it is two sides of the same person. It’s like Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde but it came before it. It’s a brilliant book – and it was written by a wee shepherd! A few people have tried to make it into a film, and Peter McDougall did a good version for T V. James Hogg should be a much bigger figure in Scotland than he is. Everybody goes on about Robert Burns, which is great, but they don’t seem to have room to celebrate anybody else, which is a pity. So, go on! Read the Electric Shepherd!
Made in Scotland by Billy Connolly is out now.
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The 25th of January celebrates the life and times of one of Scotland’s greatest writers, Robert Burns. So what better way to mark the occasion by reading these magical tales with fantastical characters, all set in Scotland - they’re a great way to learn about a new tradition together.