When I was young it was considered healthy to beat the living daylights out of your children on a regular basis. So in many ways my upbringing in Glasgow in the 1940s and 1950s was no better or worse than anyone else’s.
I was born in a tenement building near the city centre in November 1942, during the Second World War.
That’s the only date you’re getting out of me, because it’s the only one I can remember. At the time, my dad was away in the RAF fighting in Burma and India.
Our little two-room flat was a bit gloomy: I remember an alcove bed, a kitchen table and a sideboard with a drawer that was my crib when I was a baby.
Scottish comic Billy Connolly with his wife Pamela Stephenson, circa 1990
Billy Connolly in favourite racing car tee-shirt with Aunt Mona on holiday to Rothesay in 1954
There was no bathroom and no hot water: my older sister Florence washed both of us standing up in the kitchen. It was she who mostly looked after me, even though she was only 18 months older.
All this may sound a bit awful, but it wasn’t. There was a warmth about the tenements, because of the people who lived in them.
Sure, they were considered slums. People say: ‘Oh, the deprivation!’ But I say: ‘Nonsense!’ When you’re a wee boy it’s not like that. It felt great to have all these nice neighbours. Children would play football on the street, using a lamppost as the goalpost. Upstairs, women would sit on the windowsill or hang out of windows chatting to each other or shouting at the children in the street: ‘What’ve I told you about throwing stones?’
Drunks would stumble into our back courtyard and give impromptu singing concerts.
If these had merit, residents would throw down pennies. But if the singer was giving everyone a headache, someone would first heat the pennies over the stove using a pair of pliers, then throw them. ‘There you go, you winey bastard! Take yer wailing elsewhere!’
The most profound memory I have from living in that flat was the time I woke early and went to look for my mother. I opened the door to her bedroom and saw a stranger – a shirtless man, sitting in a chair putting on his socks.
I realised my mother was in bed, but I couldn’t see her because she was behind the door. The guy just put his foot on my forehead and gently pushed me out of the door, then closed it. I found out later that his name was Willie Adams, my mother’s lover.
Shortly afterwards, she left us. I was four and Florence was six.
Billy Connolly’s parents’ wedding day. Best man Barney McConville on the right and bridemaid on left
Maybe it was a neighbour who found us after she’d gone. I can’t remember. Anyway, someone took us to a children’s home.
I remember sitting with Florence in the foyer. It was all wooden panels and echoes, and I didn’t like it much.
I was glad when my father’s sisters Mona and Margaret showed up and took us out of there. I was delighted we were going to live with them.
At that point Mona and Margaret must have thought that having two children in the house was a good idea. Maybe they had taken us in out of martyrdom, or to save our souls. But whatever it was, it soon wore off.
For sure, we were not neglected. There was always someone at home to watch us. There were fewer sticky sweeties, mainly because it was wartime.
Instead – much to my horror – Aunt Mona cooked us vegetables. I liked potatoes but I hated the carrots and onions. The absolute worst were Brussels sprouts.
We always had them on a Saturday. Ruined the whole day. To help get them down my throat, Mona would offer encouragements like a smack in the head or a bloody nose.
There was no such thing as leaving them on my plate. I’d have to sit there for hours and hours, staring at the nightmarish, overcooked, wee greenish-grey things.
Even now I can’t bear them. Just being in the same room as one makes me want to vomit.
The questions my younger self asked were: Where is my father, and is he ever coming back?
I had no memories of him being there when I was a baby, and my aunts never talked about him.
But he eventually showed up just after my fifth birthday – an enormous guy dragging a huge metal trunk. When I heard him approaching, I dived for cover right away.
He peered at me under the table, then pulled me out and gave me a wonderful toy yacht. It was green and red with canvas sails, and it really worked. I was dead pleased.
After that he lived with us at Mona and Margaret’s on and off for the next few years.
Scottish comedian Billy Connolly in front of Buckingham Palace during a visit to London, 26th July 1974
One the best things about my boyhood was joining the Cubs when I was about eight.
Every so often they had a ‘bob-a-job’ week. A ‘bob’ was a shilling – five pence.
You could go to the doors of nice houses in the West End of Glasgow and say: ‘Anything for bob-a-job week?’ And they would give you a task to do, like raking the lawn or fetching coal, and pay you a shilling.
In one of those houses there lived an elderly man. He wore a cardigan and corduroys and looked like he’d been a schoolteacher or a doctor.
I loved going to his place because he treated me very nicely. We would sit beside his fire and I’d polish his shoes.
It was a peaceful thing and it gave me a love of shoe polishing that has never left me. He would talk to me about Trinidad and Tobago, where he’d spent many years.
But that nice man didn’t just inspire my lifelong obsession with shoes. The best thing was knowing an adult who took the time to talk kindly and respectfully to me.
As a comedian, I could always turn my father’s beatings into funny stuff. But Mona was a whole different story. She was deadly serious
At home, no one would ever do that – let alone listen.
I’d say: ‘Dad?’
He’d say ‘WHAT?!!?’ and then he’d hit me. It was the same for all my friends. Older people couldn’t communicate properly with any of us.
They didn’t talk about generation gaps then, because they didn’t see it as a problem. They just battered the children. ‘You’ – slap! – ‘stupid’ – slap! – ‘boy!’
Once my father hit me and I flew backwards over the settee in a sitting position. Later on, when I was doing stand-up comedy, I used to tell my audiences: ‘It was just like real flying, except you didn’t get a cup of tea or a safety belt.’
As a comedian, I could always turn my father’s beatings into funny stuff. But Mona was a whole different story. She was deadly serious.
By the time I was seven or eight my aunt had taken to hitting and humiliating me whenever she could. To this day I don’t know why she took such a dislike to me.
Whenever there was nobody around, she would nag me and hit me, often with great violence.
She was like Bette Davis in What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? When I saw that movie, I immediately thought of Mona, feeling that youth had slipped by her.
That might have been the reason for her unspeakable sadism. As a teenager, when teachers would berate me, I’d sit there thinking, ‘Yeah, it’s okay for you. You don’t have to go home to Mona.’
Sometimes I think I was lucky to survive it. I thought a lot about drowning myself in the Clyde.
My wife Pamela, who is a clinical psychologist, says Mona must have suffered from paranoid schizophrenia.
But to me she was just a bastard. The worst thing she did was to instil in me a belief that I was useless. Her three favourite lines were: ‘It was a sad day when I met you.’ True.
‘You’ll never amount to anything.’ False.
And: ‘Your powers of observation are nil.’ False, false, false.
In my adult life it has been an enormous pleasure – and my greatest ambition – to prove her wrong.
My father eventually learned about the way Mona treated me. Once, when he was sitting at the dinner table with me and Florence, he lifted his arm to scratch his head, and I flinched.
He said ‘What the hell’s wrong with you?’ and Florence said: ‘It’s Auntie Mona. She’s always hitting him.’
He was horrified. I’m sure he had words with her, but he was rarely there so she just carried on.
But my dad was the worst sort of hypocrite, because Mona wasn’t the only perpetrator in the house. My father sexually abused me for years.
At one point there were several of us crammed into a two-bedroom flat. Mona and Margaret were in one bedroom, and Florence had the living room alcove, so my father and I had to share a bed in the second bedroom.
My father’s abuse was a horrible, secretive routine that I had to put up with from when I was about ten years old until 14, when we moved to a bigger place.
And for the following 20 years – until my father died in 1976 – I just buried all that shame.
My wife says I’m angry about so many things that I don’t leave much room to be happy.
She put a board on the wall opposite the toilet with the words: ‘Today I will be as happy as a bird with a French fry.’
So I am reminded every time I go in there. But that just makes me angrier.
I suspect happiness is having a liking for yourself and having a joy in being with yourself, and I’m not sure I have it.
I think I might have been happy before my mother left. Until I was four, I had this feeling – and I’m sure it was the same for her – of two creatures joined by the same material.
Before she left, I was like a little naked animal. Crawling around with sticky things in my hands. Sweets and buns. Yes, I was happy before I was four.
I didn’t see my mother again until I was 19, when I called in on my granny one day. She wasn’t at home, but my grandad was. He said: ‘Your mother’s here. She’s seeing some friends.’
It was only a couple of years since I’d seen her, but it was so unexpected that at first I thought she was a fan. Instead, she delivered the heart-stopping line: ‘I’m your mother’
That was a shock. It had been 15 years since I’d last seen her. I knew her immediately from the way she smiled at me. ‘Oh hello, Billy,’ she said. ‘You’ve grown so much! You’re so changed.’
I don’t remember the rest of it, but it was just a bit of light chat. Mainly I remember that she was nice to me. That was it.
I felt pretty good as I drove away because that visit proved me right. Mona had always said what a bastard my mother was, but I had refused to accept that.
Now I had seen the truth for myself – she was pleasant.
By the time I next saw her I was in my early 20s and already on my way to being a successful performer, doing regular gigs in hotels and bars around Scotland.
When I was playing in Dunoon one evening, she came along to see the gig. She lived nearby. She turned up after the show and approached me: ‘Billy Connolly?’
It was only a couple of years since I’d seen her, but it was so unexpected that at first I thought she was a fan. Instead, she delivered the heart-stopping line: ‘I’m your mother.’
We hugged, and I knew her smell. I buried my face in the back of her neck and something inside me went ‘Ding!’
I felt very moved, but uneasy too. I had a lot of conflicting feelings, and a load of unanswered questions.
Seeing her now that I was a successful guy was good, though. I fantasised that now she might be sorry.
Maybe she would wish she’d stayed with me, or even taken me with her. Could my life have been different? And why exactly did she go? What was in her mind all those years ago?
She was in an elegant camel-hair coat and her hair was shoulder-length, brownish and wavy. She seemed like she wanted to talk.
There was a lounge bar in the hotel, so I said: ‘We’d better go in there.’ She gave me a disapproving look and said: ‘You don’t drink too much, do you?’
I was thinking: ‘Really? A birthday card would have been nice.’
In the lounge we talked about Florence and her other children. She’d had four kids with Willie, and some others who had died.
She asked where I was staying, and I said: ‘Here.’
I was performing in the ballroom of a local hotel. She said quite casually: ‘You can come back to my place, if you want.’ I tried to sound equally casual in my reply: ‘Sure.’
It was very strange to see her new family, although they were extremely nice to me. I had a bed in someone’s room – I think it belonged to her son, who was away at the time.
The bed smelled really good. It reminded me of the days when we used to hang sheets outside to dry.
Willie sat quietly by the fire. We chatted in a superficial way about her family and their lives in Dunoon. I learned their son was in the Army – in the Parachute Regiment.
I left my mother’s house after breakfast next morning, feeling very strange. I had never expected to have so much contact with her ever, and I wasn’t sure how I felt about it.
This sudden insight into her life and family was too much of a surprise.
What made it even weirder was the way we had acted towards each other – with this hideous semblance of normality.
I had just buried 20 years of longing and suffering and pretended to be a guest in her house.
I was so disappointed with myself. I’d had a chance to ask my mother some burning questions, but I didn’t take it.
Had she tried to get in touch with my sister and me over the years, but was kept away? I didn’t ask, and perhaps I didn’t want to know.
Years later, I did learn that shortly after she’d first left, she had turned up a couple of times to see us but was refused entry by my aunts.
The second time she tried to see us things got so heated my mother punched Mona in the face. Flattened her.
My heart did a wee dance when I heard that, but that joy didn’t last long, because it suddenly struck me that during all those years of suffering from Mona and my dad, she could have been my protector.
But she wasn’t. Instead, she was sitting in a nice house with f***ing Willie and her new kids, making sure their bedsheets had a nice fresh smell.
When I first started seeing Pamela, I introduced her to my father.
She did her best to be nice to him, but she was aware of Mona’s behaviour and was angry he had not prevented her from terrorising me.
At that point, she didn’t know the full story. Then one day my sister sent for me. She said: ‘Dad’s had a stroke.’ He had collapsed at home. Florence found him in his hallway.
After that first one he got better, but then he had another – and another. It was cruel. After his eighth stroke we knew he was dying.
I went to say goodbye to him, and I was in a terrible state. I had never told anybody about his abuse, but as Pamela and I sat in the car park of the hospital, I felt so tormented I just blurted it out.
I hadn’t thought about it for years, and I had thought it no longer bothered me. But at that point, when he was dying, it bothered me terrible. All my sadness and shame and fury came pouring out.
As we sat in the car, Pamela listened to me silently. She was obviously shocked, and deeply upset on my behalf.
We were both crying, and I couldn’t bring myself to go to his hospital room to say goodbye. Even now, if I dwell on it, it really gets me down.
My mother died not too long after my dad. I had told myself I never held any grudge about what she did – leaving me and Florence when we were just wee kids.
The second time she tried to see us things got so heated my mother punched Mona in the face. Flattened her
I reasoned that there was a war on at the time. The Germans were dropping bombs in the Clyde.
My father was in India and my mother was barely out of her teens. War will do strange things to you. But when it came to it, I couldn’t say goodbye to her, either.
I had heard through a cousin that my mother was gravely ill with motor neurone disease.
I had a strong urge to go to see her. I drove to Dunoon and arrived at three in the afternoon – I saw the time on the town clock. But then I felt overwhelmed with conflicting feelings and indecision.
What would be the point of seeing her? What would I say to her?
In the end I just couldn’t face it, so I turned round and went back to Glasgow. Later I was told that at that exact time, three o’clock, she’d said to her daughter Mary: ‘Billy’s here.’ She died that weekend.
The funeral was in Dunoon and her son paid me a great honour. The rope you hold as the coffin is lowered into the grave relates to your importance in the family.
He gave me the first one – the first rope. He said to me, and I will never forget this: ‘You’re the number one son.’
© Billy Connolly, 2021
Abridged extract from Windswept & Interesting, by Billy Connolly, published by Two Roads on October 14 at £25. To pre-order a copy for £12 at WHSmith, see voucher, Page 124.