Something went twang in my lower back on Friday morning – not for the first time – and I found myself lurching about, my posture the contour of a half-clasped knife. I blame myself. Poor posture – too much lolloping around. Our practice physio used to tell me off when I slouched in front of the computer. It was bad timing on Friday as I had a full day, entertaining guests to morning coffee, a bucolic stroll, lunch, and a trip to Glasgow in the evening for a concert. I got through it.
The Scottish Chamber Orchestra played a programme in Glasgow City Halls entitled, “A very British Adventure”. Grace Williams, Anna Clyne (the composer present), Dowland, Britten, and Vaughan Williams. The viola player Timothy Ridout played Britten’s Lachrymae, and Vaughan Williams’ Flos Campi. Like all great string players, Ridout is completely relaxed. The viola seems to suspend itself in front of the player, of its own accord, in situ. I hold on to mine for dear life. That’s probably why I’ve got a sore back.
The playing and singing on Friday was of the highest quality. Yet the hall was two thirds empty. Are we a bunch of philistines? I’ve just finished reading the pianist András Schiff’s memoir Music Comes out of Silence (Weidenfeld and Nicolson 2020). It is very high flown. Schiff reveres Bach and Beethoven. I don’t think he thinks much of Lady Gaga. And he doesn’t appear to suffer philistines gladly. A bit pompous, a bit snooty perhaps?
Being as stiff as a board come Sunday evening, I had little energy left but to sit and stare at the telly with a glaikit expression on my face. I watched the BAFTAs. The Academy bestowed its highest honour, the Fellowship, on Sir Billy Connolly. I was reminded of a time back in the 80s when I worked for six months in Brisbane, Queensland. I think it may have been on Hogmanay 1985 that, wandering amid the various festivities on the banks of the Brisbane River, I chanced upon the Scottish singer and entertainer Andy Stewart, on tour, no doubt, in the twilight of his career. Of course I instantly recognised the stocky, kilted figure, the rather old-fashioned style of the White Heather Club, the songs, many of them, like Scottish Soldier, of a militaristic flavour so suited to Stewart’s charisma, that could be stirring, almost rabblerousing. I recall he made a reference to the Falklands “conflict” – still very raw. He belonged to a cadre of entertainers who would be wheeled out back home in Scotland to celebrate “the bells”, people like the lugubrious John Grieve, and the cadaverous Duncan Macrae and “the wee cock sparra”. The man hit the boey, though he wusnae his farrah. We would watch them at the close of the year and say, “That’s really terrible.” Now looking back, we think of it as a golden age.
Andy Stewart didn’t make a connection with Brisbane. I guess the whole package was completely alien to a casual audience of predominantly youthful Australians. If at that time they had responded to anything Scottish at all, it might have been to Annie Lennox of The Eurhythmics. Sisters are doing it for themselves was current. I recall feeling embarrassed for Andy. The end of an era.
I had a similar fin-de-siècle experience last night watching the BAFTAs. Billy Connolly wasn’t present at London’s Royal Festival Hall to collect his gong, but he appeared in a pre-recorded message from his home in Florida. He has Parkinson’s disease (he previously said that he very much wished Parkinson had kept it to himself) and he has been retired from the stage for two years. He was very pleased and happy to accept the award. He told a little anecdote that wasn’t meant to be particularly funny, but rather to illustrate how the world has changed over half a century. In Shetland he had lost an earring and had gone into a jeweller’s shop to find a replacement. The jeweller couldn’t understand that he was seeking an item for himself, and not for his lady.
I think Sir Billy did well to stay in Florida, to speak from a position of retirement, and to speak naturally, without any sense of performance. Clearly the British Academy of Film and Television has moved on. Their accolade to the Scottish comedian was polite, formal, and brief. What it lacked was a sense of love. For that, you needed to have listened earlier in the day to Sir Michael Parkinson and Dame Judi Dench, on Paddy O’Connell’s radio show Broadcasting House. But of course Michael and Judi are octogenarians. Already, Connolly belongs to a different world. I saw him in his pomp, performing in Auckland, a couple of years after I saw Andy Stewart in Brisbane. He occupied the stage solo for over three hours and the time flew; it felt to me like about twenty hilarious minutes.
As for the BAFTAs themselves, they were almost completely incomprehensible to me. That is not surprising, as I watch hardly any TV, so I didn’t know any of the actors, and I didn’t know any of the shows. And I didn’t care. Normally I’m rather attracted to a bit of glitz and glamour. But this left me completely cold. I suppose I, too, belong to a different world. The future is a foreign country!