Nights in pubs, nights of music and dark beams, of golden light glinting off glasses and the golden warmth of fermented grape and hops. But it’s not about the alcohol, it’s about the craic and laughter and people sharing. The tiny woman swaddled in her cosy green cardie is worried about singing here in the Scotia Bar in Glasgow - Julie Felix, legendary singing star of the 60s and 70s, thinks people will be too busy talking to listen to her. But for now she moves chairs out of the way and listens as fellow musician Frank O’Hagan adjusts the sound levels for her. She has been doing this for half a century and is painstaking in getting it right.
A Mexican woven rug is spread on the floor, the cardigan is off, her guitar seems as big as she is. Without any warning or introduction she crashes into song - Bob Dylan’s Hard Rain, her guitar loud and insistent as she (with audience accompaniment) reaches the chorus: And it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, and it's a hard, It's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.
In her youth Julie Felix’s voice was throaty, warm honey beside the pure iced water that flowed from the mouth of her contemporary,Joan Baez. Baez may have been the international star, but Julie Felix was the one people loved here - the first folksinger to fill the Albert Hall, the first to have her own television series; indeed Once More with Felix was the first colour series ever made by the BBC and was sold to virtually every country in the world.
Now the voice is darker, the honey turned granular, still warm but smattered with little roughnesses. Singing, though, is about more than the vocal instrument - it’s about emotion, energy, meaning. Julie Felix shares her passion with her audience, makes us feel what the words mean. Sometimes it’s about memory. Tonight she sings songs many of us know from our own youth - John Lennon’s Imagine; Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right; Leonard Cohen’s Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye; Buffy Sainte-Marie’s Universal Soldier. They swirl through the pub like songs from a foreign country, these anti-war songs, songs of people leaving each other and moving on in a time when love seemed free, Lennon’s song of hope for a world to come. ’Weren’t the Sixties the most magical time?’ she asks and we all shout back Yes, yes they were, but we all know that the world they promised never came.
As she introduces one of her own songs, she mentions that she was born in Santa Barbara. ‘We won’t hold that against you,’ says a man in the crowd. ‘Glasgow loves you to bits.’ Julie looks bemused, seeing nothing wrong with her place of origin and clearly unaware that Glaswegians have anointed themselves the chosen people, though later she satisfies Scottish pride by saying how much she loves Nicola Sturgeon. ‘I think she’s Mary,
Pictures by Mary Rafferty Queen of Scots reincarnated,’ she says. (Nicola’s love life appears to be rather less messy than that of the historic queen.) The song is touching, one of the few I have ever heard where a woman talks about her mother and says simply that she is proud to be her daughter.
The theme of female solidarity continues with her version of Just Like a Woman, whichis also unlike any I have heard before. Later she says she has never sung it that way before. Dylan’s song is often condemned as sexist, but she takes the words head on, makes them personal and true. In the final verse she changes the words to first person - I fake just like a woman, a line that causes many of the women in the pub to smile in complicity, then burst out laughing. The last line, But I break just like a little girl, is deeply poignant.She’s a woman in her seventies but she makes you understand that grief has no age limit, there are no limits to loss.
Her long silky hair is as dark and glossy as it ever was, her figure as neat. Her daughter says she’s a tomboy who doesn’t really care about clothes but her black shirt, adorned with a skull and embroidered roses, is quietly flamboyant. The voice, though, is vibrant and powerful and her big personality makes a mockery of her stature. There’s a moment almost of music hall joy when she gets her audience to sing along to one of her own compositions. Ooh, ooh, ooh, we all croon but the song has a serious message - it’s been written for a project called On Wings of Waste, which aims to fly an aeroplane from Australia to the UK on fuel made from recycled plastic. A brilliant idea - I have enough placcy bags in my house to fuel a round the world trip.
Nights in pubs, nights of music.
The songs Julie Felix sings are the songs that say who she is - Dylan, Cohen, Joni Mitchell, the anthems of a generation who wanted to change the world. She still does, is excited about Jeremy Corbyn, wants to see an end to Trident and war, loves Nicola. ‘Maybe we’ll see a change,’ she says. ‘I’ve been marching for 50 years, hoping to see it and now it looks like it could happen.’
More Dylan, the haunting Not Dark Yet and the crowd-pleaser, I Shall Be Released.
She ends her set as abruptly as she started, too tired to go on, too excited to stop. Instead of leaving she sits in the pub, talking to the people who’ve come to see her, one from as far away as Portsmouth. And the music goes on. She listens as people round the table pick up the pub guitar and sing. She sings too, accompanied by a young man with a mouth organ who tells her he’ll pick the tune up. He does, and the combination of the low, dark voice and the ethereal sound of the harmonica has the whole place cheering.
A special night in a special place. A special woman. Even when Julie Felix has slipped away, the music and the talk go on. People look back at all the special nights in the Scotia and remember being brought here by their fathers. I look at the people gathered round the dark oak table and think of a line from another Sixties song, I am he as you are he as you are me And we are all together.
The picture of Billy Connolly on the front of this week's paper says what most of us in Glasgow feel. There's a heaviness about him, as if grief is a physical presence he carries with him. He flew from New York to be here, wearing a jacket with the American eagle on the front, but his presence at the Clutha said that however far he has gone from his native city, it is always there inside him.
His journey was over 3000 miles and took nearly six and a half hours, and at the end of it he laid some flowers on the ground beside a pub he used to go to and walked away. You wondered had he come straight from the airport—he had the weary look of a man who might have done so—and where he had bought the flowers, a mixture of white roses, gerbera and unopened lilies, whose scent, so powerful in an enclosed space, would be lost in the open air beside the river, would be lost amongst the thousands of bunches of flowers already there.
But Billy Connolly's gesture will not be lost.
On the weekend of the Clutha Vaults helicopter crash a London paper ran several articles criticising the way our media refract tragedy through celebrity, but, as usual, they failed to understand Scottish reality. Both the Clutha and its sister pub, the Scotia, define themselves through their customers and history and Billy Connolly was a huge part of that for both of them. You wouldn't talk about either of them without mentioning Connolly and James Kelman and Gerry Rafferty. It would be perverse not to. Connolly is not really regarded as a celebrity in the normal sense at all here. He's not seen as someone elite and apart; he's seen as one of us.
I vividly remember John McGarrigle, who died in the crash, talking about a short story competition in the Scotia Bar. Billy Connolly had heard some of the heats and had asked, 'Did McGarrigle's story win? It should have.' I don't think it did, but Connolly's endorsement was enough for McGarrigle. It was a token of its authenticity and as such, more valuable than any prize or medal could be.
I can't claim to have been a very close friend of John McGarrigle but I had a real soft spot for him. Since it happened, his death is with me all the time. I can't stop thinking about his last moments and hoping he died instantly, that he wasn't gasping for breath as he was entombed in dust. I can't stop thinking about his son, who stood outside all night waiting for news that some instinct already told him was the worst.
When the current manager took over the Scotia Bar eight years ago, she revived the famous writers' group, which had finally petered out under the last owner, the legendary Brendan McLaughlin. John was one of the first wave of writers to come to the re-formed group, reading baroque stories of banshees in tower blocks and classical characters in Castlemilk. Apparently he was known originally as a poet, but it was prose he was focusing on then and the prose that I liked, with its surreal fusion of the gritty and the imaginative. So much so that I've become addicted to the banshee as a literary idea and wrote my own banshee story some time later.
McGarrigle always believed in telling it like it is and I'm going to too. He had sometimes been violent, sometimes caught up in the compelling world of Glasgow's gangsters. No doubt it was something to do with where he lived, something to do with being a man in the west of Scotland, or maybe just a writer—sometimes criminals have the best stories. But underneath he was a gentle person who got angry for the right reasons. He cared for his elderly mother and always asked about mine, when she was alive. Once he spent a whole day with a friend of mine who was researching a book, taking her all over the Cathkin Braes to show her a forgotten well. 'I had the best of him,' she said simply. When I wrote a story about someone he knew, a gangster who lived next door to me, it was enough for me that he said I'd got it right. His endorsement was as much an endorsement for me of the authenticity of the story as Billy Connolly's was for him.
We relate in such profound and unknowable ways to each other as human beings. I will miss John though I didn't see him often. What drew Billy Connolly to travel all those miles for all those hours, bringing him to a pub he probably hadn't been in for years? He hasn't been in the Scotia for years either, the other pub his name is inextricably linked with in this city. Neither pub can ever be to him what it was before—the people are different, he is different—but in coming, he reminded us of how strong the small ties are between us, the invisible bonds that bind us together as a species.
People have been making big claims about how the behaviour of people after the crash said something about the nature of Glaswegians, the nature of Scots. People were trying to return to the pub to help those trapped inside, they were forming a human chain, they were tending as best they could to the wounded before the emergency services got there. Afterwards, a few young lads acted the goat for the television cameras as Labour MP Jim Murphy was talking with quiet dignity about his experiences of the crash, but for the most part people were selfless and self-effacing that night. As ever, the professionals behaved with dogged courage, but it was the ordinary people who didn't have to do any of it who behaved with something more, with grace. Is it really just Glaswegians or Scots who do such things? I preferred the man who said the people behaved with humanity.
Yet there is no doubt all of us in Glasgow are connected in mourning. Even for those of us who never went to the Clutha, there's something very poignant about this tragedy, that people were out having fun, enjoying themselves, when disaster struck. Strange how little we think of the joy in that everyday word, enjoy. Could there be any more joyous sound than that of a ska band? But joy was taken away that night.
That night I saw the police helicopter hovering in the sky, as it often did—it always seemed to be in the East End though I'm sure people commit crimes in other parts of the city too. I suppose it made a noise, though from my house it was silent, simply a cluster of lights winking in the darkness above the orange glow of the city. I lost track of it after a while, didn't see it tumbling eerily to the ground, didn't hear any loud bang. There was no harbinger of death that night, no banshee predicting the horror that was to come. But if McGarrigle was here, I think he might have written one in.
SHOWDOWN AT THE SCOTIA
It's a notoriously hard nut to crack, the short story. How do you corral life into a couple of thousand words, ensuring that you have a recognisable structure and real characters? Somehow it's easier with shorter forms like flash fiction, where everything's compressed, or longer forms like the novel, which gives you room to breathe.
So as I took my place with my fellow judges at the final of the Scotia short story competition last night, I knew they might not have high expectations of the standard of stories we were to hear. Drew Campbell, president of Scottish PEN, is a novelist (Dead Letter House) and writer with extensive experience of analysing other people's work through his various stints as writer in residence and now, reader in residence for East Renfrewshire libraries. Dave Manderson is a novelist (Lost Bodies) and short story writer who teaches creative writing at the University of the West of Scotland. 'The marking,' he sighed, 'takes forever.' Between them they've read hundreds of thousands of words by hopeful writers.
But I could see their faces relaxing as the first reader began. Ray Evans, the Scotia's current poet laureate, launched into a misanthropic, subtly written tale of a megalomaniac artist who may be about to change the political climate forever.
'Well, that's set the benchmark really high,' Dave said.
The Scotia, of course, is one of the iconic literary pubs. James Kelman and Billy Connolly set up a writers' group which ran short story competitions and even published a couple of collections. The tradition was carried on by Brendan McLaughlin, but had dwindled away when Mary Rafferty took over as manager. She has restored the group, which meets on the second Monday of the month, and it now features some of the finest new writing in Scotland. Recently Kelman himself was in with some friends when the group was on. He dispatched a pal to see what it was like.
'Same sort of shite as when you were running it,' reported his mate.
We took that as a compliment.
Even as exacting a writer as Scotland's lone Booker winner would not have been disappointed last night. We heard stories of children whose lives were buffeted around by adults, a foray into the darker side of the property market, and a delicious confection on competitive duck feeding by Linda McLaughlin, whose writing is always beautifully crafted and pitch perfect.
'Charming,' pronounced Drew.
There were, though, three outstanding stories. Paddy Hughes is a newcomer to the Scotia, a young Liverpudlian whose work crackles with energy and invention. His story, Steady Hands, encapsulated the life of a hitman into the moments before he pulls the trigger. John Savage's Meeting Danny Boy was a darkly humorous story of Christmas Eve in the high rise home of two alcoholics. John is a previous Scotia poet laureate so it was no surprise that his first attempt at the short story was so powerful. The evening's finale was One Hot Day by another Scotia stalwart, Mo Blake of the Read Raw collective. A vivacious young woman, a stuffed-shirt young man who wants to become a priest, a walk in the country, in her hands became high-spirited, subversive comedy with a serious edge.
From left, John Savage, Mo Blake and
We had our prizewinners and it was only left to decide the order. The structural sophistication of Paddy Hughes's story, which took a complicated back story and wove it together with the drama of watching a hitman about to commit a murder,
was technically superb and we were unanimous in selecting it as the winner, unusual in my experience of judging competitions, when people's personal tastes often clash. How, though, do you separate two brilliant stories, John's hugely powerful with a playful edge, Mo's hugely playful with a powerful edge? In the end we decided to award two equal second prizes, which sent Mary, the manager, scurrying off to get new envelopes and divvy up the cash equally.
Paddy's story featured a murderous father, who had stabbed his mother and was now dead. But Paddy's dad was very much live and proud! 'And Mum's fine too,' he said.
Pictures by Mary Rafferty
Interestingly, Paddy had tightened up his work since the heats, when he'd gone over his time limit and been halted by the rattling spoons of Ray Evans, our timekeeper. The previous ending had lessened the impact of the story and we discussed how useful it is to read your work aloud and to sense fluctuations in the energy of those in the room.
'Sometimes it's when you sense that, that you realise what your story's really about,' commented Drew.
Modern writers have to be prepared to read their work aloud, something which is excruciatingly difficult the first time you do it. The Scotia competitions and the open mic policy at its monthly meetings offer writers the chance to practise this necessary skill in a safe environment, where people understand how terrifying an experience it can be to expose yourself in that way. So come along, all you writers aspiring to be Scotland's second Booker winner or simply to get published. Find out if you're hard enough.