The SRB Interview: John Byrne
Scottish Review of Books, by Nick Major
James Baldwin said that ‘painters have often taught writers how to see’. One could argue that every time John Byrne sits down to paint a picture his writerly imagination is being nurtured. His plays have a vibrancy, wildness and precise detail evident in his earliest primitive paintings.
Byrne excels at portraiture, the form which can distil the essence of a person in a version of their own image. He has painted himself time and again over the years, showing that his inner and outer life contain multitudes. His recent paintings, such as those in his 2012 exhibition The Joyful Mysteries, throw the viewer into the middle of things. ‘Juke Box Jive’ shows two late night lovers mid-sway; ‘Who Me, Never’ depicts two teddy boys arguing outside a cinema in Glasgow. There is a chiaroscuro quality to these works and a sense that we are glimpsing some wider story of Scotland’s imagined and forgotten corners.
It is, of course, humanity’s lot to be thrown into life. Byrne did not waste time soaking up the action. He was born in Paisley, Renfrewshire, in 1940 and his first job was working as a slab boy for A.F. Stoddard & Co., a carpet manufacturer in nearby Elderslie. As shown in his 1978 play The Slab Boys, the job was an apprenticeship in colour; he learnt how to mix powder paint for designers. Byrne went on to study at Glasgow School of Art. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s he honed his artistic versatility. In his life he has drawn, designed and painted book jackets and album covers, and created stage sets for, among others, The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil. In 2013 he was commissioned to decorate the dome of the King’s Theatre in Edinburgh, taking his inspiration from Shakespeare’s ‘All the world’s a stage…’
Between 1975 and 1991 there were no public exhibitions of Byrne’s paintings. From these years, however, emerged a writer with a broad palette. His famous first play, Writer’s Cramp, and The Slab Boys trilogy explore the dark and light of the world. Byrne’s writing shows that comedy and tragedy are inextricable. The opening funereal scene of Tutti Frutti, his television series about Scottish rock and roll band The Majestics, for example, is both sombre and darkly funny. Music has been a life-long love for Byrne, and Country and Western music is central to his successful 1990 television serial Your Cheatin’ Heart.
John Byrne lives near the village of Colinton, on the outskirts of Edinburgh. He has transformed the front room of his house into a studio. In early May, Nick Major sat down with him in this chaotic bohemian place. The walls were covered in framed paintings and photographs, and a guitar with no strings was mounted next to a drawing of Robbie Coltrane in Tutti Frutti. On Byrne’s desk were pots of brushes, pens, scraps of paper and a small Olympia typewriter, and on the wooden scuffed floor were piles of books, a large grey postbag full to the brim, a few old chairs, and box of wood and coal for his fire.
Byrne sat in front of his easel, which held a painting called ‘The Blind Date’. He was dressed in jeans and a green buttoned jacket. His most famous physical feature is his trimmed broom-handle moustache that juts out above his upper lip and beard. But it is his hands that draw the eye. Byrne is used to keeping them busy. His fingers were blackened at the tips. Throughout the conversation he was never without a roll-up between his fingers, which he lit and relit with a silver Zippo lighter. He talked with a slow, considered voice, only stopping occasionally to flick the ashes and burnt paper off his cigarette toward a fire burning in the grate.
SRB: Where did you live in Paisley?
JB: We lived on Mill Street. There was a Clark and Coats mill at the end of the street. They were the biggest employer in Renfrewshire. Kenneth Clark, who devised and fronted that great television series Civilisation, was part of that family. They owned the entire state of Georgia. The cotton fields provided the raw material for making thread, a huge earner, both in the UK and around the world. The gang masters were nearly all recruited in Paisley, hence the propensity of Scottish surnames among the black slaves.
Did your father work in the mills?
No, he was originally from Govan and he worked in the shipyards as a ‘hauder-oan’ – the guy with the heavy hammer who rounded off the red hot rivets.
Paisley’s now considered quite a deprived area. What was your childhood like?
I didn’t notice that when I was growing up. We moved to Ferguslie Park when I was about 9 or 10. When I was 14 years old I was on the bus and I had a sudden flash of understanding that all the material I would ever need for the rest of my life was to be found in Ferguslie Park. I thought I was the luckiest guy in the world. I soaked everything up unconsciously – the whole atmosphere. Paisley’s very different from Glasgow. People tend to lump them together but it is very singular and I celebrated that. Ferguslie Park was on television in the mid-1960s. It was described as ‘the worst slum in Europe’. I thought it was a wonderful place.
Were you drawing then?
My mother swears I was drawing in the pram. That might be a slight exaggeration, but I cannae remember when I first started to draw.
Did you get much encouragement when you were young?
I got every encouragement. When I was eight I was taken to the art shop under the railway arches in the Back Snedden in Paisley. It was run by a Mr Brown, who always wore a three-piece suit and a bunnet. He must have asked my mother to show him some of my drawings. She had ordered some brushes and was about to pay for them when Mr Brown had a squint at my drawings – he promptly took the brushes back and chucked them in a drawer, then went through to the back shop and reappeared with a set of Sable watercolour brushes, the best that money could buy. He said to my mother, ‘there you go, madam…same price as that other lot…’ He leant over the counter and peered at me over his specs, ‘you can’t keep a good man down, Mrs Byrne’. I was all of eight years old but I never looked back from that day to this. They were a badge of honour…the tools of my trade.
Do you still have those brushes?
No, but I still use Sable watercolour brushes. I’ve got hundreds of brushes, bags full of them.
Did you write when you were young?
My first published piece was in the school magazine when I was 12 or 13. It was a parody of RL Stevenson. It was about a cat being run over by a bus. There was a little illustration of a tearful child next to the little coffin with the squashed cat in it. There is a great museum and art gallery in Paisley, and I used to be taken there by my mother and father. My father used to tell me and my brother stories. There is a stuffed lion in the museum and my father used to point out the gun he’d used to kill it in South America. A lion in South America? Anyway, we used to be spellbound by this. Then one time he pointed out the wrong gun…. There was also a great library in the town where I used to get books.
Is that where you first read Stevenson?
I read Travels with a Donkey at school. It’s wonderful. Modestine is the donkey’s name. Stevenson used to stop by a wood or a burn at the end of each day, light a fire, and settle down with a mug of hot chocolate and a fag, under the stars. That was heaven to me. As a boy he lived in Colinton and fished in the river. There is a small statue down there now. He has two books, one a reading book and another one, tucked in his back pocket, for taking notes. We used to have to read Walter Scott at school. I thought it was unbelievably turgid and long-winded. So Stevenson was a breath of fresh air – a modern novelist.
What do you read now?
I don’t read novels anymore. The last novel I read was Brideshead Revisited in 1957. I don’t want any other person’s voice, or thoughts, or outlook on life in my head. I am a great reader of non-fiction, diaries and biographies. I love The Smoking Diaries by Simon Gray, and all kinds of theatrical diaries, from Kenneth Tynan, through Peter Hall to Alan Bennett. I am rereading James Lees-Milne’s diaries at the moment. He worked for the National Trust at its beginnings in the 1930s and 40s. He was invalided out of the army during the war. I discovered a book of his in Nairn Library. I just took this book off the shelf, started reading and couldnae stop. So I’ve got all his diaries. I’ve reread them a dozen times.
Nabokov said, ‘one can’t read a book, one can only reread it’.
That’s very true. And Moss Hart, the great Broadway dramatist, said, ‘there’s no such thing as writing, there’s only re-writing’. It’s something nobody knows now. They just use a computer, cut and paste [the changes], and that’s a play. And you can tell. I work on a manual typewriter. I type as fast as I can think. When you want to change something on the page, you put in a fresh sheet of paper, and consequently you tighten everything up. I wrote Your Cheatin’ Heart in Newport-on-Tay in a large coal bunker. It had a window that I blocked out, and I ran a naked bulb from the adjacent garage. I never knew what time of day it was. I would just close the door and climb in to my chair. I stuck the pages I’d rewritten into a black bin bag under my desk. When I finished the six episodes I tidied up the place. I took the bin bag out to the garage where there happened to be some bathroom scales. I put the bag on and it weighed twelve and a half stone.
To go back to your earlier life: when did you attend the Glasgow School of Art (GSA)?
1958. The first two years were a general course and you had to do book-binding, weaving, design, architecture, and a month of composition. I didn’t bother doing any of it so I was kept back and had to repeat my first year. I then did a year in Edinburgh, and my final year in Glasgow. I couldn’t wait to do life drawing, which you only got to do in the third year, so I went to night school to do that.
Billy Connolly by John Byrne: ‘I work seven days a week, morning until night.’
What was the school like back then?
You got a good proper grounding in the basic drawing skills, and drawing the human and cast figure. Now they have no-one on the staff who can draw.
Because you can be rich and famous by getting other people to make your stuff for you. That’s all it’s about. You sit in your little cubicle with a computer and you wait until you have an idea, then you get somebody to do it for you. They call it conceptual art. It creates people like Jeff Koons, who’s never touched anything in his life and cannot draw. All the most prominent artists get other people to do their work for them. There is an animator called Fraser MacLean, who’s from the Borders, and he’s worked for Sony, Warner Brothers and Pixar in California. He now runs an animation workshop and goes all around the world putting on this course. He went to GSA and tried to find some people who would do the course. He couldn’t find anybody who could draw. He was told they don’t teach drawing at GSA. And when John Lasseter – who did The Incredibles – became the head of Pixar he called in all the CEOs to this hangar, pulled out a pencil and said, ‘anyone who doesn’t have one of these in their pockets can leave now’. Three quarters of them walked out. If you want to be an animator you have to be able to draw, and it all starts with a pencil and a piece of paper.
What did you do after GSA?
I worked for STV as a graphic artist. Then I went back to the carpet factory, but into the design department, and worked with a guy called Bill Murray, who was the chief designer. I knew ultimately I had to get out of there. It was the days of the new colour magazines in the newspapers, and there was a feature in the Observer called ‘The Innocent Eye’. It was about primitive painters and galleries like the Portal Gallery and the Crane Kalman that showed those kind of paintings. I thought it looked like a wheeze so I painted a small little primitive portrait of a little naïve man wearing a panama hat and holding a bunch of flowers, and I signed it Patrick. I sent it off to The Portal Gallery with a letter telling them that it was the work of my father. They wanted some more of my father’s work and said they could give him a show. My then wife said, ‘you’ve got to confess to this. It seems like a hoax’. So reluctantly I did, but they didn’t mind. I carried on for a number of years doing that.
And Le Douanier Rousseau was an influence during this time?
Yeah, I love him. He is extraordinary. He creates these brilliant heartfelt images. Picasso loved him as well. He was a great modern painter – my favourite. He inspired me to paint my ‘Self-Portrait in a Flowered Jacket’.
I thought that was a portrait of Frank Zappa.
I look exactly like Frank Zappa. It’s a sheer accident. In 1978 we were in Los Angeles and I was walking along Sunset Boulevard with the children when I saw this big black guy coming towards me. It turned out to be B.B. King. He said, ‘Hey man, I haven’t seen you in years!’ He had a wonderful warm handshake. I said, ‘I’m sorry, you’ve made a mistake.’ He wasn’t really listening, and he just kept on talking about some session we’d done in Mussel Shoals, Alabama. Then I took the children to a drugstore and Al Kooper was sitting at the bar. He said ‘Hey man!’ I said, ‘Don’t you start.’ I saw a black and white photograph of Zappa before he grew all the hair and he was still the spitting image of me – a jutting jaw and bad teeth.
Quite a lot of your work draws on early 1950s rock and roll.
Well I grew up [listening to] Bill Haley and The Comets. He was a country singer, which is very close to rock and roll. The people in my paintings are Teddy Boys because I was a Teddy Boy in ’55 and ’56. I had a double-breasted waistcoat to measure, a D.A [duck’s arse], and crepe-soled shoes.
Thinking of the early period of your career, did you ever doubt that you could one day make a living from your painting?
I always wanted to make a living from painting and I was always told it was impossible, but I didnae believe that. I was fairly quick off the mark. My first show was in a gallery in Blythswood Square in 1962, then I had a show at Aitken Dott in Castle Street, Edinburgh in 1965. In 1969 I did a Penguin cover of John Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes for Alan Aldridge, who was the art director of Penguin Books. That was my first book jacket. I went on to do the frontispiece for The Beatle’s Illustrated Lyrics. John Lennon is holding Yoko Ono in an small bubble.
So the trick to survival is to paint anything?
You just welcome anything at all. I did a Patrick picture for a car magazine once. The art director was a fan of mine. Those were the days when if someone asked you to do something you just said ‘yes’ rather than ‘I’ll think about it’. It’s a long haul but you just have to stick it out.
You did album covers for Gerry Rafferty. How did you two meet?
When I was a slab boy I worked beside Gerry Rafferty’s older brother, Jim. I’d bought a three-stringed banjo for ten bob off somebody in the design room and I hung it behind the slab room door and covered it with a dustcoat. We would play it occasionally, but one day Jim said, ‘can I take that home? My wee brother wants to learn to play’. So that was the first stringed instrument Gerry had, and we became close friends after that. I knew him all his life and I still listen to everything he made. It was a great loss when he died.
When you sit down to draw or paint do you have an image in mind?
You just start with a line or a colour?
Yeah. I didn’t do that originally. When I was young I used to ask my mother what I should paint, and later I had to think, ‘what shall I paint?’ Now I just sit down and do it and something always appears.
Do you have a routine?
I work seven days a week, morning until night. There’s no other way to do it. I have a show coming up in September in Bond Street, London, for the Fine Art Society and I have a schedule written up here [points to a small piece of cardboard next to his easel]. A deadline is a great encouragement.
Do you ever finish a painting in one sitting?
I have done. I’ve done some in two days, and others in two weeks. I just know when I’ve finished because I cannae do any more.
I was looking for some landscapes in your work. The only one I found was called ‘At the Far End of the Western World’.
That was a challenge to me. Patrick Bourne, who used to run the Bourne Gallery in Dundas Street, asked me if I had ever painted a landscape. I said, ‘not really’. So then I painted that in 2012. It’s my first proper landscape.
It’s pretty good for a first attempt.
It’s no’ bad.
My copy of The Slab Boys has a few sketches of the characters in it. Do your paintings ever become plays, or vice versa?
Absolutely, they cross-fertilize. When I’m writing I have to draw the characters beforehand or as I’m going along. Painting and writing are very akin to one another. I have to see the characters when I’m writing them. When I got the chance to do Tutti Frutti I drew the characters and thought about who would play them. Then I drew a whole map of Scotland and [decided] to send the band out on their silver jubilee tour to all the places I’d never been to in Scotland.
Yeah [laughs]. I’ve since been to a few of the places.
How did Tutti Frutti come about?
I worked down in Leicester as the Associate Director of the Haymarket Theatre. When I got back to Scotland I was totally skint. The next day I got a call from Norman McCandlish at the BBC in Glasgow. He said Bill Bryden was running the drama department. Bill and I had crossed paths when I worked at STV in the early sixties. Norman said, ‘can you meet up with Bill sometime this week?’ I had lunch with him and he just gave me the title and I went away and started it. I sat at home and wrote the whole series. We got Tony Smith to direct it because I’d seen a series on BBC2 called Inside Out and I liked the way he’d shot it. I never saw the shoot because I was stuck at home doing an illustrated book of the show. I was going to write another series but the BBC in Glasgow dropped it. Apart from Pat Chalmers, who was the head of BBC Scotland at that time, everyone hated it.
I surmised it was because it had intelligent scruff [in it], and scruff are not supposed to be intelligent. It was a mini-snobbism.
You wrote for the theatre before you wrote for television. When was Writer’s Cramp first performed?
It was in 1977 at the Festival Fringe. I knew Billy Paterson, Alex Norton and John Bett, whose putative brother-in-law Steve Clarke Hall had just bought the Calton Studios in Edinburgh. The first performance was to be on the Tuesday but the fire department came on a Monday and said we couldn’t play because there were no exits. So the first performance was for the press and it was 50p to get in. It led off the reviews the following day, and there was a rave review from Duncan Campbell, and every small theatre in London phoned me up. By then I’d got Margaret Ramsay as my agent – she was the doyenne of agents.
How did you find her?
In 1975 I was in pole position to open The Third Eye Centre in Glasgow and Tom McGrath asked me who I’d like to invite. I wanted to invite John Betjeman, and I thought of putting on [a production of] David’s Hare’s Teeth and Smiles. I had to ring Peggy up to ask permission. She would answer the phone herself. I said, ‘Hello Ms Ramsay, my name is John Byrne and I’m interested in putting on a production of David Hare’s – ’ She said, ‘Go to the West End darling,’ and hung up. In 1977 I phoned her back to tell her about Writer’s Cramp. She said: ‘Send it to me. In two weeks I’m going on holiday. I expect you to have written another play by the time I get back.’ Then she put the phone down. I’d written The Slab Boys by the time she was back so I rang her up again and said, ‘Hello Ms Ramsay, I’ve written a play and, unlike Writer’s Cramp, it’s got a beginning, a middle and an end.’ She said, ‘How fucking bourgeois darling. Send it to me.’ And put the phone down. It was the success of Writer’s Cramp that pushed The Slab Boys to the front of the queue at the Traverse Theatre in May 1978.
Do you prefer writing for the stage or television?
The stage every time.
Because you get more artistic control?
To a certain degree. I always make sure the casting and the stage are right. I can be a pain in the arse to everybody but I have to get it right.
In recent years you’ve put on modern productions of plays by Chekhov – Uncle Vanya, for example. Who for you are the other great playwrights?
Shakespeare, first and foremost. I like Simon Gray, The Common Pursuit in particular. The best play I’ve seen in forty years is Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem.
Also, thinking of recent work, you had a recent retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery called Sitting Ducks. Why do you paint so many portraits and self-portraits?
I’m curious about the world and what I’m doing in the world and I think I might get a few clues from painting myself.
It helps you work out who you are?
Yeah, I’m trying to solve the puzzle of what we’re doing in the world, how we came into the world, and where we go after we leave the world, along with the complexity of human nature. If I could explain it in words I would do. Whenever you produce any art it is some kind of self-portrait, to a greater or lesser degree. Giorgio Morandi only painted bottles, but every one of them is a self-portrait.
Do you find a great freedom in painting yourself?
I can adopt different guises, or facets of myself – sometimes comical, sometimes not so – all of which are led on by the ridiculous wonder of life. Life is a kind of detective story, and I feel like Inspector Clouseau in a detective story I don’t understand.