Molly Weir – The Barefoot Contessa of the Clyde
Molly Weir’s many volumes of autobiography inspired this sentimental record of Glaswegian poems and monologues.
Down Memory Lane,
Scotia SCO 1976,
I love a good rowdy autobiography, the sort of picaresque tale written by a mad elderly and drunken actor, one keen to settle old scores and relate coarse scurrilous tales of misdeeds and misadventures. I love the stories of wives mislaid, fellow thespians punched, audiences abused, cars crashed, directors bullied and film studios burnt down. A life of drunkenness and debauched excess usually means that the precise details are vague and timelines hazy at best, but it’s still an exhilarating ride. And then there is Molly Weir.
I have great affection for Molly Weir but her strict religious upbringing in the teetotal Order of Rechabites means that while mad tales of dissolution and decadence are thin on the ground, her autobiographies are full of the sort of intricate attention to minute details spread over many decades that only a truly sober person dedicated to a life of temperance could ever hope to record. This sobriety means that Molly Weir can remember the details of every meal she ate, the itinerary of every cycling holiday she took, and still recall the precise colour of a fruit bowl picked up at the 1948 Ideal Home Exhibition (ruby-red in case you were wondering). All of which explains why Molly Weir’s autobiographies run to a massive and lengthy eight volumes.
When she wasn’t organising the shrubs in her garden, visiting the Ideal Home Exhibition with Tommy Handley or judging cheese eating competitions with Compton Mackenzie, Molly Weir did manage to keep herself busy with work over the years. Born in 1904 in Springburn, Glasgow, Molly Weir trained initially as a shorthand typist in a solicitor’s office. Taking part in amateur dramatics during her spare time, Molly won a local talent contest that led to her being picked to appear on the BBC radio show Who’s Here.
Broadcast live from the 1938 Empire Exhibition in Glasgow’s Bellahouston Park, Molly’s ability to perform impressions and sing were impressive enough and went down well, but there are not many people who have found lasting fame by demonstrating their shorthand note taking skills on a live radio show. Such was the trust that the BBC’s audience had in the corporation back then, no one thought to question that a singing Glaswegian typist could take dictation at an impressive 300 words per minute without actually seeing the proof. That momentous taste of fame was enough to make Molly Weir determined to pursue a showbiz career rather than a secretarial one.
Roles in Scottish radio serials followed with wee Molly cornering the market in playing wee Scots lasses such as wee Teenie in Down At The Mains and wee Ivy McTweed in Helen Pryde’s The McFlannels. Emboldened by these successes she would in 1947 graduate to playing wee Tattie Mackintosh, bringing her wee Scots charm to national attention on the biggest radio show of the day, Tommy Handley’s ITMA.
From then until her death in 2004 Molly Weir remained busy, making her mark in each passing decade. From ITMA she moved on to play housekeeper Aggie in Life With The Lyons on radio and TV in the 1950s, followed by her wonderful portrayal of Hazel McWitch in Rentaghost in the 1980s, and of course her lucrative role as a cleanliness obsessed housewife in the Flash adverts that ran throughout the 1970s. Numerous films and TV roles, usually playing wee Scots lasses also helped fill her time.
Apart from an extremely obscure record Aggie Who Feeds The Lyons released during her time on Life With The Lyons, it took Molly Weir until 1976 to make her mark on vinyl. The album, unlike her previous single release, is spoken word only and as the title suggests includes material of an extremely sentimental nature. As the Scottish writer and journalist Cliff Hanley notes on the sleeve, nostalgia in Glasgow is ‘practically a staple industry’. It’s hard to see why anyone would willingly reminisce about 1930s Glasgow and grow misty-eyed and sentimental at the lack of food, money, jobs and basic sanitation, but Molly Weir certainly does, and then some.
Released at the height of her fame as an autobiographical chronicler of Glasgow life, the ballads, poems and monologues chosen reflect very much the time and places that Molly Weir was writing about. As her first volume of autobiography released in 1970 puts it, Shoes Were For Sunday and on this album there are very few children who are not running barefoot through the dirt and poverty of depression-era Scotland. But like Monty Python’s Yorkshiremen they were happy, not despite all the poverty, but because of the poverty.
As well as being unashamedly nostalgic and achingly sentimental, the album is also unashamedly Scottish. As a child born in England of Scottish ancestry, I take a certain pride in being able to understand both The Broons and Oor Wullie without too much trouble, but the thick layers of Glaswegian dialect heaped upon this particular piece of vinyl would defeat all but the most ardent and ancient of Scottish nationalists. Take for instance the opening track The Glasgow I Used To Know by songwriter Adam McNaughtan. I defy anyone under the age of 110 without a Scots dictionary to hand to make any sense or reason out of these lines:
“Oh, where is the wean that once played in the street,
Wi’a jorrie, a peerie, a gird wi’a cleet?
Can he still cadge a hadgie or dreep aff a dike,
Or is writing on walls noo the wan game he likes?
Can he tell Chickie Mellie frae Hunch Cuddy Hunch?”
Indeed… Tales of poverty, rheumatic old ladies, street games, rent collectors, tenements, sweet shops, trams and chippies abound throughout the first side of the album. The heights of mawkish sentimentality are reached on The Balloon, a tale of a burst balloon which Molly performs as a weepy shrill schoolchild in a tone which must surely have inspired the work of The Krankies. The Clyde, from a poem by Claude Currie, comes as a welcome respite from the urban grime of Glasgow, detailing as it does a paddle steamer ride down the Clyde towards Bute, complete with picnic baskets and yet more sentimentality.
The second side of the record takes a less saccharine and less backward-looking turn and comes as something of a relief after all the glorification of squalor present on the first side. Oor Stair tells of Jenny McGee a woman ostracised for her habits who it turns out is being honoured by the Queen, while the track Kate tells of a prophecy fulfilled by a marriage. Bobby & Mike takes a humorous look at those other favourite Glaswegian pastimes, religious bigotry and football violence, and to round things off, there is Ballad Of The Deluge, a Scottish version of the Biblical flood written by the poet WD Cocker.
Molly Weir never made another record but she continued working for nearly thirty years after this LP was released, delighting audiences with her deft and delicate comic performances, her affectionate sentimental autobiographies, and of course with her wonderful tales of poverty and the distinct lack of footwear in Scotland.
Assuming that people don’t need any more poverty or misery in their already miserable lives, here to finish is Molly recounting the tale of the Glaswegian Noah as only she could.