Archive for the ‘poetry’ Tag

Molly Weir – The Barefoot Contessa of the Clyde

Molly Weir’s many volumes of autobiography inspired this sentimental record of Glaswegian poems and monologues.

molly-weir

Molly Weir,
Down Memory Lane,
Scotia SCO 1976,
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.

Pam Ayres – Poetess laureate

Pam Ayres won the TV talent show Opportunity Knocks with her witty poems and has remained a wry commentator on life ever since.

Pam Ayres - Some of Me Poems and Songs

Pam Ayres – Some of Me Poems and Songs

Pam Ayres,
Some of Me Poems and Songs,
Galaxy GAL6003,
1976

——————————

Despite what Simon Cowell would like the world to think, he did not invent the concept of the talent show or pioneer the format on television. That accolade, at least in the UK, belongs to the strangely manic and often demented TV presenter Hughie Green, a man every bit as self-centred and as arrogant as Cowell but without the plastic surgery and ridiculous trousers. His show Opportunity Knocks ran for around thirty years on TV and radio with Green at the helm, and later in a revived format with Bob Monkhouse and Les Dawson presenting.

What the likes of Cowell and Green ideally want from their talent show format (other than perhaps a chance to overthrow the government and enslave us all) is a reasonably talented singer with a non-offensive voice who can storm into the top ten with a hastily released single, and perhaps trouble the album charts with a LP cobbled together in time for Christmas. That the second album disappears without trace selling a dozen or so copies is of no concern to the talent show moguls. They will have made their money and moved on to the next impressionable ingénue, rubbing their hands in eager anticipation. Opportunity Knocks had Millican and Nesbitt, The X Factor had Steve Brookstein and Britain’s Got Talent had Paul Potts. Where once these artistes filled stadiums and appeared on television, most can now be seen singing in provincial shopping centres for loose change or tins of food. They collectively stand as much chance of scoring a future chart hit as they do of walking on the surface of the moon and should act as a grim warning to anyone who considers a television talent show to be a route to superstardom. Yet still the TV shows continue to suck in new hopefuls and spit them out once the cheques have been banked.

What the likes of Cowell and Green ideally don’t want from their talent show format (other than perhaps a half-decent lawyer pointing out that the format they make millions from wasn’t actually their invention) is a winning act that doesn’t immediately present an opportunity to release a best-selling album. To their enduring chagrin, the involvement of the general public in voting systems means that the most marketable acts are not necessarily those that win. Britain’s Got Talent seems to thwart Cowell on an annual basis with its series-winning dance acts and performing dogs. Opportunity Knocks was much the same.

Pam Ayres was one such unlikely winner back in 1975, with her recitations of self-penned humorous poems. Initially, Pam failed to win Opportunity Knocks, after the man working the clapometer’s needle decided that the pop group Pendulum were the better prospect. The show though allowed viewers to vote through the post for their favourites and with no thought for Hughie’s cut of future album sales, it was Pam they voted for in their droves. What must have poor Hughie Green have thought about a young Berkshire poet with an accent thicker than the contents of a curdled milk churn winning his show?

Pam Ayres tied for first place on her second appearance on the show and then on her third appearance placed second. And that should have probably been the end of that, were it not for the sheer dogged determination and drive of Pam Ayres. Born in the Vale of White Horse in 1947, an area struggling with rural poverty in post-war Britain, Pam Ayres had certainly waited long enough for her chance of stardom and was not going to give up her showbiz career without a struggle.

Through years of menial clerical jobs, Pam was always determined to make something of her life. Little was expected of her as a young woman and very little was demanded. A four-year spell in the Women’s Royal Air Force working in Singapore and Germany only served to further whet her appetite for adventure and excitement.  Through the burgeoning folk scene of the early 70s she finally found her voice and her love of performing was born.

Though initially a singer and guitarist, Pam’s jokes and poems soon became an ever more important component part of her act, before taking over completely. Scribbled in her rented flat on an ironing board, the poems were immediate hits in the clubs. A homemade book was compiled and printed and sold at Pam’s gigs.  Sales of the book proved to be more financially rewarding than the money she was actually being paid for her gigs, and provided her with enough confidence to make her first tentative entry on Opportunity Knocks.

The self-deprecatingly titled Some of Me Poems and Songs is a record of Pam’s act at that pivotal moment in her life. There are still some of her folk club songs included on the album. Don’t Sell Our Edgar No More Violins for instance is a gloriously dark Pam Ayres written comic song about the trials of a family enduring the musical scrapings of a young musical prodigy. Pam manages to falteringly pluck her ukulele through the Father Dear Father Come Home With Me Now and also sings on the bizarre whimsical tale of the lascivious cyclist Minnie Dyer, a song written by Myles Rudge and Ted Dicks for Kenneth Williams’ 1967 album On Pleasure Bent.

What of course stands out on the record is Pam’s poetical musings. Though a capable if hesitant singer Pam was, by her own admission, not willing to stay on the folk club scene as just ‘one more floor singer with an average voice’. The poems are where she excels and are after all, what cemented her enduring reputation. The album was recorded live and the first track The Battery Hen reveals Pam’s nervous state as she fumbles her way through an introduction to the hearty approval of the audience. Once in her stride she never looks back and the guffawing of the crowd is constant throughout.

Included on the record are her two Opportunity Knocks audition pieces Oh I Wish I’d Looked After Me Teeth and Pam Ayres And The Embarrassing Experience With The Parrot. These are now staples of her repertoire and over the years many an impressionist has grumbled about dentists and fillings in a very rough approximation of a Berkshire accent.

The album Some of Me Poems and Songs made quite an impact on the album charts on its release, climbing as high as number 13 and staying on the charts for around 26 weeks. The accompanying book, with the same title, collected together much of Pam’s work and remained on The Sunday Times bestseller list for an astonishing 46 weeks. Initially released on the small Galaxy Records label, the album was subsequently reissued by EMI and many other vinyl recordings followed for that most revered of imprints.

In the early days of her career, Pam’s accent was strange and hard for people to place. Accents of any description were not heard on television that much, certainly not those as rustic as Pam’s. Much like Tommy Cooper’s outlandish appearance, her voice was enough to make people start laughing and warming to her act before she had even started one of her recitations. That initial reaction though is disarming and belies how very clever Pam Ayres’ act actually is. Pam chooses the words in her poems precisely, each turn of phrase is apt and so very carefully considered. Don’t ever let the quaint rural tones of her warm country voice fool you though. That she has managed to pursue a forty year career as a poet is testament to her drive and determination. While many other performers and acts from the early 70s have drifted away from the public eye Pam remains as popular as ever, noting the wry peculiarities and quirks of everyday life with a rare and incisive wit.

To play us out, here is Pam Ayres demonstrating her now seldom heard singing voice on a plea to irresponsible music shops everywhere, Don’t Sell Our Edgar No More Violins:

Explore more poetical musings at Pam’s official website

%d bloggers like this: