A Chapter                                                                                                                                          Posted 22nd May 2013

            The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. (L.P. Hartley)

            We probably do well to be suspicious of those who seem to have detailed recall of their own lives.  They are translating the past into the perspective of the present and a great deal is being lost in the translation.  They are surely as much engaged in invention as discovery.  What we tend to think of as our past is really just a patchwork quilt of haphazard and fragmentary memories arbitrarily stitched together to make an apparent whole, a comfort blanket to keep out the chill of irretrievably vanished time.  (For some, of course, it can be a hair-shirt.)  The past most honestly comes back to us as wilful echoes, ghost voices speaking to us without substance.  It surprises us with odd, remembered facts about ourselves and where we come from.
            So Sean Connery sitting in the coffee-shop of Edinburgh Zoo on a Sunday afternoon in the late 1970's, finds himself suddenly talking about his Irish great-grandfather.  He was, among other things, a formidable bare-knuckle fighter. The memory of him surfaces and goes, leaving Connery laughing and shaking his head at the strange past he had before he was born.
            He leaves it at that.  He usually does.  He doesn't seem keen to make any sustained attempt to give a detailed account of how his background and the youth he had there connect with where he is now, neither for himself nor for any others who might be interested.  Those elements are integral to him already and he appears to have no impulse to unpick the complex weave that is his life.  The roughness of his past and the smoothness of his present are both inevitably a part of him.  They're who he is, that's all.  Not even the contrast between an ancestor fighting bare-knuckle in a field and the reason why he is sitting in this coffee-shop in Edinburgh seems to occur to him as being particularly strange.
            He is discussing the possibility of putting together the means of making a film about a Glasgow detective called Laidlaw.  The idea is that he will direct and play the detective and I, as author of the original novel, will write the script.  He wants any other film offer for the book to be put on hold until he sees if he can raise American money for the project.
            When asked why he has chosen such an odd venue as the Zoo for the meeting, he says simply, 'I don't want to be bothered.'  The point of the remark is made clear even in an almost empty coffee-shop on a quiet afternoon.  As he talks, a waitress is approaching by curious indirections.  She takes a few steps, pauses, gazes assessingly, head to the side.  She repeats the process.  She looks like somebody in an old silent movie - say Buster Keaton, making his way quizzically towards another potential disaster.  As she finally reaches the table, Connery is in mid-sentence.
            'Excuse me,' she says, nodding conspiratorially and smiling the smile of those who are in the know.  'But are you who I think you are?'
            He looks up at her pleasantly.
            'No,' he says straight-faced.
            'Oh, sorry!  I beg your pardon,' and she withdraws.
            He raises his eyebrows mischievously and flashes a demonic grin and goes on talking.  In one way, you could probably say he was right, if you want to get all metaphysical about it.  Stars seldom are who we think they are.  They are quite often not even who they think they are.  And this is one star who definitely isn't going to go out of his way to tell us who he thinks he is.
            Yet even by his minimalist approach to self-revelation he is telling us something about himself.  This is a man who owns the space around him.  You may be invited in but don't encroach too far.  It's as if he has psychological trip-wires secreted about him.  Set one off and you've blown it.
            Another time, in the early 1980's, he is sitting with a group in the bar at Glasgow Airport.  It's after a Scottish international football match at Hampden.  The group have been in the car that gave him a lift to the airport and they don't seem desperate to leave his company.  He has bought a round of drinks as a thank you and has sat down to start on his own drink, as a small crowd threatens to gather round the table.  Pens and pieces of paper are beginning to appear.  A woman is asking for his autograph.  He signs politely and a signing session has been established.  He sustains his pleasantness remarkably well until a man is standing over him with a beer-mat.
            'Ah haveny got a pen, big yin.  Have you got wan?'
            He looks up at the man, his familiar hatred of incompetence in all its many forms taking slow shape like a small cloud on his face when somebody in the group produces a pen.  He signs that one and a few more.  He must have done ten or so when a big heavy man is standing beside him.
            'Here we go, Sean,' the man says.
            'Naw,' Connery says.  The newly categorical accent in the voice changes the temperature of the situation slightly, as if someone has just turned down the heating.  For a moment you aren't looking at Sean Connery.  You are looking at just another pissed-off Scotsman in a bar, dealing with a nuisance.  'That's it.'  He points to his pint.  'I'm here to have a drink.'
            Retiral of stout party, with several others muttering in his wake.  The chat becomes general.  It seems Connery was sitting in Tramp in London in the early hours of the morning when Rod Stewart walked in, hailed him and said he was going up to Glasgow on a private plane and had tickets for the game.
            'And here I am,' Connery says, laughing at the unexpectedness of it all.
            'Small world,' one of the group says.  'I was sitting at two o'clock this morning at a party in Muirhead' - which is in Troon in Ayrshire.  'It was fulla tramps as well.'
            Connery looks at the speaker, gives a measured smile and nods, presumably recognising the Scottish style of greeting the returning native: Welcome back, but don't try to impress us with where you've been.
            As if he would have to try.  Who needs to drop names when the dropping of his own would make at least as much noise in Scotland (as well as many other places) as just about any you can think of?  Rather than being a reminder of how important he is, his story of how he came to be sitting there is probably more expressive of a natural acceptance of how surprisingly things can work out.
            It's an acceptance which seems to extend to his entire life.  Observed from the outside, it is an amazing story, in some ways as improbable as some of the films he has been in.  But then he has lived it from the inside, scene by scene, disappointment by disappointment, success by success.  When the bizarre becomes part of your daily life, it doesn't look so bizarre any more.  The wonder of it is something for others to engage in.  The improbability of his career, its weird progress from casual labourer to jobbing actor to superstar, creates more awe in observers than it does in him.  He was there at the time.
            He's not into self-revelation.  All you can do is try to deduce him from his life.  Like the woman in the coffee-shop of Edinburgh Zoo, you can only approach by indirections and hope that you get closer to him than she did.

(To read the next post in this series click here.)


  e-mail: william.mcilvanney@personaldispatches.com