A Chapter                                                                                                                                          Posted 29th May 2013

It didny come fae the wind.  (Character traits don't come from nowhere.)

The man who would be Sean, born on the 25th August 1930, came in with the Depression.  He wasn't Sean then, of course.  He was 10½ lbs of anonymity brought home from Edinburgh's Royal Maternity Hospital to a tenement in the Fountainbridge area of the city.  He was given his paternal grandfather's Christian name, Thomas, like a surrogate identity.  The fact that what passed for his cot was the bottom drawer of his parents' wardrobe suggested that the fates weren't smiling on him particularly broadly.  It was evident that during his childhood silver spoons would be in short supply.

It wasn't a propitious time to be born into working-class life. Was any time ever?  Even the right to work at a menial job was in no way guaranteed and half-a-crown (12½ pence) was not an insignificant amount of money.  The best luck a child could have would be in being born to caring parents.
Connery's father, Joe, was a first generation Scot descended from Irish travelling people.  Joe's father, Tommy, had been the son of the bare-knuckle fighter, James.  The family tradition had been one of living on your wits, keeping on the move, doing odd jobs and hawking whatever goods you had to sell.  Given conditions in Ireland in the second half of the Nineteenth Century, the poor lived on the edge of destitution.  Connery's forebears on his father's side lived on the edge of the edge.
Their tenuous connection to conventional society meant that they were not too inhibited by its rules.  Formal education was virtually impossible for such mobile people.  Of the three Rs, only arithmetic was crucial, since the ability to count the pennies was a survival mechanism.  The formalities and social niceties of long courtship would have meant staying in one place, so they were by-passed.  Tommy's mother, Elizabeth, had met his father, James in 1865.  She gave birth to their first child, also called James, the following year.  She seems to have been barely into her teens.  She would have another child, Elizabeth, before Tommy was born in 1879.
Not much is known about their lives in Ireland.  Most working-class history then was oral.  A sense of genealogy survived by word of mouth or in parish registers and, if you were born to travelling people, even parish registers might not be sure you were there.  People came and went like puffballs in the wind.
What we can be sure happened is that on the death of James senior's parents, he and Elizabeth brought their family to Glasgow late in the Nineteenth Century.  That must have been a strange transition, from the green fields of Ireland to the congested slums of Glasgow.  But the strangeness would be lessened by the presence of so many other incomers.  A big proportion of Glasgow's population at the time was made up by the immigrant Irish and displaced Scottish Highlanders.  It wasn't so much that such people lost their identity in the city as that they were in process of redefining the city's identity through their presence in it.
What wasn't easy to adjust to were the cramped conditions.  With people living almost shoulder to shoulder in unsanitary tenements, it was a hugely septic environment.  And if the disease didn't get you, then the depression might.  By 1914 the branch of the original Connery family that had come to Scotland had only two survivors: Elizabeth and Tommy.

Of the others, James the patriarch, obviously as hard as his knuckles had been, was the last to go.  His wife Elizabeth had died seven years before.  Before that, their elder son, James, had died at 34.  A contributory factor to his death had been perforated ulcers.  A predisposition to ulcers was to be part of the Connery males like a birthmark.  By the time he died, James had already buried his wife, born Jane Costello, who died of alcoholism at the age of 35.  He had also buried his only child, yet another James, who went out at the age of ten from bronchial pneumonia.  Elizabeth had married a Dundee man and moved to that city.
Tommy, pragmatic, and resilient as a rubber ball, had a simple answer to the bad luck that had befallen his family in Glasgow.  He travelled.  Putting his family and what little goods he had on a cart, he went by horse to Edinburgh.
It's not just the mode of transport that should remind us how far Tommy had remained a part of the gipsy culture he came from.  How he had arrived at having the family he took with him exemplified his continuing disregard for the conventions of supposedly respectable society.
He had met Jeanie McNab in Glasgow when she was thirteen and he was twenty-two.  A year later she had a son to him, Joseph, and then another son, called inevitably James.  But Tommy hadn't bothered with the formality of marrying her.  That wouldn't happen until 1938 when, knowing she had cancer and was dying, he would have done anything to please her.  It was then that formal marriage become meaningful by proxy to him.
By settling his family in the Canongate area of Edinburgh, at that time predominantly peopled by Irish immigrants, Tommy had come to the end of his travels.  He would die in the city.  He would also introduce his children to a way of life different from his own.  He might himself continue to improvise a living by trading from his horse-drawn cart (as did his younger son James) for part of the year and acting as a street-bookie the rest of the time.  (This involved illegally collecting bets from punters at a designated pitch and having them delivered to the bookmaker's office before the start of the race.)  But his sons would integrate fully into conventional society.
His oldest son, Joe, for example, approached having a family in a much less cavalier way than his father and grandfather had done.  He courted an attractive Edinburgh girl called Euphemia MacLean and, when he married her in 1928, he was twenty-six and she was twenty.  (It may have seemed to Tommy that his son was marrying a rather old woman.)  He also held down a regular job in the North British Rubber Works.
In the manner of all old people but perhaps in a more accentuated form, Tommy was to become an anachronism in the lives of his descendants.  His grandsons got into the habit of calling him - not too reverentially - 'Baldy', as if his aging hairlessness were his most defining characteristic.  In the arrogance of youth they didn't realise that it was a characteristic he had passed on to them.  But he remained a potent and maverick presence, too vivid to be ignored.  To watch someone living as utterly on his own terms as he did was a lesson in one way to deal with things.
During that conversation in the coffee-shop of Edinburgh Zoo, Sean Connery told an interesting story about his grandfather.  Late in his life, Tommy had passed on his pitch as a street-bookie to Connery's father, Joe, who was out of work at the time due to an accident.  One day, suffering from self-inflicted wounds out of a glass, Joe failed to turn up to life the 'lines' (the slips of paper recording the punters' bets).  The drill was that the returns from winning lines were collected from the bookmaker's office at the end of the day and paid out that evening.  Looking perhaps for a restorative, Joe went into the pub on the evening of the day when he had failed to turn up at his pitch.  He was perturbed to find a group of men waiting there to collect their winnings from him.  He explained to them how preposterous their claims were, since he hadn't collected any bets.  'No,' they said. 'But yer feyther did.' Joe could either find the means to pay them or let them take it out of his hide.

Some days later, Tommy returned from a trip to Glasgow, resplendent in a new suit.  He approached his son not as a penitent but as a teacher of practical lessons in life.  Joe should have been there to collect the lines himself.  What had happened was his own fault.
Recounting the story, Connery seems to understand the lesson Tommy was teaching.  It's obviously not something he would have done but he doesn't waste any time expressing filial outrage.  He smiles philosophically about it, shaking his head as if he has always understood that, where he comes from, you don't make too many assumptions about life.  You take it as it comes and act accordingly.  The person you have to depend on is yourself.
Another time, at the stage when he had decided to do no more Bond films after 'Diamonds are Forever', he was asked what he thought of his brother's ambitions to be a film actor.  Neil had by then appeared in two films on the basis of being Connery's brother: 'Operation Kid Brother' and 'The Body Stealers'.  Neil seemed unsure whether he should try to continue in films or revert to his trade as a plasterer.  All Connery said was: 'He's got to get off the pot or start shitting.'  Subject closed.
Maybe something of Tommy's insistence on self-reliance passed into his descendants in their significantly different lives.  Maybe unsentimental pragmatism was part of the inheritance he gave them.
It was two years after Joe Connery and Effie MacLean had married and moved to Fountainbridge that their son Thomas was born.  When their second son, Neil, arrived eight years later, in 1938, their family was complete.  For that time and place it was a modest number of children to have.  Whatever the reason for the smallness of their family - difficulties in conception or deliberate choice - it made good sense and it certainly worked to the benefit of their boys.  When money is short as well as time (Effie would on occasions work as a charwoman), the fewer there are to share it, the more they are likely to gain from it.
It was an omen of the comparative stability that would characterise the early life of Connery in contrast to the catch-as-catch-can existence of the man he was named after.  Effie Connery and her background brought new connotations to the family name she had taken on, foretold in the man after whom her second son was called.
Neil MacLean and his wife Helen were a couple who had - to use a working-class accolade of the times - 'done well for themselves.'  His work as a plasterer (besides presumably influencing his grandson Neil's choice of a trade) had brought him to the position of works' foreman before he retired.  Retirement took the couple first to a house in the Gorgie district of Edinburgh and then to a two-roomed cottage in the countryside around Dunfermline in Fife, where they kept poultry and pigs.
Their two grandsons' frequent visits to the cottage had major effects on their childhood.  Firstly, those trips gave them access to an environment significantly healthier then the factory-dominated environment of Fountainbridge, where even the air you breathed was infiltrated with effusions from McEwan's brewery and Mackay's confectionery plant and the North British Rubber Works.
In Fife the boys had space and freedom for imaginative play and the indulgence of essential childhood fantasies. More than their bodies could run free there.  Apart from the ground around their grandparents' cottage, they had pretty much free run of a farm they used to go to to collect milk.  For city boys even the reality of where the milk came from was a revelation.  A big Clydesdale horse that was pastured on the farm submitted docilely to being a chariot of infantile dreams.  Small as he was, Neil managed to sit on it without falling off.  The older Tommy was able heroically to coax it to a jog-trot and be Shalako in embryo.

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


  e-mail: william.mcilvanney@personaldispatches.com