A Chapter                                                                                                                                        Posted 23rd June 2013

Puirtith's a dour dominie.  (Poverty is a hard teacher.)

'I still like the same kinda things as I did,' Sean Connery said as an established star.  'I like the football, and also to be able to walk the streets and go into pubs is very important, I think.  And I like doing a knock around Edinburgh in the quiet time.'
Long before he made that remark, you would have had to wonder when such a quiet time would be.  At half-past four in the morning?  After 'Doctor No', the first of the Bond films, the kind of casual anonymity implied in that statement was to become close to impossible for him.  When he was still in his thirties, he had referred to a strident incident in a Scottish bar where the image of James Bond had disrupted his private pleasure, like an alternative self taking over Connery's presence against his will.
Still, maybe time and the astonishing variety of roles he was later to play did effectively distance him from his most famous cinematic creation.  His lifelong refusal to live inside the image others might have of him must also have helped.  He has always had the same kind of contempt for simplified preconceptions of who he is supposed to be as one of his favourite film actors, Robert Mitchum.  ('He can do everything for me, Mitchum, I think,' he said once.  'You know.  He's got humour, marvellous timing, can be very menacing, can be very sweet.')
Being interviewed on British television around the time of the filming of ‘Ryan’s Daughter’, Mitchum found himself being mistaken for the sort of characters he played.

‘What do you do,’ an awe-struck interviewer asked him, ‘if someone hits you?’

Mitchum looked at the interviewer as if observing a strange creature under a microscope.

‘I fall down,’ Mitchum said.

It is the same capacity to let the realities of his private life bring him down to earth that has made Connery determined to go where he chooses to go as himself, no matter how difficult other people try to make it.  It's why he likes to return to Edinburgh in the first place. It remains an essential part of who he is and he doesn't forget that.
Its importance to him is demonstrated by the fact that in almost every sustained relationship with a woman (and they haven't been numerous), she has been obliged to make the pilgrimage to 176 Fountainbridge, like visiting the source.  Julie Hamilton (the step-daughter of the future leader of the Labour Party, Michael Foot, and the daughter of journalist Jill Craigie), went there in the late 1950s.  Diane Cilento, his first wife, made the trip there to meet his family in the early 1960s.  Micheline Roquebrune, his second and final wife, paid a visit to the house in 1977 along with Connery, his mother, (his father Joe had died in 1972), his son Jason and her own son Stephane.  They saw it empty, just prior to its demolition.  The amount of life that had been packed into that small, bleak space must have been difficult to imagine.

It has become progressively so, especially since Connery himself has chosen never to elaborate on the subject.  Whatever it is he gets from going back - a compass-fix on the distance he has travelled, a check-list of the reasons why he left ('It was really a dump,' he said of the house that last time), a refresher course in who he really is - he hasn't said.  The communion has always been silent.  Maybe that's all it honestly can be.  Like everybody else's childhood, his is irrecoverable.
All we are left with are anecdotal remnants of a boyhood, fallibly remembered by others and uncorroborated by the man the boy became.  They have been constructed retrospectively as small memorials to his later fame and, like all monuments, they are no doubt selectively simplistic but, like all monuments, they can at least hint at some of the qualities that made him what he was.
Some of the anecdotes suggest that he had a generous supply of those childhood tendencies to get up to behaviour which seems to have as its main purpose the need to take unnecessary risks that have no practical point, like walking along the parapet of a bridge in preference to using the pavement that runs alongside it, or jumping down from a high flight of steps rather than boringly fulfilling the purpose they were designed for.  In this way, children can test themselves along the dangerous edge of harmless situations, tease tedium till it snaps.
It's recorded that, with the preoccupied pointlessness of boyhood, he once stood squeezing the glass handle of his parents' bedroom door thoughtfully.  What the hell was he doing that for?  Maybe he just liked the feeling it gave him, which is often sufficient motivation for some of the bizarre activities children engage in.  Or was he pitting himself against the handle in a test of strength?  If so, he unfortunately won.  The glass splintered in his hand and his parents had to remove some shards delicately from his palm and bind the wounds.  An interesting experiment.
Another time, in winter, he constructed a home-made sledge which he called, ominously enough, the Coffin.  His first outing in it was on the snow-covered wide parkland in the middle of the city called The Meadows.  He tobogganed into a tree.  This time it was the tree that won.  The Coffin didn't quite live up to its name but it did its best.  He had split his head and, after wandering vaguely home trailing the damaged sledge in his wake, he was taken to hospital with concussion.  He spent five days there recuperating, followed by a further ten bed-bound at home.  Upright again, it was only a day or so before he was back on The Meadows, with the sledge restored to ramshackle order.  It's not quite Bruce and the spider but it does suggest an early determination not to be put off by failure.
But it wasn't all jolly fun with doorknobs and sledges.  One of the most salient facts about his boyhood is that he started working for a wage at the age of nine.  On his own initiative one day, between the end of the school day and reaching home, he went into Kennedy's Dairy Stables in Grove Street and managed to talk himself into a job delivering milk for the Co-operative Society.  This involved rising at five in the morning and doing a shift before school at nine o'clock, whatever the weather.  He was to hold down the job for seven years, progressing from a hand-cart, to assistant on a delivery dray, to control of his own horse and cart some time after he left school.
For a primary schoolboy of nine to decide to take on such work showed a premature desire to take responsibility for himself.  But then the decision could have been expressing one of those impatient fantasies of adulthood all children have, to be abandoned once the harshness of the realities involved sets in.  To live with the choice he had made for as long as he did demonstrates a ferocious sense of purpose in one so young.  The tenacity in him is emphasised when you consider where he was delivering - Edinburgh, Robert Louis Stevenson's 'precipitous city', where in winter the wind can cut like a scythe, and sometimes in summer too.
Surprisingly, far from disheartening him, the experience of work gave him a taste for more.  He was soon working after school as a butcher's assistant at a meat market in Dundee Street.  His combined wages came to £3 a week, all of which he handed over to his mother.
His mother's reaction to the money was an interesting mixture of pragmatism and appreciation.  She took some of his wages since she needed the money in running the household.  But she also immediately opened a savings account for her son, into which a portion of his earnings was put every week.  It was a lesson in fairness without sentimentality, a level-headed and practical way of dealing justly with the circumstances they found themselves in.  In his first financial dealings with the adult world he had a good and honest teacher.  It was a lesson that seems to have stayed with him.  A highly developed sense of fairness in dealing with others and in being dealt with by them has been a dominant (frequently abrasive) principle in his life.  Do what he considers to be cheating him and vengeance is mine, saith the Lord.
(The Scottish film director Joe McGrath told a story concerning Connery around the time when his bitterness was at its height about how little money he had received for being part of the phenomenal success of the Bond films.  He saw Harry Saltzman - co-producer with Cubby Broccoli of the films - as playing the role of chief Scrooge in the affair.
The story was that Connery was in a casino concentrating on an intense game of cards when someone leaned over his shoulder and spoke to him.
'Sean,' he said.  'Harry Saltzman's had a stroke.  He's paralysed down one side.'
Connery didn't look up from his cards.
'Good,' he said.  'I hope he's paralysed down the other side tomorrow.'
Asked later if the story was true, Connery said simply, 'Yes.'  There was no attempt to soften the harshness of the comment in retrospect by explaining, for example, that it was an aberration due to his state of mind at the time.  He let it stand.
Maybe time has doused the fire he felt then.  But the incident provides a cameo of the kind of black anger that can possess him against those he thinks have done him down.  Stand well clear.)
(To read the next post in this series click here.)


  e-mail: william.mcilvanney@personaldispatches.com