TO a younger generation of Scots, Ronnie Browne is probably better known as that guy fae the fitba (or rugby) rather than the guy from The Corries. His vigorous pre-game rendition of ‘Flower of Scotland’ has become something of a trademark in recent years. In fact, Scotland’s unofficial national anthem was written by fellow Corrie Roy Williamson who died in 1990. The first international sporting event Browne sang it at was a boxing match – Pat Clinton versus Isadore Perez at the Kelvin Hall in 1992 – and the last was the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014. Over the years, he took to inserting a parenthetical ‘C’MON’ early in the song, raising the crowd to ear-piercing levels of dissonant enthusiasm. And the early indications in this remarkable life story are that he intends to write as he sang, holding nothing back.
In the opening chapters, for instance, we discover that he was the recipient of more than his fair share of ‘arse-skelping’. Skelper-in-chief was his mother Anne and ‘maybe that’s why I seemed to spend the rest of her life not getting along with Ma’. Browne returns to this theme periodically: fleshing it out, so to speak, with the various ways in which his mother expressed her disapproval of his wife and at least one of their children. Anne was a spiritualist and Browne later concludes that ‘being a spiritualist medium does not necessarily make you a nice person’. The portrait of his father John is more sympathetic. He was a talented artist but ‘suffered all his life from lack of confidence in his own ability’, preferring to nurture a similar talent that he detected in his son.
Browne clearly has things he wants to get off his chest. Another unjust arse-skelp takes place in full view of a medal for excellence he had just won at Edinburgh’s Preston Street Primary School. He discovers two siblings that he didn’t know he had. His father’s sister, Aunt Fanny, ‘never liked me and I reciprocated’. There are villainous neighbours called the Weinsteins and a bully who arrives at his school having been expelled from everywhere else. He reveals that he has had two, ‘maybe three’, nervous breakdowns in his life. Apropos of nothing, he introduces the fact that his mother called his penis a ‘wumpy’. Forty pages later the word appears again; this time in the context of a sexual advance made to him by a man in a cinema toilet.
The combined weight of these things can’t help but make the reader worry for him, but salvation is at hand. Browne first meets Pat Elliot, his wife of 52 years, at Boroughmuir High School and her appearance in the story has an immediate calming effect. His parents – this time his father is implicated too – think that she is taking him ‘above his station’. But as they move on together ‘the curtains were drawn on one part of my life [and] another much more hopeful and pleasant part, was about to open up’.
By now Browne is working from sources – the Corries business diary which he kept from 1963, Pat’s personal diaries and a scrapbook given to him by one of the many Corrie fans around the globe – and these provide narrative substance and stability. He meets Roy Williamson in art school and stays in touch through teacher training and art teaching at Boroughmuir and Musselburgh Grammar School. Eventually Browne joins Williamson in ‘The Corries Folk Trio and Paddie Bell’ in circumstances that would be difficult to invent. Four eventually became two and The Corries took their place in the folk scene, mixing with the likes of Tom Paxton, Peggy Seeger and Ewan McColl in concerts and television studios.
The stories come thick and fast. In Ireland Browne meets Barney McKenna – or ‘Banjo Barney’ – founding member of The Dubliners who regales him with Cromwell’s depredations undeterred by ‘the head of a tiny black kitten [that] poked out from the fastenings of his overcoat’. In Edinburgh, the cast of characters included Davey Johnstone who became Elton John’s musical director. Browne describes him on a return visit to Carrick Knowe from London wearing ‘blonde hair down [his] back and huge black sunglasses atop a tight denim jacket, the whole ensemble finished off with skinny blue jeans with flapping flares at the knee, belted with a monstrous buffalo-head buckle. The Edinburgh boy had slightly outpaced Edinburgh’.
In retrospect, it is remarkable that The Corries were able to find a niche despite the rise of British rock that Johnstone symbolised and the huge, trans-Atlantic, popularity of the North American folk-rockers like Bob Dylan and Neil Young. Browne doesn’t attempt to explain how it worked, but simply charts their progress from living room to pub to capacious theatre. In Scotland, The Corries seemed to walk a fine line: forever in danger of being taken too seriously or not seriously enough. To his credit, Browne cites ‘The Curries’; a spoof involving Rikki Fulton as Ronnie and Gregor Fisher as Roy which is available on YouTube. The great Scottish diaspora, however, had no such concerns. Even the most democratically-inclined, Presbyterian ex-pat found songs about a Roman Catholic, absolute monarch irresistible when delivered with gusto and a dash of tartan. Posters of Ronnie and Roy with his ubiquitous combolin (a sound fusion instrument of his own invention) appeared in halls and theatres just about everywhere that Scots gathered.
Browne’s autobiography is fascinating in a general way but it also works on another level. His free range story-telling means that, at least for Scots of a certain age, there is a better-than-even chance that his life will eventually intersect with theirs. His agent in Canada was a man called John McCuaig. I knew John very well in later life when he was, in his own words, ‘on his uppers’ and living on his memories. These memories involved Billy Connolly, Max Bygraves, Andy Stewart and numerous others acts that he imported along with The Corries. McCuaig flits in and out of Browne’s story: booking The Corries into big Canadian theatres or commissioning Browne to do a portrait series in Toronto that included Bygraves and Scottish actor John Cairney. McCuaig once told me that taking acts like The Corries to Canada was a ‘no brainer’ but Hector Nicol (and, to a certain extent, Connolly) was a different matter. He worried that Nicol’s blue Glasgow comedy would offend swearing-averse diaspora audiences. As it turns out, it was Browne who introduced McCuaig to Nicol ‘whom John wanted to take out to Canada’.
Closer to home, I am writing this review in a house in Edinburgh that was once the canteen and social club for Nelson’s Printing Works, located in a building across the road. Browne’s favourite Uncle Johnnie worked there for many years and would have lunched within a few feet of where I’m sitting. Later his uncle’s connections provided Browne with the opportunity to take up an apprenticeship at Nelson’s after his third year at high school. Had he accepted it, he too might have spent years having his piece here and The Corries may never have happened.
Even without these personal connections, Browne’s story can be read as social history. Nelson’s is gone (Scottish Widows now stands on the site). Ditto the Newhaven fishwife who had her stall at the junction of Nicholson Street and West Richmond Street when he was a child, the Edinburgh Sabbath strictures that were still in force and the circus that paraded elephants past the Browne family flat and provided dung for his mother’s allotment on ‘The Meedies’. The great post war Scottish diaspora that embraced The Corries is barely clinging on; numbers and resources diminished, children and grandchildren looking elsewhere for entertainment. I wrote John McCuaigs’ obituary for the Herald newspaper two years ago. ‘Those days are past now’ would have been a fitting subtitle for the book.
In the last few chapters some of Browne’s stories, while still interesting, become slightly strained. He comes close to apologizing for listing the numerous ways in which tenants damaged a flat that he was subletting. There’s a sense of something being deferred, but when it arrives it is devastating. Pat died on April 22nd, 2012. Her last days were ‘too painful to relate’ but, addressed obliquely, the pain produces some of the most evocative passages in the entire book. The final chapter sees Browne sitting alone in one of the two conservatories attached to his house. Scanning the 180-degree view of the garden and the sky that surrounds him, he writes: ‘If I paint an idyllic picture, idyllic it is. People ask me if I’m still physically painting. I look out on a garden which is constantly a changing picture so, lazy bugger that I am, except when I move pots of acer, magnolia, Pieris, and peony up and down, thereby creating still-lives, I don’t paint.’
On the next page, he dedicates the book to ‘the lady who made my life, the lady who accorded me the highest honour of my life when she agreed to change her name to mine, Patricia Isabella Elliot, my Pat’.
That Guy Fae The Corries
Sandstone Press, £20, ISBN 978 1910 124369, PP400