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           Home >  Culture  > Art and Craft  :

From Glasgow to Goya in 77 years - February 16 2007

John Cairney -- 14/03/07

It's my birthday today, therefore an ego-excuse to look back, or at least take an overview of the three-score years and seventeen since I first drew a life breath on the floor of a miner's terraced house in Baillieston, near Glasgow in 1930. I am told my mother fell out of bed retreating from the doctor's helping hands and I was delivered on the carpet. Not a red carpet I should think, but a decent enough floor-covering I imagine. I was born in my grandmother's house and I can still remember the deep glow of the rosewood furniture and the feeling of not wanting for anything within those capacious two rooms. I may not have been born with a silver spoon in my mouth but it wasn't a wooden one either. I don't know how those working class women managed it, but there always seemed to be soup on the kitchen range, a cup of tea for the visitor and a depthless bowl of comforting love from which everybody dipped from infants to the outer limits of a huge, extended family. That is, between bouts of not speaking, which seem to be a given fact of family relationships.

Our blood was a Scoto-Hibernian, proletarian-Catholic, left-wing and bookish mix, which was only offset by a love of music, especially that produced by the lyric tenor voice. My father and his brothers were all tenors, which meant they soon developed a gift for harmonising in order to be heard at all. My father was all music and was able to play anything from spoons to bagpipes via the piano and make it all sound so easy. I may have his tenor voice and gift for harmony but his instrumental skills are beyond me. From my mother I inherited a certain doggedness, a knack for crosswords and that questionable feyness, which is often mistaken for second sight. It's not always a happy trait, but it's an intuition that has served me well from time to time.

Another amenity my Baillieston uncles had was an extensive library, especially of Dickens. The Shettleston uncles on the other hand, on my mother's side, specialised in gramophone records and, through them, I discovered Paul Wightman and Father Sydney MacEwan ĘC a tenor, of course. I had thoughts of being a priest myself but the thought passed and I opted for Art instead after winning a drawing competition in 1943. I eventually went to the Glasgow School of Art in 1947 but left to join the Park Theatre in Glasgow as an actor, after being noticed in a local youth club drama festival. I was now a thespian despite myself, but I was also eighteen and that meant I had to do my compulsory National Service. This I did with RAF entertainments in post-war Germany. It was here I was introduced to the outside world, a world that was far from all my reading. I had to translate my theories into an exotic reality of opera, classical music and sex. All of which I embraced with the zeal of the convert. I also discovered that I was natural other ranks material with officer pretensions and that what stood in my way was my lack of a finished education. I had to address this.

On my return to Glasgow in 1950 I decided not to go back to the theatre but to enrol instead at the new College of Drama to train properly for the stage. At the same time, I took a course at Glasgow University in Poetics and the History of Theatre, so for the next three years I was busy. I graduated with a degree and a prize, the most beautiful girl in the College, Sheila Cowan, who became my wife in 1954. She also became the companion for the next twenty-five years on my steady march towards a career. I was now a professional actor but almost at once, Sheila was pregnant.

Jennifer was born in Bristol in 1955 while I was performing in The Merchant of Venice at the Bristol Old Vic; Alison was accidentally delivered by me on the night before I flew to Dublin to be in a film with James Cagney, Shake Hands with the Devil in 1958; Lesley was born in 1962 as I travelled back by train from Cardiff where I had been in a television series, Barbara in Black. Sheila had a miscarriage while I was in Rome filming Cleopatra, so Baby Jane didn't arrive until 1968, by which time I was playing in an episode of The Avengers in London. My son made his appearance in 1970 when I was at home in Berkshire writing a screenplay on Robert Burns. My children arrived as regularly as script_s in the post but I had no complaints on either score. I was also setting up my own Shanter Productions in order to co-ordinate the various Burns activities that had arisen around the world since I played the original solo performance in Edinburgh in January 1965.

My whole career had been changed by Burns and the Burns connection was to continue in one form or another in tandem with whatever else I was doing. Like playing Hamlet in Glasgow or Cyrano de Bergerac in Newcastle or appearing in Jackanory for BBC/TV and in films like Victim, A Night to Remember and Jason and the Argonauts. I also won the lead in a national TV series, This Man Craig for two years. All this had given me the outside evidence of success, the big house, the nannies, the flash cars, the private schools, the friends in high places. I was also free to be my own one-man show. With script_ and costume in hand, I travelled the world non-stop as a solo Robert Burns, Robert Louis Stevenson or McGonagall. Of course, it couldn't last, and it didn't. In 1973, I collapsed in a Perth hotel after one Burns show and not long afterwards so did my marriage and the good life as I had known it since 1953. Twenty years of constant work and travel had taken its toll and most of 1973 was spent in hospital.

John Cairney and Alannah O'Sullivan
John Cairney and Alannah O'Sullivan

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I was a long time recovering both life and career - and bank balance. The fact that I did so was due almost entirely to a young New Zealand actress and writer, Alannah O'Sullivan, who came into my life in 1977 just when I needed her and has been my mainstay, right-hand and soul-mate ever since. She joined me as an acting partner in my stage productions and together we travelled the world presenting duos made out of my solos on stage as 'Two For a Theatre' or on luxury liners as 'Theatre at Sea'. We married in New Zealand in 1980 and, as The Pennyfarthing Partnership, we've been living happily together ever since in words. In 1994, all these words culminated in a PhD from Victoria University. I was Dr Cairney. It sounded good.

It strikes me now that all the swings and roundabouts in my life so far have merely been the features of the route that was carrying me inexorably towards Alannah. Please don't think I don't value and appreciate the wonderful family years with Sheila but I feel those years were meant to produce our lovely children. They are all now out in the world and prospering. They, too, got their degrees and now have their own children, their own concerns. This leaves me free to become irresponsible again with Alannah. By that, I mean that I can give myself entirely to the creative moment without thought of being responsible to anyone but myself. This is a rare freedom and Alannah O'Sullivan, by all that she does in our life, has made it possible.

An artist herself, she well understands the joy any kind of creation brings. She also knows that any aesthetic enjoyment first demands a rigorous application. There's a lot of perspiration in a single drop of inspiration. Next comes endurance in dealing with whatever is in hand whether it be script_, short story, book or canvas. I have come back to painting recently as if carried there on a great swing of the pendulum. The truth is that art or artifice permeates everything I've tried to do. It's as natural to me as breathing and this is what I felt the day I came face to face with Goya.


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CIRCA 1826
Like Goya's old man on the swing
I feel myself blown on the wind,
Caught in the upsurge of my winter years
As giddy as the flying boy
I thought I'd left behind.
Isn't it good to let yourself go,
Fall back,
Safely held.
By your own inertia,
Knowing the force that pulls you back
Will also push you up
As high as you can go.
You know
This is Nature's power.
Free for all,
No better fuel
Nothing to do but hold on
Trusting in God's breath
To blow where it will.

John Cairney, August 2006

Images supplied by John Cairney

Editor's comment
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