PICTURE: GORDON TERRIS
J OHN Byrne RSA has had a good year. Sort of. The Paisley-born artist and playwright has had two virtual sellout exhibitions of new work, first at the Open Eye Gallery in Edinburgh and then at the Rendezvous Gallery in Aberdeen. This required him to deliver more than 70 canvases; hence the crepe bandage on his right wrist. “I was working full-out from 9am to 11pm every day from May, and sprained it,” he says over strong tea in an Edinburgh cafe. “I used to work all through the night and into the next day, though I can’t do that any more. But it was worth it because they were the most successful shows I’ve ever had.”
At almost 72 and a rangy six foot five, he’s become a familiar –if somewhat kenspeckle – figure about his adopted city. Byrne, who grew up in the notorious Ferguslie Park council estate, has lived in Edinburgh for four years, having moved to the Scottish capital from Nairn after splitting with his partner Tilda Swinton. He’s now happily ensconced in Bruntsfield with Jeanine Davies, the theatre lighting designer and Pilates Mat teacher, and the pair are often spotted cycling around the city. Jeanine is “extremely fit” and she and Tilda are “the best of friends”, he says, and he’s very much in touch with Honor and Xavier, his beloved 14-year-old twins who live with their mother in Nairn when she’s not starring in Hollywood movies.
He’s about to tip a wary toe into a demanding exercise programme, as a case study for Jeanine to help her in her two-year Pilates Apparatus course. He says he’s “humphy-backit” and could do with a bit of posture correction.
Elegant hands vaguely circling the air, he attempts to describe the Cadillac Bench with its various stirrups, bars and straps, and the mental image conjured of the artist submitting to such extreme poses soon has us both in tears of mirth.
Byrne is in the midst of judging entries to the 2011 John Byrne Award which invites sixth-year pupils at Edinburgh schools to respond to a piece of chosen text, and submit a creative piece of work in any media. Last year’s inaugural winner was Currie Community High School, whose documentary film explored the themes of greed, selfishness, alienation and participation, using a speech by Jimmy Reid as their stimulus. This year’s winners will be announced on Wednesday. Andrew Paterson, a publicity-shy Edinburgh oil entrepreneur who set up the £10,000 award, chose Byrne as its figurehead because he has made the most of his diverse creative talents and is “inspiring” and “a delight to be with”. I see what he means. Today, Byrne travelled by bus. “Some bugger of hell smashed the back wheel of my bike with his car and drove off without even leaving a word of apology,” he says in authentic Paisley-ese.
Does he enjoy noising up the bourgeoisie of Establishment Edinburgh?
“I absolutely love Edinburgh. But I’ve never been establishment and never will be. It’s just not in me. I only became a member of the Royal Scottish Academy in 2007.
“I remember winning an RSA painting competition 50 years ago and I was drunk coming off the train from Glasgow on the way to the prize-giving ceremony. I lit up a fag and David Donaldson walked round the entire length of the room and told me to put it out, because we hadn’t yet had the Royal toast. It took the RSA 45 years to get over that. And I’m still on a shooglie nail.
“I’m in a Protestant city and I’m not a royalist. I’m a Catholic. I write plays and I do paintings. But I can’t get a play on here for love nor money.”
The author of Writer’s Cramp, Tutti Frutti and Your Cheatin’ Heart, among other things, bristles with indignation that his version of Chekhov’s The Seagull, originally commissioned by the Borderline Theatre Company, has not yet come to fruition, despite the existence of the National Theatre of Scotland.
It’s set on a large Hebridean island in 1976 and is humorous. “Why would it not be?” he asks. “Chekhov wrote comedy except when he said it was tragedy, and even then it was funny. But apparently my version is not relevant.
“The NTS has never employed me and I don’t believe it ever will. It seems to me it has a problem with authentic voices. It’s like it uses the New English Bible instead of the King James Version.”
To Byrne, the language of the King James Version of the Sermon on the Mount, which is the stimulus for this year’s John Byrne Award, is wonderful. “I like the rhythms and the use of words. I never read the Bible as a child, though we had the big Douai Catholic one in our house which was clamped shut with big brass clasps,” he recalls with a chuckle.
“It was one of the few books in our house, alongside a story annual I got for being Dux of the Huts, the name we gave the prefabricated buildings at St Mary’s Primary School. I remember one story in it about a girl who hated rice puddings. I didn’t know what a rice pudding was, so it was all a mystery to me.
“But I think the language of the KJV is the language of ordinary working people. It’s not too grand and can be read and understood by everyone. I’m very happy it’s being used for the award this year.”
D OES he hope it will stimulate young people to write for the stage? “Young people are great, and I hope this will encourage them to just go out and follow their own path in the world, make their own mistakes and learn from them. I’d encourage them all to be independent thinkers.”
That’s something Byrne knows something about. In 2001 he was awarded an MBE for services to literature and the theatre – but returned it in protest at the Westminster Government’s invasion of Iraq.
He says: “Sending that bloody MBE back was my greatest creative act. I got it as the result of votes from ordinary working class people and I didn’t want my name to be associated with any tacit agreement of what the Government did on their behalf.”
For all his fanfaring of the common man, Byrne doesn’t own a television and has not been in a pub for 40 years. He doesn’t read fiction because, he says: “I have enough of my own to be doing with.”
He believes alcohol kills rather than encourages creative talent. “I drank to excess in my younger days and now I only have the occasional glass of wine. I’m not against drink; I’m against me getting drunk,” he says. “When I think about all the time I wasted ... I’m much more creative without it. Everybody is.
“I was just a blob when I was drunk, a f****** nuisance and a bore. I don’t find it amusing.
“My old pal Gerry Rafferty died earlier this year when he was 62 and I miss him. It was the drink and it was just a waste of his life. If you’ve been given a gift it’s your binding duty to make full use of that and I’d say that to all young people as well. Your gift is not for yourself alone, although it’s the thing that sustains and nourishes you.
“That’s why I don’t like being silenced by the people who could give me the opportunity to work. To have no hope is the equivalent of living in hell.”
That’s what he believes is the unhappy fate of his home town. “Paisley used to be so stylish and elegant. Now even its pound shops are shut and you see men whose faces are black from drink. I’ve never reacted so negatively to a place. It’s horrifying,” he says.
His time at St Mirin’s Academy in the 1950s was unhappy. When I tell him it’s recently been demolished, he’s shocked. “But I won’t shed a tear,” he adds. “My headmaster Neil Mackinnon was draconian and used to publicly ridicule me. He said I’d never amount to anything and mocked my clothes.” What did he wear? “Oh, a green houndstooth check suit with the tightest trousers you could get,” he says, sniggering like a teenager. He left school with no qualifications.
Byrne’s older children by his marriage to Alice Simpson, whom he met at Glasgow School of Art (they have never divorced), are also artistic. Celie’s portrait of Nathaniel, her 17-year-old son and Byrne’s only grandchild, is touring in the 2011 BP Portrait Award Exhibition. John, 47, is a graphic artist. They live in Fife and Perthshire. His older brother James lives in Aberdeen and has five children.
So the entire family has abandoned the west – and, specifically, Paisley? Ah well, not quite. His mother Alice, who had dementia praecox (schizophrenia), is buried, like his father, in an unmarked grave at Hawkhead Cemetery. Are they together? “I think so, but I couldn’t be sure,” he says. “They are the only family I have in Paisley now.”
He feels rejected by the Glasgow cultural establishment too. “I can’t sell a painting in Glasgow,” he says. “At my last show at the Print Studio I sold one to a guy from Edinburgh.”
What does he think is the reason? “I’m an outsider wherever I am. Period. And I like it like that.”