EIBF 2015: Ronnie Browne. Bright, and a bit blue

On Sunday night in the Foundation Theatre, Nicola Meighan had probably one of the easiest chairing jobs of the Edinburgh International Book Festival so far. In a full hour, after her introduction, she had to lever in only about six short questions for the ebullient and well-practised showman Ronnie Browne, aka “That Guy Fae The Corries”, here to talk about his autobiography of the same name.

The Corries were, and are, one of those bands with a huge following both within Scotland and the Scottish diaspora — I recall when I was a child a tape of Peat Fire Flame was often on in the car — even if, for reasons we’ll see later, they seldom troubled the charts in the rest of the UK.

Even before introductions were out of the way, Browne made sure Meighan noted how “terribly handsome” he was, grabbing the audience straight away with a laugh. Then while unpacking a series of photos and props he launched straight into an explanation of his stunning jacket. “I can only wear this when I’m the centre of attention. The reason I wear it is because even before you open your mouth it raises a smile.”

It is, he said, “Hong Kong tartan”, because when he needed a suit for a St Andrew’s day ball in Hong Kong he asked a tailor in Stanley Market for one made of tartan. The tailor, (with a hint of, let’s say, Orientalism) he said, didn’t know what tartan was so he tried to describe it “Tartan is a material that’s got lots of bright colours all over it and lines up…” So the result was this jacket, much he said to the dismay of Mrs Kinloch Anderson.

The next 15 minutes showed how at home he is on stage, as with hardly a break he told us all about his early life in a sequence that was  clearly well rehearsed but felt utterly spontaneous. The point was to show that he is Ronnie Browne who is also ‘that guy fae The Corries'” not just “‘that guy fae The Corries’, Ronnie Browne”. He focused most on his abiding love of art — running from his stick figures drawn at the age of five, through a drawing of the Black Watch memorial at 11, to his time at art college and beyond, up to the present day — making sure to point out that until the formation of The Corrie Folk Trio and Paddie Bell, he was barely involved in music: “I played nothing, I played the moothie, but that’s not music … well isn’t when I play it.”

After being art art college — “I was a worse draughtsman coming out of four years at college than I was when I went it. Because I got into all this abstract stuff, all that shite.” — where he met his wife-to-be, Pat, and lifelong friend and musical partner, Roy Williamson. After graduating he was exhibited in the John Moore’s Liverpool competition, and came up with a scheme to get himself and Pat down on a coach for free by arranging a trip for students, an early example of entrepreneurial spirit. He also started to sell paintings, some to David Cleghorn Thompson.

“One night I was invited to his home for a meal, where he had prepared a large boiled fish. That was it! Just a fish. ‘Ah, ha!’ thought I, ‘so this is how the other half lived. No wonder he can afford to buy bloody paintings!'”

He and Roy also both went to Moray House and became friends, visiting each other and occasionally playing music and singing. But he hadn’t finished with “the painting bit”, and gave us the story of his most recent work, of which he seemed very proud, a portrait of The Black Douglas commissioned for Lennoxlove House by the Duke of Hamilton.

He explained how Douglas had been Robert the Bruce’s right-hand-man: “On his breast is the casket in which Robert the Bruce’s heart was put. He was commissioned after Bruce died to go to the Crusades and ‘throw his heart in face of the Saracens’. What a story, eh?”

That’s not all, though, as he said that just after finishing the portrait, he had been talking with his wife and daughter about the story of Bruce and the spider, then got into his car to go buy a paper. On the dashboard was a spider, which had been spinning a web, and he showed us a photo.

“I photographed it and I want you to noticed the colour of the spider, red and yellow, the colours of Robert the Bruce. I also want you to notice that the web is incomplete: ‘Try, try again’. Spooky. I took this photograph, went into the studio and I painted the spider in.”

Meighan noted that there is a great deal of detail in the book about events that happened more than half a century ago.

He replied: “When we started The Corrie Folk Trio and Paddy Bell I was more or less the business manager, so I kept all of my diaries from day one, from 1962 till now, Pat’s diary started in 1973 and I made reference to her various diaries.”

His late wife, Pat, was a constant theme throughout the talk, and he clearly wants her to get recognition for her part in his story and that of the band. Even more incredible than the spider story, to a young audience, perhaps, is the fact that they had a five-year courtship.

“Every morning I’d get up and be sat at the breakfast table with my mother and father and every morning they’d sit and wait for me to say, ‘We’re going to have to get married.’ I never did. It’s not that we didn’t want to jump into bed with each other, we’re just as red-blooded as any other kids, but we had respect for each other and our parents.”

Pat not only did the accounting for the bands, she knitted the sweaters, made shirts and acted as a roadie: “She was more of The Corries than me. She was completely involved.”

And then it was off into a digression about afterparties at which Paco Peña’s flamenco dancers “kicked fuck oot of the linoleum”, and half Edinburgh’s police pipe band turned up accompanied by Chic Murray. Murray, of course, was the centre of attention, telling a story about the plight of his friend George. I won’t spoil the joke, it’s a cracker. Well, a biscuit, anyway.

Which brings me back to how much of a showman Browne is. Even though he was ostensibly reading from his book, he clearly knew the story by heart and had the timing down perfectly to get a huge laugh. When Meighan got a chance to ask a question about the band, it was a trigger for another five minutes or more of monologue describing the birth of The Corrie Folk Trio and Paddie Bell and their swift, “fairytale” rise to UK-wide TV exposure as resident band on The Hoot’nanny Show.

“A lot of people at these gatherings when we ask questions, you’ll get some young guy coming along and saying ‘How do you start out? What advice have you?’ I can’t advise them. In these days, 1962, how many stations there were, two, three maybe? So if you were on television, there was a huge audience, and that’s how we started, we appealed to a very wide audience.”

Then there was the story of the breakdown of the trio and his fights with Bill Smith, that led to he and Roy going it alone as The Corries. I’m sure his publishers have far better lawyers than I do, so I’ll not go into detail about what happened, except to note that he said Bill’s parting words were: “Ah, your group’s fucked!”

“Well, for a fucked group, we did quite well,” said Browne. Within nine months they’d sold out the Usher Hall.

Bill’s departure meant he had to learn an instrument quickly, and he eventually did, but for their first gig as a duo, “Roy and I went to one of the hotels on the west coast. Roy told me we went on stage at eight o’clock … and I first changed chord at quarter to nine.”

Another coup for the band was getting Marianne Faithfull at the height of her fame (“…I’ll just say ‘Mars bar’…”) up to Edinburgh for the Festival. As she was promoting her album of folk songs, Browne managed to knock down her management to a £400 fee, and went to collect her from the airport.

“The whole of the press was there because of this incident in Paris. She came down off the steps and they’re all shouting, ‘What’s it like to be in Edinburgh with The Corries?’ She said, ‘I’ve never fucking heard of them!'”

On the subject of fame and success, he recalled how Phil Solomon came up to offer them a contract. Even though they had been teachers on £11 a week, they turned down an offer of £300 a week for seven years. “We were all married men with children. It would have meant we’d have to go and live in a flat the three of us together. You’re joking! I couldn’t live with Roy and Bill in a flat. So we said no, we’re not doing it.”

Instead they managed themselves and toured round Scotland according to their own pace, making sure they could get home frequently. “We were our own masters.”

So, even though they didn’t court UK-wide chart success, they built a loyal following, especially once Flower of Scotland became established as the de facto Scottish anthem in the 1990s. “What I’ve done in the book is describe its rise, rise and continuing rise. People talk about an anthem. What song in the world from Scotland is better? Maybe Burns songs, but they’ve been here for two or three centuries, have they caught on? No they haven’t. Flower of Scotland is everywhere.”

What’s he doing now? He said he’s spent time in Egypt, having struck up a friendship with a painter and decorator who just happened also to be a conservationist working on the Temple at Luxor, restoring the ancient paintwork: “He showed me that by using pure alcohol and pure water and a toothbrush he could scrub and scrub and let the alcohol sink so far but not too far and wash it off with the water and bring to colour to life. This colour that was put there 3,000 years ago suddenly comes out.

“And guess who got a shot? I only did two or three square inches because I didn’t want to balls up this work. Think, at my age, to be able to do that.”

Though a couple of audience questions were, as he observed, statements rather than questions, he took them with good humour. One question, though, went deep, whether he will ever perform again. No, he said, he gave up performing ten years ago, and Pat died three years ago: “I [used to be able to] harness emotion. I can’t now, maybe it’s because Pat died or because I’m in my seventies I don’t know, but I’m even more sentimental and I can’t do it.”

He told the story of his last performance, at a reception at the Commonwealth Games: “Imagine you’re all the Commonwealth athletes, and you hear Flower of Scotland start and I look down — and every one of them [had been] on a podium with a gold medal, listening to Flower of Scotland — and I started to cry.

“With a great will and effort I managed to finish the song. Even when I was standing there I was saying, ‘You’re not going to so this again, Ronnie.’ People don’t pay to see old men cry. So I’m not doing it again.”

The final question was one that might interest fans of The Corries who want to see something similar in Edinburgh this month, what does he think of The Sorries?

“They’re great. Bloody sight better than us! They’re very, very good and so respectful to us and to me. I wish them all success.”

And then he left us with another tent-roof-raising filthy joke. Great value all round. Thanks, Ronnie.

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