Over the last few days, I have been happily working my way through Brian Cox’s wonderful memoir Putting the Rabbit in the Hat.
It is a perfect encapsulation of the author. It has the erudition of the lifelong autodidact, who left school in Dundee without a qualification and yet is one of the most well-read people I have ever met.
It is littered with the absurdist humour that I would call intrinsically Dundonian, in the tradition of McGonagall and Michael Marra.
Brian’s recollection, for example, of throwing a crown from the stage at the Royal Court and striking an audience member on the head, will be read by many as a troubled memory, but made me laugh at length.
And it is brutally honest. Great actors of his generation are happily thrown under the bus as Brian joyfully rampages across reputations.
Lifelong devotion to Dundee
But the most defining feature of the book is Brian’s lifelong devotion to the city of Dundee. It is a clear-eyed devotion, unsentimental and unsparing. He still bears fury at the poverty his family and ancestors existed in, the cracks they fell through in the nation’s feudal society and the many failures of its institutions.
But then there is the city itself. The people, the mood, the visceral feel of being a Dundonian, to which the book is a love letter. Brian devotes many pages to the minutiae of his childhood.
Dickson’s bus tours to Pitlochry, bridie and chips at Wilson’s in Reform Street, the Lyon Street Gang, buying the Dandy on a Tuesday and the Beano on a Thursday. He recalls family memories that belong so firmly in the Dundonian psyche, they could transfer to any family in the city.
When his early television career stuttered, his mother went “round the neighbours” gathering names for a petition to send to the BBC insisting that they make greater use of her son’s talent.
Brian might have left Dundee to attain the extravagant successes of his career but, crucially, his career was birthed here.
Taking a job as a messenger at the old Dundee Rep in Nicoll Street, where he often slept in a nook under the stage, watching great reparatory actors at work, encouraged by a supportive teacher, and devouring films in the twenty-one cinemas that Dundee supported at the time, a fourteen-year-old Brian experienced an artistic epiphany round every corner of Dundee’s streets.
He recalls in the book the niggling question he experienced, while watching the great American actors of the time at Green’s Playhouse in the Nethergate, “How does a wee guy from Dundee get to be in films?” In many ways, you feel that Brian still asks himself that question, still gazing in wonder between where he came from, and where he has got to.
This is, after all, a man who has his Dundonian upbringing, “written through me like words through a stick of rock”.
Standard bearer for the city
All of which is a preamble to my dominating thought reading Brian’s autobiography. Which is that now, surely, is the time that Dundee City Council should give Brian the freedom of the city.
Many storied names have been given the honour, but not many of them were born and bred in the city before becoming standard bearers for Dundee through their lives. I am one of many Dundonians who Brian has gone out of his way to assist.
He has helped others in a myriad of ways, sometimes publicly, sometimes privately but always with the pure intention to help a fellow Dundonian on their way.
I believe that this rare honour would be a fitting, and timely, recognition of a Dundonian life well lived. Brian might be working harder than ever, but he is also seventy-five years old.
While the wheels of local government turn slowly, a wee spot of grease might be appropriate.
Neil Forsyth is a Dundonian author and screenwriter. His drama Guilt recently aired on the BBC.