What Byrne proceeded to do was translate his experiences as a working class kid steeped in 1950s pop culture and with ideas above his station into one of the most celebrated plays of the late twentieth century. The Slab Boys spent a day in the life of Phil McCann and Spanky Farrell, a couple of likely lads with dreams of being an artist and a pop star, but who were stuck mixing paint in the slab room of a carpet factory based on A,F. Stoddart's actual premises where Byrne himself had worked.
Over two acts of matinee idol patter mixed in with a colourful local slang, Phil and Spanky became rebels without a cause other than the possibility of a lumber with local glamourpuss Lucille Bentley and, for Phil, a place at Glasgow School of Art. Unlike Phil, Byrne was accepted by GSA, whereupon he began a career that saw him design book and record covers, create stage sets including Billy Connolly's big banana boots from The Great Northern Welly Boot Show and the pop-up book for 7:84's original production of The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, and become a painter and playwright of international renown.
It was The Slab Boys in 1978 and its two follow-up plays, Cuttin' A Rug and Still Life, that mythologised Paisley with a technicolour largesse rooted in a classicist past that is too-often swept under the carpet. Of its artistic elder states-people, Edinburgh-born but Elderslie-raised sculptor Alexander Stoddart keeps the flame for ancient traditions that continue to fire his imagination.
“This is the town I first experienced culture,” says Stoddart, who lives and works in Paisley, where his statue of church minister, philosopher and signatory of the American Declaration of Independence, John Witherspoon, sits in the grounds of the University of the West of Scotland. “It's the place where I first heard Schubert. I will advocate Paisley till my dying day.”
While it would be fanciful – and unfair to both men- to dub them with such a glib sobriquet such as the Paisley Boys, a shared dedication to traditional forms combined with a healthy and at times withering disdain for contemporary conceptualism marks them out as wilfully singular auteurs.
As Paisley bids to become UK City of Culture 2021, the sense of place that drove Byrne and Stoddart looks set to fall under civic and artistic scrutiny in close-up as it ramps up its past as much as its present and any future that results from the bid. Perhaps some of the key influences in the work of Byrne and Stoddart can be rooted in the classical grandiloquence of Paisley's architecture. Much of this owed a considerable debt to the family of Kenneth Clark, the iconic art historian, collector, museum director and creator of Civilisation, the thirteen part BBC TV documentary series that put art, music and literature at the centre of human history.
James Stourton's newly published biography, Kenneth Clark - Life, Art and Civilisation, may only feature two pages on Clark's relationship with Paisley, but it demonstrates how much Clark's family left their mark. The Clarks made their fortune after Kenneth Clark's great-great grandfather James invented the cotton spool, thus allowing a small family to open the factory that would help make Paisley a world leader in manufacturing cotton thread.
As competition grew between the Clarks and their industry rivals the Coats', a series of vainglorious public buildings grew in its wake. With the Clarks bank-rolling Paisley Town Hall, the Coats' commissioned Glasgow architect John Honeyman to build what was then Paisley Museum. Both buildings were rendered in a neo-classical style, with what is now Paisley Museum and Art Galleries going on to house one of the largest municipal art collections in Scotland. It's not hard to see how such a towering presence could wield such an influence on impressionable youth.
“My mother used to take me there,” says Byrne. “I remember vividly there was a tiger going through the jungle, and there was a wee elephant there.”
While such images may have influenced Clark's forays into the art world when he returned there with his father, other aspects of Paisley life were seeping into Byrne's consciousness.
“It was a very stylish place,” he says. “On a Sunday you'd get people dressed to the nines promenading down the Glasgow Road. There was a great American influence as well. Paisley had its own ice hockey team, the Paisley Pirates. There was one guy, very dapper guy, who had lodgings down our street. It's an extraordinary place, Paisley, very different from Glasgow. Glaswegians were stand-up comics. In Paisley there were oddballs. I preferred the oddballs.”
As Stoddart points out, however, Paisley is not a city, but is the biggest town in Scotland, “built by people who thought listening to Beethoven was a human right. I've given my life to this town, but if we're going to be a city of culture, we have to sit down and talk about it. The question of culture is contentious, difficult and upsetting.”
While Byrne appears nonchalant about Paisley's 2021 bid, Stoddart is questioning of its aesthetic.
“I believe in high culture,” he says. “It's not entertainment. It's a veil of tears. It's a struggle for existence. All this air-punching, life affirmation and kids groups, these are entertainments. For me, culture is to do with Homer and Virgil and the Berlin Philharmonic. It is a prayer to the dead and the metaphysical companions who are yet to be born.
“The City of Culture bid is about events and actions, but I'm an advocate of stillness. The City of Culture will last for a year, and then what? What happens in 2022, 2030 and 2035? I've stood up for culture all of my life, as I have done for Paisley, and as I will to my dying day. Whether this bid is successful or not, Paisley will always be a city of culture, as it always has been.”
Kenneth Clark – Life, Art and Civilisation by James Stourton is published by William Collins, £30.
Scottish Art News, November 2016