Speaking Personally: Making tracks with ‘Big Yin’

Janet Thomson
Janet Thomson

With what seems like hundreds of television channels now on offer, I cannot be alone in struggling to find something that captures my imagination or interest.

However, I caught the first episode of Billy Connolly’s ‘Tracks Across America’ broadcast by ITV and thought it was brilliant.

The ‘Big Yin’ is the ideal travel companion - both hilarious and sensitive at the same time.

Now 73-years-old and living with Parkinson’s, he has an obvious and infectious affinity with everyone he meets - with his sense of humour shining through.

He is making the envious trip across America - from Chicago to New York City “the long way round”- taking in 28 states.

The first episode had shot after stunning shot of his journey, peppered with incredible characters he met along the way.

But what touched me most was the overwhelming impression the final destination in Seattle made on this gentle Glaswegian - a former welder in the Clyde ship yards.

He stopped off at what was, to me, an innovative and inspiring homeless project known as Tent City 3. Here he met those whose lives, for one reason or another, had forced them out onto the streets - and it could happen to any one of us.

But the “city’ isn’t a modern new facility costing thousands of dollars - instead modest tents provide much-needed shelter. It is funded primarily through donations, is self-managed on a weekly basis with “residents” democratically choosing who will run the camp. And it seems to work.

There was a tent with computers for those needing IT access and a number of those living there were in employment.

The “cities” operate with a strict Code of Conduct which requires sobriety, nonviolence, cooperation and participation and its success visibly moved Connolly.

I normally balk at the thought of Americanisms slipping into our Scottish way of life - don’t get me started on what they have done to our Hallowe’en celebrations.

But the homeless problem is going nowhere fast and Shelter Scotland, the housing and homelessness charity, has launched a ‘Manifesto for Homes’ ahead of the 2016 Holyrood election to make sure housing is high on the political agenda. It is asking all politicians to put housing at the heart of this country’s political debate in the run up to the election and beyond. I second that.

I don’t pretend to have the answers, but what was highlighted in Connolly’s show was, with a little bit of willingness, a safe community can be created, giving its residents a sense of belonging and worth.