A Memoir by Bill Livingstone.
In the introduction to this book, Livingstone quotes David Sedaris saying: “A memoir is the last place you’d expect to find the truth.” This well thought out and classy statement sets up the understatement and humility I have found in these pages.
I have a banging head cold as I write this. I’m hammering these words out in between sips of boiling hot Lemsip and sneezing. The post-Piping Live! lurgy is rich and thick in the office and some gentle downtime has swept across the centre. I’m hiding out in room 11 trying not to get Finlay, Wilson or Roddy ill before August’s big meetings. Luckily, I am not totally alone, in between teaching lessons I get to delve, like Bastian in The NeverEnding Story, into the life of P/M William (Bill) Livingstone.
I was privileged enough to have a tune with Bill at this year’s Pre-Worlds concert as part of Shotts and Dykehead Caledonia. Livingstone now cuts a ‘grandfatherly’ figure of sorts, not really what I expected from reputation and the childhood tales of the 78ths my father told me*. From those stories I expected Achilles or Cuchulain to walk through the door. In the very brief rehearsal with him on the Tuesday afternoon, he showed every bit of charisma and professionalism one would expect from a player of Bill’s calibre and during the show itself, his experience and confidence helped to settle a young pipe corps.
During the intermission of the RISE concert, the corps charged into the dressing room to break the pipes down, dry reeds and sweep out bores for any moisture that had built up during the previous half. The Boss (Ryan Canning) was doing his classic post-performance breakdown with Glenn Brown, including the talented and knowledgeable duo of Ewan McAllister and Mike Fitzhenry (who were working the drones that night) in the discussion. The problem with playing in a concert hall is that it’s designed to take the sound off stage and place it in the middle of the room. We pipers are so not used to that, we like the sound to envelope us like one of those rubber spheres that people run over lakes in. So the conversation was about how the sound was coming across. In short, there was some consternation about the difference between the left and right hand sides of the stage and who could hear what. The room was focused on The Boss and Glenn and their discussion, waiting for the order. The door flew open and in strode Bill Livingstone, fresh looking in his Toronto Police uniform: “What’s going on guys?”
Glenn Brown replied: “Drones ain’t right on my side and there’s stuff not right on the chanters.”
“Don’t worry about it,” replied Bill. “The band sound great and the crowd is loving it. You’re all doing a great job so just relax and have some fun.”
The room let out a breath and got back to business. In such a high-pressure and unique situation as the Pre-Worlds concert, the only person there that could’ve got those highly talented and demanding leaders to relax was Bill Livingstone. We all had a blast that night and I sincerely hope Bill did too.
Back to the book
Most pipers probably want this memoir to contain a map to winning the Gold Medals or a detailed guide to running a successful pipe band. For those of you able to take in the lessons herein, you may find inspiration towards these goals but a hard and fast guide to success it is not. In fact, Livingstone talks very plainly about his distractions, detractions and derelictions to and from his piping. At no point did I ever feel the writer was blowing his own horn. If anything, I’d say he humbly toots a kazoo about some really very impressive accomplishments. From a piping point of view, the biggest lesson I have taken from the book is to enjoy the music and focus on that. Sure Livingstone calls out a detractor or two but given the opportunity, wouldn’t you? And what does he do after these incidents? Gets up, dusts off and cracks on with it.
There is a very important part of this book that I feel some people will gloss over in favour of glorifying the storied competitive career of a great player. Bill Livingstone has suffered with clinical depression for pretty much his whole life. This issue is often underlooked in our society generally but within our piping community, much like lots of other mental and physical issues, mental health is topic not up for discussion. There are pipers and drummers out there suffering and I guess the message is – you can survive, you can overcome, you can succeed. Bill did and still is and you should carry that with you.
The book is an honest look at three-quarters of a century of life and experience. I fully expected Livingstone to wax lyrical about how much work he did, his major successes and perhaps a gripe or two about his disappointments**. Yet I find myself realising more and more with the turn of each page that Preposterous is often about other people and Livingstone’s reaction, reflection and education from them. From the love and loyalty of his wife Lilly to John Wilson’s ‘Piobaireachd Check List’ pragmatism and eccentricity, Bill tells us how he developed as a person from these events and as the book moves on, we see his change from excitable child to steely-eyed lawyer and champion piper.
If you are a young piper seeking inspiration and drive, or if you are a piper on your way to retirement and are looking for some comfort at a crossroads in your life, pick up a copy. If you want a good read about the life of a famous piper then this is the book for you.
*As a child my favourite bedtime stories were about the cunning and resourcefulness of pipe majors and master pipers through the years, and the 78th’s rise to the top and de-throning of Strathclyde Police in 1987 was a favourite, although now I’m sure the tale was heavily embellished. Then again the best ones are.
**Mind that Father Ted episode where he wins the Golden Cleric and he gives an acceptance speech where he lists all of the people who he felt had been cruel to him or held him back from becoming a ‘top priest’? … YouTube, mate. Worth your time.