Janey Godley, 57, is a Glaswegian award-winning comedian, playwright, author, and thorn in the side of Donald Trump (who blocked her on Twitter in 2012 after she made fun of his hair). Born and raised in the East End of Glasgow, Godley married into organized crime, owned a pub, then became a comedian in the 1990s. She made headlines in June 2016 when she staged a profane protest against then-presidential candidate Trump as he visited his Turnberry golf resort in Ayrshire, Scotland.
But many American audiences first got to know Godley a year earlier, after she dined with Anthony Bourdain in her hometown—which he said was one of his favorite cities on earth. He had the lobster thermidor and Scottish oysters; she had the pan-fried brill. And she says it was the best dinner date she’d ever had. Alexa van Sickle caught up with her recently.
Alexa van Sickle: You took Bourdain to Rogano’s, one of the oldest and most storied restaurants in Glasgow. What does that place mean to you?
Janey Godley: It’s one of my favorite restaurants in Glasgow. It’s very well known and was one of the first restaurants from Glasgow that was associated with good food—not just your usual fish and chips and pie and pasta. The interior of the restaurant is still from the 1930s, so visually it’s beautiful. It’s been in loads of movies. It’s a beautiful movie-set type of restaurant, with all the original fittings.
Van Sickle: It’s a seafood restaurant, and you once tweeted that you’re allergic to shellfish?
Godley: Yes. He was eating lobster, and he said, “Do you want some lobster?” And I said, “Anthony, I can’t eat shellfish. I’m allergic to shellfish.” And he went, “Aaww, what are you like? Allergic to shellfish!” And he said, “My wife’s allergic to parsley.” He said, “Women and their allergies.” I went, “Yeah, but none of us have shot up skank into our veins in the backstreets of New York, so you’re obviously allergic to nothing.”
He laughed so much at that, because I’m a comedian and he’s mocking my allergy to shellfish, and his wife being allergic to parsley, and I’m like, “You’ve shot heroin! Shut up!” He was funny. He was very warm and generous. It was the nicest dinner date I’ve ever had.
Van Sickle: In the episode, Bourdain says that Glasgow remains the region’s “no bulls***- zone,” that it’s his favorite city in Scotland and one of his favorite cities on earth. How did that feel for you, as someone who was born and bred there?
Godley: We are a very outspoken city. We speak to complete strangers in the street. We will tell you about our kidney infection at a bus stop. That’s who we are. We’ll tell you s*** you don’t want to know, and we’ll just keep repeating it until you hear it. And we love nothing more than somebody having a problem that we can all solve. If you can’t find somewhere to go, you don’t need Google Maps. Speak to a Glaswegian! Glaswegian maps are better. We’ll tell you. In fact, we will walk you there.
Van Sickle: What do you think gave Anthony Bourdain such an affinity for Glasgow?
Godley: Glaswegians are historically resisters. It’s a very socialist city, historically. And it’s a very matriarchal society as well. We had Mary the Rent Striker [Mary Barbour, Glasgow’s first female councilor, who led rent strikes in 1915 to protest landlords who unfairly raised rents and evicted tenants during the war]. Lots of ordinary, working-class Glaswegians—men and women—went to fight Franco during the Spanish Civil War.
So we’ve got a history of arguing with people, and I think Anthony found an affinity with that because he was always a maverick. He was a resister. He didn’t listen to anybody’s s***. He never took the first thing that was told to him as truth. He had a sparky spirit inside of him.
Glasgow is the kind of city that, if we see somebody being bullied, it will f***ing get into the fight with them, and Anthony was very much the same person. If he saw somebody being bullied, he’d join in the fight. That’s a very Glaswegian trope, right there.
Glasgow is the kind of city that, if we see somebody being bullied, it will f***ing get into the fight with them, and Anthony was very much the same person.
Van Sickle: The episode aired in 2015. Would you say that things have changed in Glasgow since then?
Godley: I’m not seeing that many changes. I suppose because I live here, I don’t see it. Under austerity and the Tory government, we’ve definitely got a tougher time. We’ve got more rough sleepers [homeless people], and sectarianism is on the rise. The Tory government’s affinity with the Unionists and the DUP [Northern Ireland’s conservative and pro-London Democratic Union Party, which agreed to support the U.K.’s minority Conservative Party government after the general election in June 2017] has emboldened the Unionists, and the sectarian element has risen its head again.
Van Sickle: You’ve become somewhat of an activist in recent years.
Godley: Yeah, by accident, just by being Glaswegian and loud. Some people spend their menopause organizing candle parties. I like to fight the [U.S.] president. And I argue with politicians and let my feelings be known, because—and Anthony said this to me—if you don’t speak up, who will? If not you, who?
Van Sickle: You once said that Donald Trump made you an activist.
Godley: Well, he actually blocked me on Twitter in 2012, after a storm hit his golf course in Aberdeen. I said, Well, if there’s a hole on your golf course, just grow the grass long and comb it over the hole. That’s what you do with your head. So I got blocked for that.
When he came to Scotland in 2016, I decided to protest him because I didn’t like the [things he was saying]. I just thought, You’re a bully, and I don’t like the cut of your jib, and I don’t like the fact you think it’s OK to be that kind of man. So I protested him, and [my protest] went viral.
Van Sickle: Even before he was president, Trump and Scotland had a particular history. He started developing the Turnberry golf resort on the Aberdeenshire coast in 2006, but many locals objected to his disregard for environmental rules and were unhappy when the jobs and investment he promised didn’t materialize.
Godley: Yeah, he messed my country about endlessly.
I love that Glenfiddich whiskey gave the Glenfiddich Award [Scotland’s prestigious food and drink awards] to the filmmaker who made You’ve Been Trumped! [Anthony Baxter’s documentary about a group of Scots who resisted Trump’s golf course plans]. And Trump was like, We’ll never have Glenfiddich whiskey. And we were like, “Good. Don’t drink their stuff.”
Then he treated the people up in Aberdeen, around his golf course, with absolute disdain.
He just kept coming in and saying, “Oh, you’ll get millions and millions of pounds [in investment from his golf course].” The thing that makes me laugh every morning when I wake up is that Trump Turnberry is losing millions every year. They can’t make a profit, and that makes me laugh. I made more of a profit, percentage wise, than Trump did, and I’m a f***ing comedian. My percentage of profit went up. Trump’s went down. I’m just a working-class, overfriendly cleaner that talks too much, but even my percentages went up more than his.
Van Sickle: You’ve had an eventful life. You once ran a pub.
Godley: I owned a pub when I was younger, and then I became a stand-up comic.
Van Sickle: How did you make that transition?
Godley: I used to own a bar in the East End of Glasgow. I married into kind of a gangster family. In 1994 my father-in-law died, and my husband’s family all started to f***ing implode on each other. I had six brothers-in-law. Six! [My husband’s] mother had seven sons, and then she died—I’m presuming of boredom.
So I thought, “I can’t live with these irritating men.” And we [my daughter and I] left. My husband said, “What are you going to do? You left school at 16. You have no qualifications.” I said, “I’ll become a comedian. I’m funny.” And I did. Literally, I just did that.
Van Sickle: So you started out doing local gigs in Glasgow?
Godley: Yeah, the way everybody starts out. I went to small gigs and got stage time. I went to open-mic spots, and then I got good at it, and then more people liked it, and that’s how it works.
Godley: Yep, Margaret Atwood’s a big fan of hers, and my daughter wept buckets because she’s a big Margaret Atwood fan. She’s been reading Margaret Atwood since she was a teenager.
She’s the opposite of me. She’s privately educated. She’s got a degree. She’s got everything that I never got, the chances in life. She has two parents. My mother was murdered. I tried to make her life the opposite of mine, and she’s just f***ing great. She’s now got her own radio show on BBC Radio Scotland on a Friday night. She’s writing three pilots. She’s hosting a TV show for the new channel in Scotland. She’s just doing great, because she’s f***ing supertalented.
Van Sickle: So what’s next for you? You’re on TV, you’re doing radio, you have a podcast, a blog.
Godley: Yes, Ashley and I did a podcast for seven years, but she’s too busy, and I do it on my own now. I just sit by myself and talk like a sad woman with a candle at the window, but people still like it. I’m a painter. I do a lot of art. I’m donating a painting tonight to a charity, so I’ve just been painting. I’m literally covered in paint.
Van Sickle: Thank you so much for talking with us.
Godley: Thank you for having me on the program. It was a highlight in my life, and everybody I knew contacted me about it. I was like, “Yes I had dinner with Anthony Bourdain, and he was f***ing awesome, and we laughed, and we swore a lot.” It was great. We had a great time together, and he made me laugh, and of course he’s a huge hero of mine, and I had listened to all his books because I do them on audiobooks, and every hotel I’d been on the road, I had Anthony Bourdain practically in bed with me speaking to me while I was falling asleep, and here he was sitting opposite me having a natter. The f***ing world is cold for not having him in it. It’s cold. And we’ll all miss him, you know? … You know, the good ones go.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.