Review by Tom Dunne in the Irish Examiner
It is that towering a work, a little nugget of Christmas reality amongst the schmaltz. It’s you making exorbitant demands for toys while your mother frets and tots up sums on an envelope. It’s where you hoped to be versus the reality of a kitchen table on a cold December morning. It is genius.
But what of the man who wrote it? Shane MacGowan, as mythical as the man in the red suit and, almost bizarrely, born on Christmas Day himself. A man who is our greatest songwriter but who is also a physical mess and ravaged by addiction.
Separating the man from the myth and the art from the havoc around it has never been easy. The myths have, if anything, been growing of late and a balanced view has been long overdue. Richard’s Ball’s new tome, A Furious Devotion: The Authorised Story of Shane MacGowan is that, and more.
There is much to untangle, like not being born in Ireland for a start. He was born in Pembury in the UK, near Tunbridge Wells. His parents, Maurice and Theresa, had emigrated there. Her strong roots to Tipperary and a cottage called ‘the Commons,’ where Shane spent many summers, would become hugely important to him.
Theirs was not the typical ‘Irish in the UK’ experience. They were ‘well to do’ and Shane attended a fee-paying primary school. Encouraged by Maurice, Shane was an advanced reader by a very early age. The essays he wrote, aged 9, were so good his teacher kept them for posterity.
Their choice of secondary school was remarkable: Westminster, in the precincts of Westminster Abbey, a school that has produced three British Prime Ministers. Thomas Dolby was a classmate. Alumni include Helena Bonham Carter, Louis Theroux and Nicolas Clegg.
And herein the issues began. Shane was expelled, aged 14, for, amongst other things, dealing drugs. He was already drinking and aged 17 had been admitted to Bethlem Royal, a psychiatric hospital in London. His sister, Siobhan, remembers him as being, “anxious and upset,” when she visited him on his 18th birthday, Christmas Day.
A few months later he was one of that tiny coterie of people who saw The Sex Pistols support Joe Strummer’s the 101ers. Strummer said that five minutes into their set he knew his band were over. Shane said they were what he’d been waiting for all his life.
He became a punk icon, one of the faces of that nascent scene. His early band, The Nipple Erectors, didn’t succeed but afterwards, in late-night sessions in London flats, acquaintances were made and ideas fomented that would over time become The Pogues.
They were based on a simple idea. “What if,” they asked, “we were to play great Irish music – The Dubliners et al. – with the energy and attitude of punk?”
It sounded so simple, but apart from its energy and joie de vivre it had something else that would elevate it: the songs of Shane MacGowan.
That literary skill he had developed as a mere child, that eye for detail, that ear for the conversations around him, the lives of others, their ‘hope and dreams’ was about to deliver in spades. Songs such as A Rainy Night in Soho and A Pair of Brown Eyes, capture something about the human experience, and in particular that of the Irish abroad, that will resonate for generations to come.
The reaction of his publisher to hearing Fairy-tale for the first time is magnificent. He cries, obviously, but then makes the point that it is not how you play, it is what you are saying that counts, and in that song Shane is saying something that will go straight to people’s hearts and minds forever.
Yet it was his undoing. Within six months of its release, Siobhan was having him committed. She pleaded for him to be excused from touring but It fell on deaf ears. Three years of touring lay ahead and three years of incredibly self-destructive behaviour.
As Richard Balls, the author, says poignantly, “for Siobhan, the brother she had always known and loved was about to disappear.” Dare I say it, an essential Christmas purchase? Definitely!