Shane MacGowan singing

A few hours before the singer songwriter Shane MacGowan died, I had driven my children back to our home. We then sat outside in the car for a few extra minutes and listened to Pogues songs on Spotify and talked about what they might mean. My children are still willing to humour me occasionally, I’m sure this will change soon enough.

Although there are Pogues songs on the car’s playlist, I’ve not done this before. Just sat there with them, after a journey, and listened to MacGowan sing. Perhaps it was prompted by the images of him in hospital, on the news.

When someone important dies there’s mourning for them, but also for yourself, past self, memories.

It’s self indulgent but inevitable.

And these next paragraphs are going to be self indulgent.

Just an oxy-moron

The idea of such a thing as a second generation immigrant! It’s an oxymoron. Or just a moron.

But there’s something in that label. It sticks around.

MacGowan was born in England to Irish-born parents, as was I, eighteen years later.

Parents born in another country bring its culture and otherness with them. This mixes up their children, for good and bad. “Caught between two worlds” and other cliches.

When my parents left Ireland in the 1960s there was no internet or WhatsApp or Facebook to close the distance between their two countries. Leaving was definite and permanent in a way that must be difficult for people born more recently to imagine.

There are reasons why The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem’s version of “The Leaving of Liverpool” was a top 10 hit in Ireland in 1964. We can argue about this another day.

I was too young to have much of an understanding of The Pogues in their 80s prime. I have a memory of coming home from school and seeing them on RTE’s The Late Late Show when Channel 4 used to broadcast it in the UK. And memories of my dad explaining why many of my Irish relatives were not keen on them. This was before the Celtic Tiger boom, when there was a greater sensitivity about the drunken “Paddy” stereotype.

The noise of it

My first Pogues purchase may have been 1991’s Greatest Hits. On cassette.

Again, if you’re born post-internet, it may be difficult to grasp how important pop music was to teenage culture, self expression and communication.

As a teenager, the cassette Walkman augmented my reality. The Pogues’ music has soundtracked so much of my life.

MacGowan injected punk attitude into (what I considered, in my ignorance) the polite Irish traditional tunes of my childhood. He re-framed these tunes, made them relevant to me.
The noise of it. The joy of it. Rewind 40 years and consider the sheer audacity of it.

His lyrics added another layer to my everyday experience. There was a richness and a beauty to them. And I was aware of many of his Irish-Anglo references.

I’d heard scratchy recordings of John McCormack’s light opera played at home. The colour of the Formica table tops on the ferry from Holyhead to Dublin. Catholic mass. My dad’s 1960s Brendan Behan paperbacks. The tour guide with leather elbow patches in Kilmainham Gaol. The besuited men in Inchicore pubs. People who enjoyed talking for the sake of it, who seemed warmer, less transactional.

Which meant I could be part of, or at least imagine I could be part of, his mythology. Which gave me a sense of belonging – very useful for a teenager.

Later, when I lived in West London, I’d always try to listen to Dark Streets of London when walking down Dalling Road.

And when I need a boost of bravado, his lyric still springs to mind:

“But they wouldn’t give you service so you kicked the windows out”.

I could go on. I won’t go on.

See also

Danny Boy by Shane MacGowan & The Popes is one of the songs I played in the car.
From the Christmas Party E.p. ’96. There’s a vulnerability to it. On Youtube.

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