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Searching for Shane MacGowan I've spent my life in thrall to the Irish rebel

'Conflict is the engine of creativity.' (Martyn Goodacre/Getty Images)

'Conflict is the engine of creativity.' (Martyn Goodacre/Getty Images)


December 4, 2023   5 mins

Other than a dissection of abject narcissism, I’m no longer sure poetry has much to offer us. I think we’re losing our capacity to look outwards. The writing that interests me most now is about this crisis, this prolapsing of perspective. Looking anywhere other than inwards these days seems decadent to me. This wasn’t always the case. There was a time when titans roamed the earth. There were once shoulders broad enough to carry the entire mess of the human condition, and not once dare whine about the struggle endured.

When I first moved to London, I went searching for Shane. Literally, as well as metaphorically, spiritually, aesthetically. I found him, on each count. Where the former was concerned, at Highgate’s Boogaloo pub. I’d heard that’s where he was getting pissed at the time. I was an hour or two early, the place was still shut, but peering through the glass I could make out a bloke that looked just like Mr MacGowan asleep sprawled across the sofa. My god, could it be? I came back once it had opened, and sure enough there he was, propping up the bar surrounded by bevvy. People forever buying him drinks. The idea crossed my mind. Too shy. Also, he’s got enough drinks. I was skint, still at that point in my life where I’d bring my own cans to the pub to save dollar.

I’d loved The Pogues back in Ulster where I grew up. They’d long been a fixture in my household. I recall buying my mum the “Best Of” for Christmas one year, at her request. Weird that, when you’re a kid and you don’t have any money. Your parents choose the gift and pay for it. Sort of pointless. Anyway, I remember feeling confused at the sight of this snaggle-toothed fella on the sleeve clutching a guitar, grinning at me. There was an immediate difference between this guy and Take That or George Michael, my mum’s other favourites. He was imperfect, and proudly so by the looks of it. When I stuck it on the stereo the bafflement only thickened. This man could not sing. My mum wasn’t into punk rock. She was into pop music. Shane had crossed boundaries that, at the time, aged 10, I had no idea existed.

Once adolescence kicked in, it started to make sense. This wayward Irish rebel thing. This not being able to sing. Living in Ireland, though, I was just one among many. I preferred The Clash. It felt harsher, had fuzzy electric guitars, it therefore felt more real. I was on my way to London come hell or high water. London Calling was therefore my anthem.

Once I arrived, they switched places. I had to carve out an identity for myself in the Big Smoke. Irish. I was going to be thoroughly Irish. There weren’t many Irishmen at UCL. I took to drinking severely and listening to Red Roses for Me at a volume that nobody on campus could tolerate. I fell so deeply in love with Shane’s lyricism that, as my life slowly started to resemble one of his jovial nightmares, I took it to be a matter of pride, of authenticity. I wanted to step into one of those fables and remain there, where — impossibly — things going horribly wrong could somehow generate festivity.

My first attempt at a band — “The Saudi’s” — was more than just a little Pogues-inflected. I didn’t have a clue how to write a melody, but I fancied myself a wordsmith. If you lack a certain cynicism, once you become obsessed enough with a writer, you can’t help but fancy yourself a wordsmith. I would rewrite the words to tunes on Pogues records. An embarrassing first pass, I recall turning “Waxie’s Dargle” into “The Yardie from Killarney”, a song about the only other Irish-Algerian-Londoner I’d ever met.

That was my pal Ronnie, whose floor I was living on at the time, sharing a double mattress with my little brother after flunking out of uni. Ronnie had just come out of prison. This made him prime fodder for writing a Pogues-inspired tune, a second-generation immigrant ex-con. A perennial outsider. We used to spend our afternoons folding drug wraps for him out of lottery cards whilst listening to “Transmetropolitan”. Life can’t help but imitate art. Art has style — it’s seductive. When the evening rolled around, we’d terrorise east London loaded on Buckfast, a bottomless sack of cheap pingers at our disposal.

The band went nowhere. Well, almost nowhere. Spider Stacy, The Pogues’ tin whistle player, left a flattering comment on our Myspace page one time. I held onto this fact for years. It’s these fragments of acknowledgment that keep you buoyant through the deep tundra of namelessness. Spider was into it. It’s still possible. The follow-up project to that first band wound up sharing a stage with The Pogues in Thetford Forest roughly 10 years later. Shane was obviously long since passed his prime. He had a telly prompter for the lyrics, which I found pretty funny. Who doesn’t get the order of the verses muddled up on “Dirty Old Town”? They work whichever way you sling them. He’d do three or four songs then disappear backstage for a fag or a sit down, I’m not sure. There was still this glow, this presence, this living, breathing sense of history emanating from the dude.

What is it with the Irish and language? I am of course only a plastic paddy, or a cultural paddy in part. I was born in England, my mum’s from Yorkshire, my dad’s Algerian, but for the most part I grew up over there. Six years in Galway, six in Scotland, then another six in County Tyrone before moving to London at 18. Freud allegedly stated that the Irish were immune to psychotherapy, that you could divide the population of the world into two camps: people, and Irish people. I’m going to take a mutton-fisted stab in the dark and suggest that in Ireland, there’s less of a fixation on practicality where words are concerned. There’s an element of play in every lexicon, but with the mick, it’s proportionally off the chart. Maybe this is because it pisses it down all the time. With so much of life spent indoors, they have little choice but to turn everything that comes out of their mouths into a kind of game.

Splice this tendency with the unfortunate proximity to Imperial London and you have a recipe for a world-beating poetics of opposition. A poetics that can’t switch itself off. The contradictions in the national character come too thick and fast to settle on an answer. Hedonistic yet devout, thick-skinned yet suprasensual, foul-tempered yet stubbornly polite. Shane described it thus: “I’m following the Irish tradition of life, the human way of life. Cram as much pleasure into life and rail against the pain you have to suffer as a result. Or scream and rant with the pain and wait for it to be taken away with beautiful pleasure.”

Conflict is the engine of creativity. The Irish spirit has a greater capacity for irresolution than most. One need only look at the wild success of their diaspora to bolster this generalisation. In The Pogues, in the voice of Shane MacGowan, we hear this capacity at fever pitch, stretched to its ecstatic limit.

There is nothing beyond acceptance in his vernacular. An unequivocal affirmation of life in all its hoary, pernicious, astounding, violently glorious detail. Arch shit-stirrer Mark E. Smith criticised him on account of his being a peddler of “show tunes”. This is to miss the point entirely. It’s the familiarity of the sonic palette, the conservatism of it, crossbred with the surrealist hell-scapes of the vocal performance and lyrics that render it untouchable, if not exactly avant garde. The best writers reveal to us what we already know. Shane showed us a version of Irish history, and of the immigrant experience especially, which we all had a sense of regardless. What a relief to hear it rendered with such savage glee, honesty and compassion. He will be sorely missed.


Lias Saoudi is the frontman of Fat White Family and the Moonlandingz, and the co-author of Ten Thousand Apologies: Fat White Family and the Miracle of Failure

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AJ Mac
AJ Mac
7 months ago

The author’s opening claim is familiar in a bad way. People have declared poetry dead again and again. Theodor Adorno claimed there could be no poetry after the Shoah–he was wrong and he admitted that in later years.
A Irishman–one of the world’s greatest-ever poets–once wrote: “The woods of Arcady are dead, / And over is their antique joy, / The world of old on dreaming fed; / Grey truth is now her painted toy;”.
WB Yeats was about 20 when he wrote those half-true, half-bullsh*t lines, published in 1885. And he continued to write many more brilliant lines for decades, despite the supposed loss of the Arcadian Forest.
I think we tend to misunderstand both the tragedy and the triumph of a rare, brilliant eff-up like Shane McGowan. (Though not as rare as we might think, as many brilliant eff-ups live and die in total obscurity).
His whole act and public persona was soaked in drink. What a needless shame. He could have drank about one-third as much as he did without flirting with sobriety or “bourgeoisie boringness”. But he made a little something of his life even so. He will forever be someone who both was something yet might have been more. (Rather like nearly all of us). He is not a mere cautionary tale, nor a hero we ought to celebrate without huge red flags of warning. But much of that should be put aside when we listen to the music,–or read the verse, view the art, etc.–of McGowan, or any gifted drunk.
Poetry ain’t dead and it never will be. Many who think they have no ear for verse have memorized hundreds of rhyming song lyrics. Some of the best of those are surely good poetry. And much poetry is nonsense, or a waste of time. But not all of it. That has always been true.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
7 months ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

Thanks for going “searching for Shane McGowan”, because whilst what you write resonates in an abstract sense regarding those with a tendency to “wax lyrical” i suspect for a large majority of people, the reaction will be “why”?

I’ve no doubt he’ll have his devotees, and my intention isn’t to tread on anyone’s feelings here, but in a generation or so, who will remember anything other than Fairytale of New York? Citing WB Yeats just adds to the lack of general significance by contrast.

Perhaps he drank because the world has changed too much to accommodate him? I don’t know, but neither is there enough to induce sympathy, as we all negotiate the trials of our era. Art, music and poetry will continue, as expressions of the human condition.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
7 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Yes, I’m not saying he’s Yeats or Keats, nor Dylan or Lennon. I was going after the low- hanging fruit of Mr. Saoudi’s introductory claim, which to be fair was “I’m not sure poetry has much to offer us anymore”, not “poetry is dead”.
My younger brother, who’s always had varied and interesting musical taste, once gifted me a CD of “Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash”. While I didn’t dislike all of it, I didn’t like it much. Angry and tuneless overall, to my ear.
I admit I have both sympathy and empathy for those who suffer/indulge in their cups, and with other compulsions such as gambling. My regrettable, mostly-past-tense experience knowledge of such addictions (booze and gambling in particular) also make me impatient with efforts to romanticize the drunken or otherwise pathological artist. It isn’t cute.
Many of the most gifted, as well as mediocre musicians have drinking problems, and other maladjustments. I don’t agree with those who claim the artist’s pathologies are central to the art or songs themselves. Drunks have made some good tunes and poems, but I can’t see drinking a lot as a net creative benefit, especially when the person behind the song never puts a cork in it.

FacRecte NilTime
FacRecte NilTime
7 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

“who will remember anything other than Fairytale of New York?” A Pair of Brown Eyes and Rainy Night In Soho will likely pass down generations, even as memory of the lyricist’s name and life-story fades away. RIP Shane McGowan

William Amos
William Amos
7 months ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

It strikes me that since Shelley, Keats and the Romantic rediscovery of Shakespeare as an ‘untaught’ natural genius, old poesy has had to carry an unbearable expectation as far as novelty, naturalism and immediacy is concerned. Added to this it is now tasked with sustaining, for some, the salvific quality that Religion should provide.
It is especially perverse in the Irish context where the ballad tradition is, or should be, all about simple forms repeated down the ages. Words and tunes, images and ideas which act like a sort of pictographic super-language.
Mr McGowan’s best popular song, A Pair of Brown Eyes uses a tune derived from the traditional scottish ballad The Braes of Balqhuidder. The lyrics are a reverie of misheard and half remembered popular and folk songs. Bob Dylan’s Masters of War reuses the ballad Lord Randall to similar good effect.
This writer’s view of the function of Poetry is firmly in the conventional late Romantic tradition which requires of its verse a monument more durable than brass, written by lightning. “conflict is the engine of creativity”, well, that comes from Shelley. Poetry as a “dissection of abject narcissism”, that is inherited from Byron.
It may be liberating for him. if he wishes to rediscover poetry, to release it from that conceptual prison and allow it to speak, more modestly, as simple poesy. Mr McGowan knew this and turned it to his own pleasure and profit.

Last edited 7 months ago by William Amos
AJ Mac
AJ Mac
7 months ago
Reply to  William Amos

Thanks for your thought-provoking remarks. I’ve always thought that Shelley in particular was the most gushingly over the top caricature of the Romantic bard. His “A Defense of Poetry” contains many intriguing claims and much self-serious hyperbole, including the famous last line: “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”. I do like some of his stuff but I don’t place him or Coleridge alongside Wordsworth, Keats, or the proto-Romantic greats: Blake and Burns. Just some more unsolicited opinion.
I’d agree that the Romantics still haunt some of our versifiers, offering excuses for navel-gazing and “revolutionary spasms”–though few will actually go to war like Byron did.
Still I think the great majority of those who take up the lyric or even epic pen have always been minor poets at best, even poetasters. One thing to consider: Only a small percentage of writing from the Elizabethan Era and earlier survives, and only a fraction of that extant writing is read by more than a very few. Overall the work from Shakespeare’s time and earlier has been well-sifted for quality, beginning with16th and early-17th century contemporaries, then in each successive generation. To a lesser extent this true of early 19th century works too–much is lost or out of print and totally obscure in a way that is rarely the case for a published more recently, in our Information Age.
We are awash in recently-published verse now, most of it bad and little read. The days when poetry was a mainstay of newspapers and read aloud by common folk around the hearth or in well-attended public recitals have passed. But among those born in the past 100 years I think WS Merwin and Denise Levertov are on the short list of poets whose work will endure. A mostly fallow period does not equal no harvest at all. And I believe the soil will become more fertile again.

J Bryant
J Bryant
7 months ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

An interesting discussion thread on an interesting article. Thank you.

Chris Oliver
Chris Oliver
7 months ago
Reply to  William Amos

Hard Rain, I think, uses Lord Randall, rather than Masters of War.

But then, Dylan used all sorts of stuff. So did MacGowan, and so what? Better to be used than left lying about.

William Amos
William Amos
7 months ago
Reply to  Chris Oliver

That’s the substance of my point. That’s what poetry was, is and should be. The addiction to novelty has desiccated Arcadia.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
7 months ago
Reply to  William Amos

But why should poetry dwell between the covers of a book. John Lennon and Leonard Cohen were not trivial lights, or chimes if you will. The bardic tradition was already derivative or diluted (in a sense) once poems were first written down. And William Blake, and contemporaries of Chaucer and Dante made similar complaint similar to yours.
Insofar as I can discern your point, I partly agree with you. Addiction to novelty desiccates the soil and distracts from the source energy. So does rigid adherence to tradition or past models.
*I think the greatest loss for many scribblers– especially in poetry but even in prose–is the attention to sound, to the music of language.
“If thou indeed derive thy light from Heaven, / Then, to the measure of that heaven-born light, / Shine, Poet! in thy place, and be content:” –Wordsworth

Last edited 7 months ago by AJ Mac
Simon Neale
Simon Neale
7 months ago

I’ve spent my life in thrall to the Irish rebel

So two lives wasted for the price of one.

Trevor Q
Trevor Q
7 months ago

Brilliant. Thank you.

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
7 months ago

Time to grow up, then.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
7 months ago

This is the second essay we have had on this ridiculous ‘Plastic Paddy’, enough is enough.

Kieran P
Kieran P
7 months ago

As you clearly know constitutes a ‘plastic paddy’ I’d be really thankful for a definition. I’ve always wondered.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
7 months ago

Congratulations on the caption photograph.
“A picture paints a million words” as they say.

Dr. G Marzanna
Dr. G Marzanna
7 months ago

Great, best thing I’ve read about Shane.

william tostevin
william tostevin
7 months ago

Nice work

Last edited 7 months ago by william tostevin
Tom More
Tom More
7 months ago

Poetry operates and mines reality at the level of what Aquinas called final causality. The end or purpose that every thing seeks and which constitutes its actual definition in reality. Its material interactive and measurable aspect is very useful information but its utility comes in similar relation to its own final cause.
The poet plays among the orderings of being; final causes and these truths are deeper and richer and more mystical than modes of measurement. The Irish spiritual and philosophical realism , the final cause of reason itself is at play, pursuing its proper ends.