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‘At 11 he was reading Dostoyevsky’

This extract from a new biography of the Pogues frontman reveals his talent for writing lyrics was evident from an early age

Shane MacGowan’s upbringing may have seemed conventional for the time, but he was not, especially when it came to reading. He devoured books and exhibited an appetite for literature way beyond his age.

His father Maurice, hugely literate himself, often read with him and nurtured his interest in heavyweight classic novels that few children of his age would have attempted. His mother Therese was also a great reader and she encouraged his love of books, which he was always happy to discuss with others.

Maurice remembers: “We read and discussed books a lot together. We would laugh a lot at Joyce. We read out the funnier passages from Ulysses and with Finnegans Wake – I managed one page and he alleged he’d read two! We both liked the passage in Finnegans Wake where God was called ‘Guv’; we laughed a lot at that and KMRIA [Kiss My Royal Irish Arse] in Ulysses. Back then, we probably considered Dubliners his better work.

“Both Therese and I would be reading writers like Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene and he would read them also. We also enjoyed the mobsters in Damon Runyon. We read Sean O’Casey, DH Lawrence and Dostoyevsky (The Brothers Karamazov), and Voltaire and Sartre. This was all up to age 12; he had a very advanced reading age. We had a great meeting of minds up until age 12, and then Shane progressed on to more modern things and writers that I’d find challenging, like Günter Grass.”

Shane MacGowan with Richard Balls, author of A Furious Devotion
Shane MacGowan with Richard Balls, author of A Furious Devotion. Photograph: Paul Ronan

Shane’s sister Siobhan recalls: “I was drawing one time while we were watching Doctor Who and I drew a tree with pink leaves and a blue stem. And Shane went, ‘No, no, that’s brown and that’s green; And I went, ‘Huh?’ And he said, ‘It’s all right, you’re a surrealist.’ I suppose he was about 10. He was reading widely, and Dad was giving him the books to read, and he didn’t give him children’s books; he gave him books by Irish writers and other classic writers. So, he was reading grown-up books. Dad would have had a big influence on that and that started young, Dad’s handing him books. They shared a very close relationship at that stage. Shane read a lot of what Dad would be giving him and they talked a lot about all that kind of stuff.”

Catherine Leech also had regular conversations with young Shane about books and recalls him being “very intellectual”. “He was great fun and he used to read an awful lot,” she says. “Shane actually introduced me to Samuel Beckett. Shane read everything and his daddy never stopped him reading and never said to him, ‘You’re not to read that’. He was just naturally clever, but then so was his daddy.”

His cousin Michele has fond memories of babysitting him and she was astounded at the level of books he read. “He was a softie. He had beautiful curly hair and we just used to laugh. He was just a really nice kid to look after. We used to play with games and Shane used to read bits to me of what he was reading. That’s when I used to think, I’m not quite sure what the hell that was all about… I was trying to get through Ulysses because I was thinking, I’ve got to be able to read this. So, I tried to be as clever as he was, this little squirt!”

I was good at writing about history and stuff about what was going on in America: the Vietnam War, the Black Panthers, the riots and killings, and the Ku Klux Klan. I was interested in that sort of thing

Aged 11½, Shane was reading The Devils by Dostoyevsky, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. His writing was also precocious, and so highbrow were his reading lists that some of his teachers were suspicious. How many children of his age would possess such an imagination, let alone be able to bring such extraordinary ideas so powerfully to the page? And was it really likely that during the school holidays he was reading works by Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche?

At Holmewood, the primary school he attended, English teacher, the late Tom Simpson, was initially sceptical of Shane’s claims, but when he came to mark the stories Shane had written, he knew the school had a literary genius on its hands. Even at 8½, he says, Shane was simply “brilliant”. “It is extraordinary that quite a lot of staff and boys didn’t appreciate him at all,” said Tom, in an interview for this book. “Holmewood didn’t shut him down, but they did not realise what an amazing talent he had. Some of them, I think, didn’t believe it. ‘Did he really write that? I don’t believe it.’ But I did believe it because I had seen a lot of it in his own handwriting… I said to Bob [the headmaster], ‘We have an amazing young man here and we have got to do something about it.’ I think Shane did enjoy his last few years at Holmewood because eventually the rest of the staff began to realise how brilliant he was. I pushed it a bit.”

Shane remarks: “He [Tom Simpson] was a tortured artistic genius. He realised I could probably write better stuff than him with a bit of help… I wasn’t interested in what I was writing about in the essays, but I was good at writing about history and stuff about what was going on in America: the Vietnam War, the Black Panthers, the riots and killings, and the Ku Klux Klan. I was interested in that sort of thing. I wasn’t interested in f***ing GI Joe and cricket.”

Shane MacGowan with The Holmewoodian, his prep school’s magazine
Shane MacGowan with The Holmewoodian, his prep school’s magazine

It is testament to the indelible impression Shane’s words made on his English teacher that Simpson kept many of his handwritten stories and one of his exercise books, convinced his star pupil would one day be famous. I collected them when I went to meet him and returned them to Shane and his family, something Tom had always wanted.

The stories, penned in a large and distinctive hand during his time at Holmewood, offer a fascinating insight into the development of a unique songwriter. They show that the subjects which animate him today – the Catholic Church, rural Irish society, war – inspired him just as deeply as a child. The essays written during his time at Holmewood also illustrate how Shane learned young the value of listening in on conversations.

In Dusk, which appeared in the school journal The Holmewoodian, he name-checked “Paddy McGrath, madman of the Puckane district” and described the exchanges between locals coming and going on asses and carts. “‘Even’ to you, Mick.’ ‘Even’, Pat. How’s the missus? Thought she had a cold.’ All off to some place.”

He used the vocabulary of the man and woman in the street and his storytelling was more authentic for it, just as his songs would be

Overheard gossip supplied fodder for a piece entitled From the Top of the Hill. On seeing a local pub was closed, he concluded the landlord “must have got pissed last night as he always does. One night he came home and threw chairs at his wife and child. They had to leave the house.” Even at 12, Shane was soaking up stories about people and committing them to paper. Coarse language and the vernacular peppered his stories. “Get moving, you bitch of an ass” and “Gerroff, you bloody cur!” form part of the colourful dialogue in Dusk.

In Man Drowning, he wrote: “Look at the beach. A woman and a kid. She’s asleep. Stupid cow.” He used the vocabulary of the man and woman in the street and his storytelling was more authentic for it, just as his songs would be; “You scumbag, you maggot,” slurs one of his drunken characters famously in Fairytale of New York.

Like his English teacher, his parents also thought Shane might end up writing books. “We knew he was brilliant at writing and English and all that kind of thing, and Maurice said, ‘I suppose you’ll probably earn your living as a writer’,” recalled Therese. “He said, ‘I will, Dad, but not in the way you’re talking about. I’ll earn my living,’ he said, ‘through music, writing through music because that’s the way you communicate with people nowadays. It’s a much wider form of communication.’ I remember him saying that.”

Maurice added, “Well, I suppose, you see, I thought it might be more in the book form, rather than in the song form. But that’s before [he was] 12. I knew around 12 it wasn’t going to be that because there was Bob Dylan blowing one ear out and the Grateful Dead blowing the other. I knew there was something going on there.”

The headmaster asked him a question and Shane wasn’t quite sure what the answer was. So, he took a coin out of his pocket and threw it in the air and said, ‘Do you want heads or tails?’

Catherine Leech always took a great interest in Shane’s progress and wondered if he might write books. But she was not surprised when he went on to forge a career in music. “That’s what I would have expected because he didn’t just suddenly become like that,” she said. “It would have been part of him. It was bound to come out some way because he came from such a musical family.”

As well as Shane’s natural gift for writing and his unusually candid style of prose, Tom Simpson also remembered his pupil’s wry sense of humour. “I can remember him taking the mickey out of the headmaster,” he said. “A lot of the other boys there were listening, and the headmaster asked him a question and Shane wasn’t quite sure what the answer was. So, he took a coin out of his pocket and threw it in the air and said, ‘Do you want heads or tails?’ Bob did not know what to do and he looked at me and I was hysterical with laughter. Shane wasn’t being rude because he could take the mickey out of anybody.”

Shane has also not forgotten the incident, “Well, I thought it was the best idea. I didn’t want to be wrong, and we loved taking the piss out of him.” Justin Bairamian, Bob’s son and director of BBC Creative, found bound copies of The Holmewoodian in his late father’s possessions. They included stories Shane had written between the ages of nine and 13 that were striking in their maturity.

“They are bizarre pieces, as you would expect,” says Justin. “Tom always said that he wrote like an 18- or 19-year-old at the age of nine or 10 and he was one of the brightest English students he ever taught. He has always remembered him fondly… The reason he kept all the work is because he admired it so much. He certainly wouldn’t have done that with a lot of boys.”

A Furious Devotion: The Life of Shane MacGowan by Richard Balls is published on October 7th by Omnibus Press

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