Monday, December 21, 2015

Fairytale of New Cross

If you already feel as though Christmas has been going on for quite a while now, that is because it has: the reason for this is because no one can agree when Christmas begins, anymore. Is it when the first mince pies appear in the supermarkets? Is it when the John Lewis television advert is first broadcast? Is it when you put your tree up? And when is that supposed to be? Is it as soon as December arrives? Or is it twelve days before Christmas? There is certainly a class dimension to Christmas, these days: lower down the social scale the plastic tree will have been up since mid-November and the kids will be opening their presents in the dark at 5am on the big day; at the top of the class ladder, the Norwegian spruce will go up on Christmas Eve and the poor little blighters will have to wait until after Christmas luncheon for their gifts.

I, of course, know exactly when Christmas begins: it is the precise moment at which you hear, for the first time that winter, James Fearnley’s piano introduction to The Pogues’ Fairytale of New York. This song is the greatest Christmas single never to have topped the hit parade: it chimes with the reflective and bittersweet mood of the season and has never turned stale. What its ubiquity has done, though, is render almost all Pogues' songs as Christmas songs: Misty Morning Albert Bridge, Rainy Night in Soho, London Girls – even A Pair of Brown Eyes – all sound festive to me at this time of year. So when the Christmas music comes out in our house, alongside the Sinatra and Elvis festive albums and assorted seasonal compilations, there is always a Pogues’ Best of. This year, there was a bonus: when I saw James Yorkston play in Bexhill earlier this month, he performed two songs that The Pogues have also covered, I’m A Man You Don’t Meet Everyday and The Band Played Waltzing Matilda. The Pogues are one of those bands I have never stopped listening to; they are a perennial soundtrack to the past thirty-odd years and I associate them with nothing but good times.

The association probably began in February 1980 in The Wellington pub, just around the corner from the Lyceum Ballroom in London. A mob of us were carousing before a Joy Division gig and a big-eared, broken-toothed bloke came over to us and snarled, “You lot seem to be the only people in ‘ere having a fuckin’ good time; do you mind if I ‘ave a drink with yer?” We were a raggle-taggle bunch of punks, proto-Goths, football hooligans and longhaired hippies but we all recognised Shane MacGowan, either from his status as a face on the fledgling punk scene or his band, The Nips. He never mentioned who he was and neither did we - back in those egalitarian times, bands and fans were all the same – but we had a good time getting drunker together.

A couple of years later, I was squashed in the basement bar of the Hope and Anchor on Islington’s Upper Street, waiting for a new band called Pogue Mahone to come on stage. I had been told they combined punk and Irish folk music and were worth seeing - I didn’t think it sounded too promising; but they were incredible and there, on stage, was Shane again, standing next to a bloke repeatedly hitting himself on the head with a tin tray as the musicians behind them played with phenomenal speed and energy. I had never seen the like.

Further down the line, in the late 80s and early 90s, there were all those gigs at Brixton Academy which became annual fixtures at either Christmastime or on St. Patrick’s Day. The evening would always begin in the Canterbury Arms behind the police station, and each would end up as raucous as the last. I am quite sure I can recall one performance when Shane wasn’t even there: Joe Strummer was on lead vocals, instead, and there were several Clash songs in the set. I might have dreamt that, or just fabricated it, but I think it’s true.

More recently, as the fin de si├Ęcle became the new millennium, The Pogues were a consistent feature of the football routine. The Amersham Arms in New Cross, south-east London, an Irish-run pub and music venue, always had plenty of Pogues on the front bar jukebox and, as the pre-match drinking session was winding up, their version of Ewan MacColl’s Dirty Old Town was a regular rallying cry before the game. And I think that is why I most associate The Pogues with good times. Those were the last days free of the weight of responsibilities: before kids, before teaching, before genteel poverty; when all I had to worry about was getting out of bed early enough on a Saturday morning to get to the pub on time – what seems now, like a fairytale existence.

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