“At 11, he read Dostoyevsky”

This excerpt 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 at the time, but it wasn’t, especially when it came to reading. He devoured books and showed an appetite for literature far beyond his age.

His father Maurice, himself very educated, often read with him and nourished his interest in heavy classic novels that few children of his age would have attempted. His mother Thérèse 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 a lot and discussed books together. We would laugh a lot at Joyce. We read aloud the funniest passages from Ulysses and with Finnegans Wake – I managed one page and he claimed he had read two! We both liked the part of Finnegans Wake where God was called “Guv”; we laughed a lot at that and KMRIA [Kiss My Royal Irish Arse] to Ulysses. At the time, we probably considered Dubliners to be his best job.

“Therese and I read writers like Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene and he would read them too. We also enjoyed Damon Runyon’s mobsters. We read Sean O’Casey, DH Lawrence and Dostoyevsky (The Brothers Karamazov), and Voltaire and Sartre . All this until he was 12; he had a very advanced reading age. We had a great wit until he was 12, then Shane moved on to more modern things. and to writers I would find difficult, like Günter Grass.

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

Shane’s sister, Siobhan, recalls, “I once drew while we were watching Doctor Who and drew a tree with pink leaves and a blue stem. And Shane said, ‘No, no, it’s brown and it’s green; And I went, ‘Huh?’ And he said, ‘It’s okay, you’re a surrealist.’ I guess he was about 10 years old. He read a lot, and daddy gave him the books to read, and he didn’t give him children’s books; he gave him books by Irish writers and other classical writers. So he was reading adult books. Dad would have had a big influence on that and it started young, dad gave him books. They shared a very close relationship at this point. Shane read a lot of what daddy would give him and they talked a lot about all that stuff.

Catherine Leech also had regular conversations with young Shane about the books and recalls that he was “very intellectual”. “He was a lot of fun and he read a lot,” she says. “Shane actually introduced me to Samuel Beckett. Shane read everything and his dad never stopped reading him and never told him, “You mustn’t read this.” He was naturally intelligent, but so was his father.

His cousin Michele has fond memories of his babysitting and was amazed at the level of books he read. “It was a soft one. He had beautiful curly hair and we used to laugh. He was just a really nice kid to take care of. We used to play games and Shane would read me bits and pieces of what he read. That’s when I was thinking, I don’t really know what the hell it was… I was trying to understand Ulysses because I was like, I have to be able to read this. So, I tried to be as smart as him, 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 murders, and the Ku Klux Klan. I was interested in this kind of thing

At 11 and a half, 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 his reading lists were so advanced that some of his teachers were suspicious. How many children his age would have 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 would read works by Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche?

At Holmewood, the elementary school he attended, the late English teacher, Tom Simpson, was initially skeptical of Shane’s claims, but when he came to mark the stories Shane had written he knew the school had a literary genius in its hands. Even at eight and a half, he says, Shane was just “brilliant.” “It’s amazing that a lot of the staff and the boys don’t like it at all,” Tom said, in an interview for this book. “Holmewood didn’t shut him up, but they didn’t realize how incredibly talented he was. Some of them, I think, didn’t believe it. “Did he really write that?” I do not believe that. But I believed him because I had seen a lot of his own writing… I said to Bob [the headmaster], ‘We have an amazing young man here and we need to do something about it.’ I think Shane enjoyed his later years at Holmewood because eventually the rest of the staff started to realize how brilliant he was. I pushed a little.

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

Shane MacGowan with The Holmewoodian, his prep school magazine

Shane MacGowan with The Holmewoodian, his prep school magazine

This is a testament to Shane’s indelible impression on his English teacher that Simpson kept many of his handwritten stories and one of his notebooks, convinced his star pupil would one day be famous. I picked them up when I went to meet him and returned them to Shane and his family, something Tom had always wanted.

The stories, written in a broad and distinctive hand during his time at Holmewood, offer a fascinating glimpse into the development of a unique songwriter. They show that the subjects that animate him today – the Catholic Church, rural Irish society, war – inspired him as deeply as a child. Essays written during his time at Holmewood also illustrate how Shane taught young people the value of listening to conversations.

In Dusk, which appeared in the school newspaper The Holmewoodian, he ticked off the name “Paddy McGrath, madman of Puckane district” and described the exchanges between locals coming and going on donkeys and carts. “’Same’ for you, Mick. “Even”, Pat. How is madam? I thought she had a cold. All to one place.

He used the vocabulary of the street man and woman and his storytelling was more authentic for that just like his songs would be.

Heard gossip provided fodder for a play called From the Top of the Hill. Seeing that a local pub was closed, he concluded that the owner “must have gotten upset last night, as he always does. One night he came home and threw chairs at his wife and her child. They had to leave home. Even at age 12, Shane would soak up stories about people and put them on paper. Bad language and vernacular dot his stories. “Move, you motherfucker” and “Gerroff, you bitch!” Is part of Dusk’s colorful dialogue.

In Man Drowning he writes: “Look at the beach. A woman and a child. She sleeps. Stupid cow. He used the vocabulary of the street man and woman and his narration was more authentic for that, just like his songs would be; “You bastard, maggot,” insults one of his drunken characters in Fairytale of New York.

Like his English teacher, his parents also believed Shane might end up writing books. “We knew he was brilliant at writing, at English and all that stuff, and Maurice said, ‘I guess you’ll probably make a living as a writer,'” Therese recalls. “He said, ‘I will, dad, but not the way you talk. I’ll make a living, ”he said,“ with music, writing with music because that’s the way you communicate with people these days. It is a much broader form of communication. I remember he said that.

Maurice added: “Well, I guess, you see, I thought it could be more in book form than 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 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 sure the answer. So he took a coin out of his pocket and threw it in the air and said, ‘Do you want to flip a coin?’

Catherine Leech has always been interested in Shane’s progress and wondered if he could write books. But she wasn’t surprised when he embarked on a musical career. “That’s what I expected because it didn’t suddenly turn out like that,” she said. “It would have been part of him. It had to come out in a certain way because he came from such a musical family.

In addition to Shane’s natural gift for writing and his unusually outspoken prose style, Tom Simpson also remembered his student’s wry sense of humor. “I remember he took out the director’s mickey,” he said. “A lot of other boys were listening, and the headmaster asked him a question and Shane wasn’t quite sure the answer. So he took a coin out of his pocket and threw it in the air and said, ‘Do you want to flip a coin?’ Bob didn’t know what to do and he looked at me and I was laughing hysterically. Shane wasn’t rude because he could take the mickey off anyone.

Shane also didn’t forget the incident, “Well I thought that was the best idea. I didn’t mean to go wrong and we loved pissing him off. Justin Bairamian, Bob’s son and director of BBC Creative, found hardcover copies of The Holmewoodian in his late father’s possessions, including stories Shane had written between the ages of nine and 13 that were striking in their maturity.

“These are weird pieces, as you would expect,” says Justin. “Tom always said he wrote like an 18 or 19 year old when he was nine or 10 and was one of the brightest English students he ever taught. He always remembered him fondly… The reason he kept all the work is that he admired him 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 7 by Omnibus Press


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