Sunday 16 June 2019

Surreal to see Shane hitting 60 but party life is over

The long-time hellraiser is now more likely to stay in to watch Netflix, writes his partner Victoria Mary Clarke

STANDING BY HER MAN: Shane MacGowan and Victoria Mary Clarke. Photo: Mark Stedman
STANDING BY HER MAN: Shane MacGowan and Victoria Mary Clarke. Photo: Mark Stedman

Victoria Mary Clarke

Miriam O'Callaghan is in our house. She has her hand on my knee. It is weirdly thrilling to have a genuine television personality so close. You just want to stare. I can't get over how tall she is, but also how pretty.

For most of the year, me and Shane sit quietly here at home watching Netflix - we are not proper celebrities who go to parties. But there has been a sudden surge of interest in us, and all kinds of media people have been wanting to interview us. I should explain. In January, to celebrate Shane's 60th birthday the National Concert Hall is putting on a special tribute concert. Lots of very talented and famous people will be performing Shane's songs, including Nick Cave, Bobby Gillespie, Johnny Depp, Glen Hansard, Finbar Furey and possibly some other enormous stars.

Shane is getting increasingly nervous, and so am I. He is immensely grateful that all of these brilliant people like his work enough to want to perform it on stage at the Concert Hall, but he is worried that he himself has not been on stage for several years, following a pelvic fracture and a long spell in hospital and having been deeply shaken by the sudden deaths of his mother and his manager at the start of the year. "I'm just hoping I will be able to stand up for it," he says. And he means that quite literally.

"Of course he is a genius," Miriam says to me, in the reverential tone that people often use to tell me that Shane is a genius. "You know that, right?"

I generally pause, to see if they are going to add that of course I am also a genius, but they tend not to.

"Like Mozart," Miriam adds. "Or Bob Dylan. There are very few of them, you know."

It is difficult for me to be objective, but I suppose she is right. Songs like A Rainy Night in Soho and Fairytale of New York are flawless and timeless and, above all, they transcend barriers like age, education, nationality, class, creed and any other ways in which we humans separate ourselves from each other. Instead they speak directly to the heart and soul, while still making poetic use of language.

Genius, however, has its challenges. Geniuses are often chaotic, messy, impractical, self-destructive, overly sensitive and romantic creatures who struggle to cope with everyday life. And Shane is all of these things. Which is why the very idea that we have got this far, that he is to have a 60th birthday at all, is surreal and unexpected. Let alone having got this far and also succeeded in being honoured in this way. Because for much of the past 30 years we have lived our lives more like the down and out couple in Fairytale of New York than like nice, clean respectable people who get honoured by the National Concert Hall.

Let me take you back to a squalid squat in Kings Cross, London, in 1986. Shane and I had just been on a date to the famous 100 Club in Oxford Street, where Shane had got into a fight with the bouncer and we had been refused entry. Clutching a bottle of warm Retsina and chain-smoking, we had speed-walked all the way to Kings Cross (in those days money was scarce and we walked everywhere). The squat was painted dark red, and it boasted a single bare light bulb, a filthy mattress covered with a red nylon sheet, a 1950s boat-shaped cocktail bar and an assortment of junk shop black and white televisions. It stank of cigarette smoke and old food, and was littered with books, papers, bottles, pizza boxes and other very nasty things that smelled bad.

In this one room (you didn't dare go in the kitchen) we dreamed big dreams of a future where Irish people everywhere could be proud of their musical heritage, where Irish music would become hip and cool and popular and we dreamed that Frank Sinatra would sing A Rainy Night in Soho. But at that time, it felt like they were improbable dreams.

Shane's drinking was already legendary, and people had put money on him being dead by 30. Far more money would be put on him being dead than on him reaching 60. He had begun taking drugs too, every kind that he could get his hands on, including heroin. At this stage, I was also drinking heavily and joining in with everything else as well.

We never got to bed before five in the morning, we smoked constantly, and we never cooked anything, we just ate in Greek cafes, late at night. There were times when it all seemed completely magical, and there were times when I wanted to die I was so overwhelmed by the stress of trying to keep Shane from dying. He was utterly reckless, and he seemed to want to destroy himself. He was knocked down by a black cab, and then got double pneumonia, followed later by hepatitis, all the while drinking several bottles of spirits a day washed down with white wine and handfuls of pills.

Apart from the self-destruction, we were not remotely respectable. Cab drivers refused to pick us up, and nice restaurants did not welcome us. There were physical fights in the street. There were visits from the police. Much of the material for the songs was collected from living the low life, from hanging around late at night in dodgy bars in insalubrious neighbourhoods, getting into trouble.

And so you can see why it is so surreal to have arrived at this moment - Shane being a 60-year-old man, whose songs are played on the radio and listened to by nice people of all ages. The kind of person who gets visited by Miriam.

May he have a wonderful birthday, and many more of them.

Sunday Independent

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