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Finding the real Shane MacGowan meant roving down a different road

There’s more to Pogues singer Shane MacGowan than meets the eye, writes his biographer Richard Balls.

There’s more to Shane McGowan than meets the eye, says his biographer Richard Balls. Illustration: Joseph Joyce

A clattering sound was emanating from the stage at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, where I had turned up to see Elvis Costello and the Attractions.

One of this motley crew playing support was smashing himself over the head with a tin tray. The singer was clearly out of it.

A poster told me they were The Pogues and had an album called Red Roses for Me. I was 17 and had no reference points for what I was seeing and hearing. I stood there transfixed.

Fast forward 28 years and I found myself outside a private clinic in Belgravia, waiting for the heavy door to open and Shane MacGowan to appear.

I had arranged to meet up and interview him for a book about Stiff Records. The rendezvous has been set up by Shane’s old friend Paul Ronan, and as I hadn’t met Shane before, I didn’t know what to expect. My instinct told me to go with the flow.

Over several hours and drinks outside a London bistro, I found him to be one of the most intriguing people I had ever met and one I instinctively liked.

He was quietly spoken, with a whip-smart mind, and he enjoyed telling stories providing they weren’t about him. Most times, his anecdotes were followed by his trademark snigger, reminiscent of a rake being dragged through gravel.

There was evidently so much more to him than the heavy drinking hellraiser of a thousand newspaper stories and, I sensed, a story that was yet to be told. Six years later, I arrived with Paul at Shane’s flat in Dublin to test that theory.

For 20 years I had been a news journalist, almost half of which was spent in Dublin. But of all the subjects I had tackled, this was the most daunting.

Shane is a shy introvert who hates being interviewed, especially about his work, and the task of untangling some of the myths that had grown up around him felt like an impossible one. However, by spending time with him over hours and sometimes days at his home, I could be patient and wait for the right moments.

The support of his wife Victoria, sister Siobhan and father Maurice, and the cooperation of so many of those who had known him best, also gave me a hefty advantage. The mission had begun.

As a biographer, one of my clear priorities is to unearth new information and stories people have never heard. Documentary makers and writers had focused heavily on Shane’s formative visits to his mother’s family homestead in Tipperary, the place trapped in time where he listened to Irish music and was told about the country’s history.

Tunbridge Wells in Kent, the place where he grew up and went to school, but which had seemingly been overlooked, therefore seemed an obvious place to go.

The MacGowans had lived in a detached house in a middle-class suburb, a galaxy away from the beloved cottage and farm where he spent his holidays.

Members of his father’s family still live locally, and they recalled a happy and highly intelligent child who revelled in family get-togethers with his cousins. Holmewood House School at nearby Langton Green is, and was then, an exclusive fee-paying institution set in rolling countryside.

Siobhan helped put me in touch with Tom Simpson, the English teacher who not only spotted Shane’s literary genius at the age of eight, but had kept his schoolbooks and essays, knowing some day he would be celebrated.

His first-hand account of Shane’s time there was corroboration that his gift for writing was in his very marrow.

Over hours of conversations at Shane and Victoria’s home in Dublin, he talked entertainingly about his upbringing in England and spells at Holmewood House and the yet more prestigious Westminster School.

Stories flowed about his expulsion from Westminster, his court appearance for drug dealing and his traumatic spell in a psychiatric hospital. Tales too of drunken escapades while on the road and ones that I found myself sharing with friends.

Darkness has engulfed periods of Shane’s life and stunted his creativity. He has seen a string of friends die, some of them in his previous homes, and during my visits he talked candidly about some of those whose lives had been claimed by drugs and his own one-time addiction to heroin.

He also spoke passionately about his ailing physical health and his desire to have the operation he needs to walk again.

My subsequent biography, in which female voices play such an important part, ultimately charts Shane MacGowan’s extraordinary journey from a rank outsider to national hero, from his nascent days as a punk also ran to being revered as one of the greatest songwriters of his generation. It is the story of one man’s furious devotion.

A Furious Devotion: the Authorised Story of Shane MacGowan by Richard Balls is out now (Omnibus Press, £20)

This article is taken from the latest edition of The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach local your vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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