The Pogues' Fairytale of New York
A perennial Christmas favourite, The Pogues' Fairytale of New York helps us put our problems into perspective.
I can remember Christmas 1987 – the year the Pogues released “Fairytale of New York” – like it was yesterday. I was twelve years old and absolutely certain my parents had bought me a science kit. I thought I’d seen the shiny corner of the box in my mum’s wardrobe the previous week and on Christmas day I launched myself straight at it, expecting to lift it fairly easily. But something was wrong. The box was unexpectedly heavy, it was slipping, it was smashing, my festive red leg warmers were wet ... the present wasn’t a science kit. It was – or had been – a goldfish tank.
My dad stormed, swearing, from the room and my sister burst into tears as my mum ran for a saucepan of water and I struggled to catch the suffocating fish flapping frantically on the carpet. I knew I had ruined everything. And, in the background, on the radio, Shane McGowan and Kirsty MacColl carolled: “And the Boys of the NYPD choir were singing Galway Bay/ And the bells were ringing out for Christmas Day”. The song – with its off-kilter momentum and its theme of shattered dreams – seemed perfectly playlisted for the occasion.
What’s remarkable about it is that – in careening wildly through a gamut of moods from maudlin to euphoric, sentimental to profane, mud-slinging to sincerely devoted in the space of four glorious minutes – it’s seemed perfectly suited to every Christmas since that year. No wonder that in his final week hosting the nation’s best loved breakfast radio show, Terry Wogan said it’s his favourite Christmas song too.
The band behind the song are, of course, The Pogues – a motley crew of Anglo Irish musicians who formed in King’s Cross in 1982, their name being an anglicisation of the Irish 'póg mo thóin’, (“kiss my arse”) and their sound being a bottlesmashing punkification of traditional Irish folk music. Tombstone toothed frontman, Shane MacGowan was inspired to write his bittersweet festive ballad after reading JP Donleavy’s 1961 novel “A Fairytale of New York” about an Irish American man’s return to booming, post-war New York after studying overseas.
Cornelius Christian’s wife has died on the voyage back over the Atlantic and so he begins his drunken, brawling experience of the big apple in debt to the undertakers who deal with her corpse. He’s a man on a quest to find “someone with faith in his nobility” but ultimately concludes that “No one will ever give you two indifferent minutes out of their lives to save twenty five million desperate ones in your own.”
The plot of MacGowan’s ballad diverges from Donleavy’s but retains the Cornelius Christian’s view of New York as “the city that is too rich to laugh at and too lonely and too ruthless to love and where happiness is a big cat with a mouse on a square mile of linoleum”. MacGowan’s tale begins in romantic squalor: Christmas Eve in the drunk tank. The male character, slur-sung by MacGowan, closes his eyes and begins to dream about an old lover: “I´ve got a feeling/ This year´s for me and you/ So happy christmas/ I love you baby/ I can see a better time/ Where all our dreams come true.” The groggy piano melody is then yanked to its feet and spun giddy as the band kicks in and the female character – sung in beautiful and bolshie style by Kirsty MacColl – captures the thrill of the Irish immigrant couple’s big city aspirations: “They got cars big as bars/ They got rivers of gold/ But the wind goes right through you/ It´s no place for the old.”
It’s the perfect sentiment for Christmas – a time which highlights the disparity between the haves and have nots around the world. Those of us lucky enough to spend the day with friends and families by a cosy fire with a full stomach think of the lonely, the homeless and the hungry.
As MacColl and MacGowan’s dialogue descends from the ecstasy of their first kiss into an increasingly vitriolic argument their words puts the average family’s seasonal bickering into perspective. “You´re a bum you´re a punk/ You´re an old slut on junk/ Lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed/ You scumbag you maggot/ You cheap lousy faggot/ Happy Christmas your arse I pray god it´s our last.” In 2007 the BBC tried censoring the words “slut” and “faggot” for a few hours, before complaints from listeners and MacColl’s mother got the insults reinstated.
And the song’s row ends with an expression of love and hope (against all the odds) as MacGowan’s character promises MacColl’s that, far from wrecking her dreams he has kept them with his own “Can´t make it out alone,” he pleads, “I´ve built my dreams around you.” The mingling of love, desperation and melancholy felt by listeners at this point has deepened since the tragic death of the Kirsty MacColl in a controversial boating incident in Mexico in December 2000.
Although “Fairytale of New York” was kept off the Number One spot in 1987 (by the Pet Shop Boys’ “Always on my Mind”) it was re-released in 1991 and again in 2005 when it went to Number 3 with all proceeds going to a combination of homeless charities and a campaign to find out the truth behind MacColl’s death. It’s charted every year since then and is heading back up there again this year. Bawling along as MacGowan and MacColl trade insults is a brilliant way to release some of the relentless seasonal pressure to be jolly, while putting many of our own problems into perspective. And although it always reminds me of the year I ruined Christmas, I also remember how that day turned out. With everybody laughing and my two new goldfish in a 'drunk tank’ of their own: the saucepan my mum was planning to use for the dreaded sprouts.
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