Shane MacGowan gets the drinks in

He won a scholarship to Westminster and became a rent boy; he topped the charts with The Pogues but ended up broke; he's planning a bank robbery and wants Lynn Barber to drive the getaway car...
Read an extract from 'A Drink with Shane MacGowan' here

Five o'clock, Bloom's Hotel, Dublin. Shane MacGowan tumbles out of the lift into my waiting arms. The photographer and his assistant and I have been waiting since three, with a cheery Irish PR saying, 'Oh, this is nothing - he kept a journalist waiting four hours yesterday!' I want to murder him. We made various sorties to Shane's hotel room but were blocked by a burly man who seemed to be acting as his minder.

So on the one hand I am relieved to see Shane at last. On the other hand, I quite want to bundle him back in the lift and forget him. I was prepared for the teeth, the famous blackened stumps, but the suit is an unanticipated horror show, with its thickening patina of stains down the trousers culminating in big blobby spatters on the shoes. If he has not been sick down his trousers several dozen times, he must have a very good stylist. His skin has the shiny pallor of someone who has never seen daylight. He lurches towards the bar. The photographer tries to head him off, saying he wants to do photographs outside before the daylight fades. Shane says, 'Ginantonic' and plonks himself in a chair. I chatter brightly about James Joyce; Shane mumbles unintelligibly; the photographer tears his hair.

But eventually, with coaxing from the photographer, the assistant, the PR and me, we get him out into the street. He flinches as the last rays of sunlight hit him and sinks into a doorway - luckily a very photogenic doorway - and the photographer clicks away. Every single person who passes down the street stops and says, 'Shane, good on yer!' or 'How're you doing?' A few bravely rush up and hug him. I didn't realise till then that he is a sort of god in Dublin - or not a god, more a prodigal son. Everyone seems to know him, everyone seems to love him, even little old ladies who surely can't ever have been Pogues fans shake their heads fondly and say, 'Shane! God love you!'

After the photographs, we stagger back to the hotel. I remark that the bar is terribly noisy - couldn't we sit somewhere else? Shane says, with sudden furious clarity - 'It's a bar . It's meant to be noisy.' The bar it is then - our home for the next six hours. Of all the Irish bars in all the world, this must be the most thoroughly charmless. It looks like a motorway Travelodge.

But it is Shane's bar and no doubt after his death it will be called Shane's Bar - maybe the hotel will be rechristened Shane's Hotel. Gin and tonics begin to appear as if by magic - rows and rows of them filling the table, perhaps materialised by fairy folk because I never see them coming.

I start by saying I very much enjoyed his book A Drink with Shane MacGowan - it is one of the freshest, most original biographies I've ever read. It's written as a conversation with his girlfriend, Victoria Mary Clarke, and it's a picture of their relationship as much as of his life. Shane, truculently, mumbles that it's not his book, and he is not happy with it. He doesn't like the title - 'a drink with Shane MacGowan' is not accurate because of course it is many drinks over many years. And then he doesn't like the byline - why is he credited as co-author when it was all Victoria's work? It was just an interview , he insists, just her sometimes switching on the tape recorder when they were talking. And he doesn't 'stand by' anything he is quoted as saying because he might say one thing one day and something else the next.

So is he cross with her for writing the book? 'I can't be cross with her ,' he says indignantly, 'I love her!' But he is cross with the book. And with the publishers, Sidgwick & Jackson. There is some ongoing saga whereby he claims they agreed to pay his hotel bill and haven't done so. They say they did agree to pay - for two days while he was doing interviews - not the six weeks (and counting) he has stayed there.

Anyway, he says ominously that he has not finished cutting the book. The press release claims that it recounts his days as a rent boy in London, but there is nothing about being a rent boy in the book. 'I can't believe you were a rent boy,' I say rudely, 'who would pay to rent you?' 'You'd be surprised,' he says. 'There are women who would climb over their grandmothers to get to a celebrity - Victoria, for instance!' and he emits the first of his exploding coffee-machine laughs.

Where is Victoria now? 'Off ligging with U2 in London,' he says. She is Irish but prefers living in London - he prefers Dublin or Tipperary. He was meant to go to the U2 concert but couldn't face travelling to England. Travel must be a serious problem for him - Victoria in the book mentions the hours or even days spent in airports waiting to find a flight willing to take him. Once when he was booked to join Bob Dylan in the States, four flights came and went without him.

And yet Victoria is obviously devoted - she calls him Sweet Pea throughout the book. They have been together 15 years, so why haven't they married? 'Because we never had enough celebrities in the same place at the same time.' (This gnomic utterance is later explained by Victoria - they plan to sell their wedding to Hello! or OK!.) 'But we're getting married this year. Hopefully.' And will they start a family? 'I think when we grow up we should [he is 43, she 35] - it's something we've discussed. But probably I'm dropping myself in the shit even talking about it.'

His mother told him never to have children till he was rich. He was rich, he made millions with the Pogues, but he says now he's spent it all. 'If you hug money, you clog up the cash flow, know what I mean?' He says he's not destitute - he still gets enough from songwriting royalties to keep him in booze and fags - but he missed out on the rock-star mansions. All he owns is a flat in Gospel Oak which he shares with Victoria, and the old family farm in Tipperary which has no running water. His current group, the Popes, has never achieved success by Pogues standards. Supposing he never makes another record, will he have enough to live on? 'Well,' he sputters, 'I could always open supermarkets!'

The wit is quick and comes like a wake-up call to me, reminding me of Bono's remark, 'Shane is more together than people imagine.' (Bono obviously respects him, because he lent him his Martello Tower to live in for a year after the Pogues split up.) Shane's speech may be slurred, his movements uncoordinated, he sometimes gets stuck on saying, 'Know what I mean? Know what I mean? Know what I mean?' till you want to scream - but he is not 'out of it'. On the contrary, he seems to be controlling this interview much better than me. When he doesn't want to answer a question, he ignores it, or mumbles into his G&T. But every time he mentions an Irish name, he spells it out carefully, complete with accents, into my tape recorder. Moreover, unlike me, he remembers everything he says. This was brought sharply home a couple of hours into our conversation when the barman called him over to take a phone call. It was from Victoria and he came back saying, 'You've got to take out that line about her climbing over her grandmother to get to a celebrity. She didn't think it was funny. So take it out, or I'll fucking sue you, right?' (Later, in London, I persuaded Victoria to let me keep it in - she says it's OK because her grandmother is dead - but fancy him remembering.)

Shane sees it as his duty to educate me in Irish history, so I'm in for a lot of lecturing about Brian Ború, the Black and Tans, Michael Collins, Partition, 'Ireland is a woman', the craic, the whole tear-stained Emerald-Isle package. And yet if you step outside Bloom's Hotel, you can see that Dublin today is just about the glossiest, yuppiest place in Europe - it has such full employment it actually has to import workers. Hasn't Shane noticed?

Evidently not. 'I live in the past. It doesn't feel like 2001 to me.' In any case, his Ireland is an entirely personal construct of songs and myths and stories his relatives told him in infancy, ie an Ireland that was probably extinct by the time he was born, if it ever even existed. He has lived in England since he was six - he won a scholarship to Westminster, for heaven's sake! (Admittedly only for a year, but still...) There are people who knew him in his teens who say he didn't have an Irish accent then. But, on the other hand, all his songwriting inspiration comes from Ireland and he achieved his 'crusade' with the Pogues to make Irish music hip and popular, to build Irish self-esteem. In fact, he was one of the founders of the current Irish cultural renaissance - it is just unfortunate that he looks more like a relic of the old pre-boom Ireland of hopeless old pissheads doing zilch.

Shane's father 'likes a drink', his uncles, aunts, cousins ditto. Shane claims that when he was a small child in Tipperary, they gave him two Guinnesses a night as his bedtime drink and later, when he was eight, an uncle introduced him to Powers whiskey. He says he never really drew a sober breath after the age of 14. 'In our family it was like, if the kid likes a drink, let him have a drink - because all the kids who weren't allowed to have a drink turned into raging alcoholics.' Mmm, yes, Shane - and...? Even he notices some logical flaw in his argument because he starts sputtering, 'We'd never even heard of alcoholism. We'd have thought it was some kind of weird religion. Our household was an open house where no one was refused, there was a continuous ceilidh going on, people would come from miles around for a drink, 24 hours, there's always one or two people awake.'

This was his mother's family's house in Tipperary, where he lived till he was six, while his parents worked in England. He says in the book, 'My life was a happy dream when I was a little boy.' But when he came to live with his parents in London, the picture grows darker and there are glimpses in the book of a deeply dysfunctional family - father out boozing every night, mother lying in bed with arthritis or depression, pilled out of her head, Shane trying to look after his little sister Siobhan. In the book he talks about his mother having a nervous breakdown but now he retracts that and says: 'I was just projecting you know. I was depressed.'

When he was 17, he had a major breakdown and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for six months. 'I was drinking a lot and I'd been put on a heavy prescription of tranquillisers by the GP. This was a big thing in the 70s - there's thousands of people in mental hospitals who were made zombies by downers. Anyway, they got me off the gear, the drugs that had put me there, and I started drinking again - but then they wouldn't let me drink, which is where the trouble started. It was called Acute Situational Anxiety - which basically meant I didn't like being in London. Perpetual panic - I panic in London.'

Does he panic about performing? 'No, that isn't the panic at all. My family were, are, all singers, performers. No, just sitting in a goddamn bloody flat in bloody London, that's a panic situation. Basically, I've been holding my breath half my fucking life. I can only relax when I'm in Ireland or one or two other places - Thailand, Spain, Japan and certain parts of America. I actually feel physically sick when I think of London.'

And yet, Victoria told me later he seemed happy enough living in London till Christmas, but then he went to Dublin for a Popes concert and never came back. He now claims to live in Tipperary, in the old family farmhouse with the sign on the door saying 'Trespassers will be shot'. His parents live in a new house down the road. He describes them as 'very young at heart, intelligent, warm, loving sociopaths!' (Everyone else describes them as 'characters'.) But actually he seems to have been living in Bloom's Hotel, Dublin, since January.

What it seems to boil down to is that he feels happy and sociable and safe drinking in Ireland, and depressed and lonely and paranoid drinking in London. But what about not drinking - is that ever a possibility? Yes, he says, 'I don't have to drink.' Victoria took him to the Priory last autumn for a dryout and he says it worked. But, er, what are all these glasses on the table? 'This isn't drinking. We're just having a couple of drinks, you know?' Right. How long did he stay sober after the Priory? 'As long as it took to get to the nearest bar.' So is that his pattern - to dry out, then start drinking again? 'I don't have a pattern. I can't remember from one day to the next.'

At one point I said something about his attraction to drink and drugs, and he was suddenly beadily alert. 'What! I'm a drinker. I drink. But drugs, you said - I don't take drugs.' What? Never ? 'So long ago I can't remember.' He should read Victoria's book, then, because it's full of drugs - uppers and downers and acid and cocaine. He once said that by the time the Pogues ended in 1991 he was taking 50 tabs of acid a day - 'You get used to it, you can function on it.'

But it has obviously become a touchy subject since November 1999, when Sinead O'Connor shopped him to the police for taking heroin. She told The Sun she went round to his flat and found him practically in a coma on the floor and called the police because 'I love Shane and it makes me angry to see him destroy himself.' He says he was sitting peacefully on the sofa watching a Sam Peckinpah video. Whatever - no police charges were brought. So was he ever on heroin? 'What - addicted to heroin?' Well, on heroin? 'I've tried it a long time ago.' The only drugs he will admit to taking now are prescription tranquillisers - 'If the doctor prescribes them, I take them, and sometimes quite a heavy dose, for stress. But at least I go to a doctor, know what I mean?'

Midway through the evening, a man comes into the bar, sees Shane, and rushes over. Shane lurches to his feet and hugs him for a good five minutes. He is Gerry O'Boyle, former owner of Filthy MacNasty's bar in Islington, and they 'go back a long way'. Gerry rustles up a few more G&Ts but, I notice, drinks water. He stays with us for the rest of the evening, and Shane seems happy to have him. Later, when I am drunk as a skunk, Gerry serves the useful purpose of changing the tape when necessary.

At some point they decide to teach me how to say a rosary and both whip out their rosaries and an amazing array of medals and scapulas and plastic folders saying: 'I am a Catholic. If I am dying, please call a priest.' Shane says he would certainly want a priest if he were dying. One reason why he likes St John of God - a Dublin drying-out home he sometimes uses - is that it's run by nuns, and priests come round to hear your confession. 'I haven't been to mass for a long time. But I pray every day, every night. I pray all the time. I pray whenever I'm struck by fear and worry, and I pray in gratitude when the release is given to me, you know?'

As a Catholic, doesn't he feel bad about not having children? 'I've got children!' How many? 'I don't know. I only know about one. He's a young man. He lives in Scotland. He knows where to get hold of me. I saw him once, when he was three. He knows I'm his father. Years ago, me and Lesley agreed that any time he wanted to come and see me he could come and see me and I'd take him out for a drink, get him whatever he wants. But she married a good man, and he seems to be satisfied with him as his father.'

Later in the evening Shane and Gerry announce that they have decided they can trust me, so they will cut me in on the bank robbery they are doing tomorrow. They are driving to a country town, about an hour out of Dublin, and they need a getaway driver. 'She'd be a fucking brilliant driver!' Shane opines. 'She'd be a good driver, yes,' Gerry agrees. 'Well, I don't know. I stop at zebra crossings. I'm rather a slow driver,' I warn them. Both nod eagerly, 'See, if you were a fast driver, it would be very obvious. A slow getaway driver is good!'

The evening reels on. Shane sings me ' Woman come in the name of love ' and ends with the plea - 'Can I not convince you to come out with us and rob a bank?' I tell him my husband wouldn't like it and he accepts that - obeying your husband is good. But, he suggests with great delicacy, perhaps my husband will die before me and then I can come out and rob a bank? I promise to think about it.

Gerry reminds Shane periodically that there's a party at the Clarence they should go to. 'You come!' Shane orders. 'I haven't got anything to wear,' I whimper - rather a feeble excuse in view of Shane's suit. 'Come as you are,' he says magnanimously. So several hours or aeons later, we stagger into the glossy streets of Temple Bar round to the Clarence, which luckily is only a few yards. Apparently le tout Dublin is there - Candace Bushnell and Marianne Faithfull and two Corrs! But my vision isn't too great by this stage and in a sudden flash of clarity I realise I must go to bed or I will die. I totter over to Shane and say, 'Gorra go' - and somehow the big friend from his hotel room appears at my elbow and steers me gently back to the hotel.

In the morning, badly hungover, I wander downstairs about nine to ask the receptionist what time I can decently phone Shane to say goodbye. 'Ask him,' she says cheerily. 'He's in the bar.' Ohmigod, he is - sitting at the bar with four or five G&Ts in front of him, chatting to the barman. The barman looks near death but Shane looks much as usual. 'Where were you?' he says quite sharply - 'you missed a good night.' Apparently he and his friends went from the party to a club to another party and another club, where he sang a few songs. Then they came back to talk. But now everyone else has gone to bed, and he is quite eager to start chatting all over again. But sorry, Shane, I just can't face it and anyway I have to catch a plane. I tell him it was a joy to meet him and he lurches to his feet and says with great formality, 'The pleasure's all mine.' What a well-brought-up boy!

Back in London, I immediately ring Victoria Clarke, agog to see what Shane's girlfriend can be like. She says she would love to meet but she's going to some place in Kennington for a five-day residential fast. Next day, however, she rings to say she is having a sauna at her health club in Hampstead and I can join her there. I drive there thinking - sauna, health club, fast - and this is Shane's girlfriend? My jaw actually drops when I met her - she is peachy-skinned and milkmaid-wholesome, as fresh and glowing as a yogurt ad. How can she bear to marry an alky who by his own admission never has a bath?

But she doesn't see Shane like that: she thinks he is beautiful. She first met him 20 years ago when she was 15 and 'I thought he was gorgeous. At first I didn't like him as a person - I always fancied him, but thought he was really arrogant. I know he's not conventionally handsome but he is beautiful.' And yes, she confirms, they are getting married as soon as they can get someone to pay. 'I hear Hello! pay to up 500 grand! You've got to get lots of celebrities to come, though, for that.'

Gosh, what can I say? I just sit there gawping at her. But hasn't she noticed this, er, problem with Shane? Yes, she says calmly, she knows about alcoholism. She's been to AA and Al Anon (she prefers AA, found Al Anon 'very gloomy'). She thinks Shane could stop drinking if he wanted to - in fact, she says he drinks much less at home than when he's on show - part of his problem is social anxiety, which he covers up with booze. 'But I would hate it if someone said to me, "You've got to stop drinking." I love wine.'

In any case, she sympathises with addiction because she suffers it herself - she has a mild addiction to food and a major addiction to fame, and has had therapy for both. But now she plans to cure her fame addiction by hiring herself a publicist - she thinks probably Matthew Freud - to make her famous so she can get it out of her system. 'Because it's one of those things, like with heroin - you've got to try it before you can decide that you're going to give it up.'

But doesn't this fame obsession make her relationship with Shane a bit suspect? Doesn't he worry that she might leave him for someone more famous? 'I've already done that. [Apparently she had an affair with Van Morrison.] We've been through it, we've had the affairs, we've had the breakups, we've had the nervous breakdowns. But with me it didn't last - the connection was never strong enough with anyone else - so it must be that I actually genuinely like him more than anyone else. And also we did meet before he was famous.'

Shane told me sweetly: 'I would never pretend to understand Victoria - or if I did understand her, I probably wouldn't love her, you know?' I do know. He is so lucky to have the love of a good woman, but at least he knows it - he writes in the foreword to her book, 'God bless the day I found her, and I feel like the luckiest fucker alive.' I hope they get married; I hope they live happily ever after. A few days later I bumped into Sir Bob Geldof at a party and asked him whether he thought Hello! would pay for their wedding. 'Well,' he said, 'I'll pay for it if Hello! won't - I just want to see it happen!' Me too - perhaps we should start a Victoria and Shane Wedding Appeal. Meanwhile, buy the book, it's great.

A life in brief

Born Christmas Day, 1957.

Lived in Ireland until he was six, then England. Father a wages clerk at C & A, mother a typist.

As Shane O'Hooligan, fronted band called the Nipple Erectors. Started the Pogues in 1983.

Best albums Rum, Sodomy and the Lash (1985) and If I Should Fall from Grace with God (1987), which includes 'Fairy Tale of New York', with Kirsty MacColl. Sacked from Pogues in 1991 for 'nervous exhaustion'. Started the Popes in 1994 and released two albums - The Snake (1994) and The Crock of Gold (1997). He guested on their third album, Holloway Boulevard (2000).

• A Drink with Shane MacGowan by Victoria Mary Clarke and Shane MacGowan (£15.99, Sidgwick & Jackson) is published on 23 March.


Lynn Barber

The GuardianTramp

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