Why do artists like the Pogues and Frank Capra have a special Christmas pedestal? | Rick Burin

With their stories of lost dreams and love, Fairytale of New York and It’s a Wonderful Life evoke a unique and persistent magic

It’s the most tedious tiiiime … of the year. It is, of course, the week when the Pogues’ alternative carol, Fairytale of New York, returns to the airwaves, only to be immediately drowned out by the stupidest discourse on earth. The sound of rightwing bores insisting that Shane MacGowan’s seasonal anthem should be played unedited on the BBC seems to be getting earlier each year.

Fairytale of New York is one of the great Christmas records. But, like a lot of festive totems, it tends to be seen in isolation from its creators’ other work. It exists in the public imagination as an outlier. A glorious anomaly. As if it’s the only masterpiece Shane MacGowan ever wrote.

There is a brilliant Big Train sketch in which singer-songwriter Ralph McTell is heckled by his own audience when he attempts to play anything except his signature tune, Streets of London. This idea – of an artist defined by the breakout success of a single work, and unable to interest anybody in the rest of their oeuvre – is nothing new. But when the work is Christmas-themed, that becomes intensified.

After all, Christmas songs are an annual routine, which isn’t the case with most art. While Fairytale of New York is almost certainly better than the lesser-known Pogues track, Billy’s Bones, it also gets an unfair leg-up, as there’s a month each year when broadcasters play endless Christmas songs but not a month in which they play songs about hitting a policeman in the testicles. At least at the time of writing.

The Pogues are for life, not just for Christmas. When, in 1981, the 23-year-old MacGowan began battering away at a guitar in front of his friend, Spider Stacy, spitting out a fast and frantic punk version of the old Irish folk song, Poor Paddy Works on the Railway, he was setting in motion one of the most mercurial and mesmerising careers in modern music.

MacGowan’s own songs are richly evocative and blackly hilarious, written in a distinctive vernacular strewn with slang and swearing, and punctuated by sudden gut-punches of emotion. Creations such as A Pair of Brown Eyes, A Rainy Night in Soho and Body of an American are as incisive and intoxicating as anything written by his more celebrated contemporaries. The Pogues had already put out two of the most original albums of the decade by the time they released Fairytale in 1987; I can’t remember the last time I heard anything from either played on the radio.

Were Frank Capra around today, he would be able to relate. Like the Pogues, the American film director is also largely defined today by a single Christmas-themed work: It’s a Wonderful Life. This perilously dark fantasy was a flop when released in 1946, but enjoyed a second wind from the mid-1970s onwards, after its owners accidentally allowed the copyright to lapse, making it a cheap option for TV channels looking to pack their festive schedules. The subsequent reappraisal was well-deserved. It is Capra’s greatest film, but it is not his only film.

Capra was a legend in his own lifetime. His 36 feature films across 35 years included the screwball comedy, It Happened One Night the first film to win all five major Oscars – and the hugely influential political tale, Mr Smith Goes to Washington. Films like these made his name a byword for a weighty but heady form of cinematic wish-fulfilment. His standing was such that during the second world war he was commissioned by the government to produce its propaganda opus, Why We Fight.

It’s tempting to feel frustrated, then, that seasonal totems such as Fairytale of New York and It’s a Wonderful Life are seen in isolation – something to be wheeled out and enjoyed, one month each year – rather than avenues to some of the most amazing bodies of work in film and music. We are shown a flash of genius and yet don’t want to see more.

But their role in our seasonal traditions lends them a power and a persistence that most art will never approach. They are outsized achievements: not part of a discography or a list of film credits, but a part of our Christmases. With their stories of lost dreams and undimmable love, both MacGowan’s song and Capra’s film talk to us profoundly and directly.

Most importantly, they make us feel as we want to feel. Christmas is supposed to be a magical time; and for me, as a child, it was. But as you grow older, the season passes by more and more quickly. You want to know that you have experienced this one; that it has happened to you; not that it has hurtled past, stopping only to ask if you achieved anything in the past year. You want to feel Christmassy. Art does that for us.

When I’m hit by the first 30 seconds of Sleigh Ride by The Ronettes each 1 December, or watch The Snowman for the 30th consecutive year, I feel like I did as a kid, walking home from Christmas Eve mass under the blackest sky, hoping that there’s a United shirt under the tree.

Fairytale of New York and It’s a Wonderful Life are conspicuously dark variations on a theme, ruminating on what Christmas – and life – might mean once we enter the adult world. But despite their complexities, they also evoke an unmistakable atmosphere, and tie together our Christmases – past, present and future.

• Rick Burin is a writer from the north of England, and will be donating the fee for this article to Kitmas, a charity appeal to give children football shirts this Christmas


Rick Burin

The GuardianTramp

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