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Sea Shanty - the Pogues

While most other major South Coast destinations were included in the Government's planned duel carriageway building programme for the 1960's onwards, Hastings and its close neighbour Bexhill missed the boat. Proposed improved connections to London were cancelled, as was a planned motorway extending from Dover westwards as far as Bournemouth.

The resultant ever-increasing volume of traffic on the London Hastings road, the A21, bottlenecked at Pembury, on the Kent/Sussex border, ensured that the town became famous for its regular traffic jams, at times, up to 10 miles long. This was ironic as the town's previous claim to fame was as the location of Pembury Hospital, reputed in the early in the 20th century as world leader in the study of a medical condition known as hodophobia. Hodophobia is the fear of road travel, in particular of travel by car, and, according to Wikipedia, the descendants of many hodophobia patients still live in Pembury today. Maybe they were too scared to leave. The ironies, like the cars, come thick and fast.

More recently, Pembury Hospital was the birthplace of Shane McGowan. None of the Pogues' original line-up were born in Ireland, which is a surprise to those who think them the archetypal Irish folk/punk band. MacGowan is as Irish as any of them: his parents were both Irish, visiting his shortly-to-be aunt who lived in Pembury when he was born, but returning to their home in Tipperary shortly after, where they lived till Shaun was six, before moving to England.

It is one of the world's great mysteries that the Irish abroad seem to have a stronger self-identity and regard for the traditions of their homeland than any other national group. Right from the start, he Pogues struck a chord with Irish communities worldwide, and swiftly came to represent the Irish experience abroad, with MacGowan as the Homer - or Odysseus - of the Irish diaspora.

It's no accident that the well-read MacGowan chose "the Pogues" as the band's name: the derivation is from James Joyce's classic "Ulysses", the quote from the mouth of Buck Mulligan, famously the very first character to appear in the novel which opens with the line:

"Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed."

Mulligan swears with the words "Pogue Mahone", Joyce slang for the Irish Gaelic "póg mo thóin" meaning "kiss my arse" making the Pogues, literally, "the Kisses", but we get their drift.

Ulysses (ie Odysseus), Joyce and MacGowan himself, were all troubadour exiles from their home islands, and this was their subject, an ideological return and a journey of good times and memories for a place that no longer exists as they knew it.

The first Pogues' album, the 1984 "Red Roses for Me" is a mashing together of traditional Irish music and punk, reimagining ceilidh as drunken carousal. Though many of the tracks are transformations of Irish folk standards, the Pogues invent their own music form, one that's been copied time and again since, a hybrid of folk and rock. Unlike the sweeter folk rock by the likes of Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span, even the gentler tunes by the Pogues often feel like a kick up the arse. The down-to-earth realism of MacGowan's challenging vocals often juxtaposed paradoxically with his poetic lyrics to achieve moments of great, sometimes tragic, beauty.

Here is his "Sea Shanty" from Side One of "Roses", with MacGowan delivering the lead with rudeness and gusto of a drunk challenging you to an arm wrestling contest. Right from their first record, MacGowan put down his glorious marker in the sand: that of the eternal troubadour, the shithouse poet, making no concessions to anyone:

"Dear dirty London in the pouring rain

I wish to God I was back on the sea again

though that belongs to the world of never will be

there was never a wilder bastard than me on the sea.....

....a man's ambition must indeed be small

to write his name upon a shithouse wall

but before I die I'll add my regal scrawl

to show the world I'm left with sweet fuck all

and when all of us bold shithouse poets do die

a monument grand they will raise to the sky

a monument made just to mark our great wit

a monument of solid shit now me boys.

I met with Bill James we fought over crusts

I called him a whore and he booted me crotch

then we shared out the jack and we thought it a treat

the compliments pass when the quality meet

the compliments pass when the quality meet...."

or to quote another famous literary Irishman: "we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars."

Shane MacGowan certainly was.


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