Having Gone, I Will Come Back
17 December 2023

In memorium Shane MacGowan

It was time to return to the ship.  

In the early afternoon of a mild December day, I drove yet another rental car on the QEW, south, towards the American border. Tens of thousands of starlings moved in front of my vehicle. Two flocks that would separate then re-mingle, endlessly morphing and changing, like vast Rorschach tests against the blue sky in my windshield. Sometimes they would alight briefly on the wires that span the highway and any other available surface, then effortlessly take off again.  As though conducted, each flock worked in counterpoint to the other, before finally merging, and exploding into one exquisitely undulating murmuration.

I have held three separate wakes for Shane MacGowan in the last ten days.  One planned.  Two spontaneous. Three spectacularly wasted nights. Three days lost to hangovers. Two sound complaints. And it is safe to say, one neighbor, who now,absolutely detests me, my friends and the Pogues.  

It was Mike O’Meara that introduced me to the Pogues. I was 17 years old and we were in Rick Moore’s mother’s white Hyundai (?) when he slipped the cassette in the stereo. It was a time when, more often than not, the music we listened to in Rick Moore’s mothers white Hyundai (?), or any other car, would have been Blue Rodeo, The Tragically Hip or Spirit of the West. But on this winter day, beside a frozen Toronto Harbour, our breath billowing before us, it was the Pogues.

Shane MacGowan was an extraordinary songwriter. And the characters who populate his songs are as memorable as any of the great literary characters I know. His work slips easily into a strain of Irish lyric poetry that has been around for centuries. His words full of pathos, beauty, humour and violence. He had the very Irish gift of inserting the simplest of adjectives into a normal sentence and in doing so somehow render it quietly devastating.

It happened, in another of the strange, golden chestnuts this life has cast before me that I became friends with Bap Kennedy, also sadly departed, also an Irish musician of whom I was a big fan. He played with Shane regularly and one Friday night in London I received a text from Bap inviting me to a pub in North London. I took my Irish girlfriend and up we went to High Gate. It was a private birthday party and Bap’s band were playing a set. Halfway through there was a murmuring through the small crowd and from the back shadows of the pub Shane MacGowan emerged. He lurched precariously through the seated drinkers and took a stool with the band. He sang three songs. Hank William’s Lost Highway, his own Rainy Night in Soho and an utterly transcendent version of Van Morrison’s Madame George.

Late in the evening Bap took us to meet the man himself. He was seated in a corner with an entourage of enablers and hangers on administering to him. My girlfriend was thrilled but I was loathe to meet a hero and shaking his hand did not help. He was insensate. His hand felt like cold, wet clay.

Shane paved a gilded road for me. Because of his work, I sought out and discovered Yeats, Joyce, Sean O’Casey, Flann O’Brien, Patrick Cavanaugh, Seamus Heany, Brenden Behan, Beckett; the enormous wealth of Irish literature that I love and which informs me to this day.

Shane MacGowan’s songs made me want to move to England, become a drunk and most importantly, be a writer. I have done all three with varying degrees of success.

Having listened to so much of his music recently, my lingering feeling is not one of grief at the death of my one-time hero, but of sadness, even anger for the 20 years we lost to his demons.  The addiction(s) which kept him from writing and pursuing his art.  Ironic I should come to this profundity having danced pretty exhaustively with those demons myself this last week.  In MacGowan’s case, and this is purely my own speculation knowing as I do some details from his life, I wonder if he didn’t suffer from serious mental illness and self-medicated with alcohol and other intoxicants from a very young age.  And that makes me angry too.

It is easy for sailors to get into trouble on their leave.  Money, lots of free time and the ensuant boredom and loneliness they can trigger are easy spurs to alcohol, to drugs, to gambling, to infidelity.  I am lucky to have discovered fitness when I did ten years ago so an instinct for self-preservation and wanting to see at least 50, and hopefully to look good doing so, mitigates my unhealthier urges.  The crippling hangovers help too.  While I have mostly swapped late nights for early ones and long runs, it is no secret that I still love to tie one on and that I need very little prompting to do so.  For once, the death of Himself seemed legitimate cause.  But now, while sufficient tribute has been paid to the man, I am left feeling contrite at my reckless behaviour. Sorry for the wasted time and for the kilometers I did not run.  Ashamed of being such a poor neighbour.  

On my last night ashore.  One of moderation.  I was enjoying a pint at my local and reading a short story from Jeanette Winterson’s new collection Night Side of the River.  A ghost story.  I love a good ghost story. My eyes, like army ants swarming a corpse, scanned each line greedily but something felt off.  Awry.  It was only in the last paragraph that I realized the problem.   I was not reading a work of fiction, as I had thought, but one of non-fiction.  I immediately re-read it and this time it gelled.  I loved it.  Enough to read it a third time.  I smiled to myself.  Surprised to discover this fiction/non-fiction switch in my brain.  

It’s only in the last six or seven years that I have read non-fiction.  Before I was in an exclusive relationship with fiction and poetry.  Then I discovered Gretel Ehrlich.  Bruce Chatwin.  Zora Neale-Hurston.  Barry Lopez.  Jon Krakauer and so many more.  Now, it is a pretty equal dispersion.  When I am off the ship I read non-fiction, short stories and poems.  At sea, I only read fiction.  Novels. And of course a bunch of useless shit on my phone.

I recently saw the great nature writer Robert MacFarlane give a talk at the Royal Ontario Museum during which he lamented the fact that non-fiction is called ‘non-fiction’, as such a magnificent genre should not have a negative in its name.  Perhaps fact-tion could work.  In the last weeks I have read books about climate change and the Fort Mac fire (Fire Weather by John Valliant), the reintroduction of wolves to Yosemite (American Wolf by Nate Blakeslee) , the Japanese Tsunami of 2011 (Ghosts of the Tsunami by Richard Lloyd Parry), the life of Caravaggio (Caravaggio:  A Life Sacred and Profane by Andrew Graham-Dixon) , the assassination of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana-Galizia and the obscene corruption of said small island (A Death in Malta: An Assassination and a Family’s Quest for Justice by her son, Andrew Caruana Galizia), the story of a patrician Irishman who committed a series of awful crimes in 1980s Dublin (A Thread of Violence by Mark O’Connel). And more.  All great reads.  Horrifying.  Devastating. Insightful.  Funny.  Educational.  Exciting.  The gamut.

Non-fiction has become my tapetum lucidum – the reflective layer found in the eyes of some vertebrates that enhances their night vision by reflecting light back through the retina.  It is what makes a deer’s eyes light up in your headlights and your dog and cat’s eyes flash green or red in your photos – with which I am able to see/be in this ever-darkening world of ours.

And now, I’m back aboard.  One last hitch before the sailing season is over and my marline spike can notch up another year sailed on my headboard.  There is always a sense of anticipation at this time.  How late will we go?  Will it be an easy four weeks?  Five?  Six?  Will the weather hold?  Will we have to grapple with freezing spray?  With snow like last year’s polar vortex. With ice like the winter of 2018?  

This afternoon it was a balmy 10 degrees when we pulled away from the grain elevator in the Buffalo River and made our way out onto the lake.   Ring-billed gulls with their black tipped wings whorled above the churned water astern and plucked small, dead, silver fish from the dirty, froth of our wake.