2017 Grateful 2

Some of us have defining Christmas moments, that exact time when we realise that it’s Christmas. It can be shopping on Christmas Eve, the first eggnog, the first piece of Turkey. Perhaps it’s not till Christmas morning that the penny drops or maybe it’s the office party. It could be the arrival of the first Christmas card or the opening of the first box of Cadbury’s Roses. For me, it’s when I hear Fairytale of New York for the first time. The original version by The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl.

I have memories from years back of SN, home from NY, getting up on the couch and belting it out in Northbrook. I have memories of AMcC doing something similar. I have mental images of stopping still in London as it came over the airwaves or giving it gusto, turning the CD up full blast as I drove the Richardson Highway in Alaska. But until this year, I never knew the story behind it. The bet behind it.

Over annual Christmas pints with old friends from the Bank, DS explained that Elvis Costello had bet Shane McGowan that he couldn’t write a Christmas duet to sing with Cait O’Riordan (Costello’s future wife and then bass player with The Pogues), a song that didn’t mention Santa Claus or presents or Christmas trees – or any of the usual stuff that goes into Christmas hits. That’s the version I like (and the one Shane McGowan tells too). But there’s another version. Accordion player James Fearnley says that back in the day, manager Frank Murray suggested that The Pogues do a cover version of Christmas Must Be Tonight. But, he said: “It was an awful song. We probably said, fuck that, we can do our own.” I prefer McGowan’s story.

This year, I heard Ed Sheeran’s attempt to cover the song with Anne-Marie – and I cried. It was tantamount to blasphemy. And he rewrote the line ‘you cheap lousy faggot’ to ‘you cheap lousy blaggard’. When Ronan Keating and Maire Brennan mangled their version, they changed the line to ‘you’re cheap and you’re haggard’. Why? Why? Why? If I could give a present to the world this year, it would be context. Forget sanitizing or rewriting history – it was what it was in the time that it was. Let it be – just don’t forget the context.

Released for Christmas 1987, and billed as ‘an unreal fantasy of 1940s New York dreamed up in 1980s London’, this classic makes my Christmas. BBC Arts did a number on it last week and I learned that the title is nicked from JP Donleavy’s novel A Fairytale of New York. I hadn’t realised that Christy Moore had covered it, on his own, too, in the 1990s. And that version, apparently, Shane likes.

But for all the times I’ve heard it, for all the times I’ve sung along, I’ve never quite realised how sad it is… and perhaps that’s what appeals to me. A little bit of realism at a time when the world is caught up in the commercialism of it all, the TV version of Christmas.

“Fairytale Of New York”

It was Christmas Eve babe
In the drunk tank
An old man said to me,
Won’t see another one
And then he sang a song
The Rare Old Mountain Dew
I turned my face away
And dreamed about you
Got on a lucky one
Came in eighteen to one
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
When all our dreams come true
They’ve got cars
Big as bars
They’ve got rivers of gold
But the wind goes right through you
It’s no place for the oldWhen you first took my hand
On a cold Christmas Eve
You promised me
Broadway was waiting for meYou were handsome
You were pretty
Queen of New York City
When the band finished playing
They howled out for more
Sinatra was swinging
All the drunks they were singing
We kissed on the corner
Then danced through the night

The boys of the NYPD choir
Were singing ‘Galway Bay’
And the bells are ringing
Out for Christmas day

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

The boys of the NYPD choir
Still singing ‘Galway Bay’
And the bells are ringing
Out for Christmas day

I could have been someone
Well, so could anyone
You took my dreams
From me when I first found you
I kept them with me babe
I put them with my own
Can’t make it all alone
I’ve built my dreams around you

The boys of the NYPD choir
Still singing ‘Galway Bay’
And the bells are ringing
Out for Christmas day

That last verse gets me every time.

Christmas 2017 dawned for me on Thursday night, in the Shakespeare in Dublin, when the song came over the air and the company embraced it. There might have been 40+ years in the age span from old to young, but nobody noticed. And while I might have been grateful the next day had someone pointed out that I’m not as young as I think I am, I wouldn’t have thanked them on the night. ‘Tis good to know that when the occasion calls for it, I can still find the wherewithal to keep pace. And for that I’m grateful. And that I don’t have to make it alone… well, that’s another reason to keep singing.