Richard Balls: 'Interviewing Shane MacGowan was a real eye-opener'

Norwich writer Richard Balls with Shane MacGowan.

Norwich writer Richard Balls with Shane MacGowan. - Credit: Paul Ronan

“What do most people know about Shane MacGowan?” muses Norfolk writer Richard Balls. “Probably that he drinks a lot and he wrote Fairytale of New York. That’s probably most people’s sum total of their knowledge about him. And I just thought that he’s so much more than that.” 

Three years and hours of conversations with Shane, his family and friends later, the result is the biography Furious Devotion: The Authorised Story of Shane MacGowan.  

It’s a compelling and eye-opening portrait of the complex, contradictory and talented man who shot to fame – and infamy - as frontman of The Pogues. 

Norwich writer Richard Balls with his book, an authorised biography of The Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan. 

Norwich writer Richard Balls with his book, an authorised biography of The Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan. - Credit: Brittany Woodman

Richard has been a fan of Shane since 1984, when he saw The Pogues play a raw and energetic set at the UEA in Norwich, supporting Elvis Costello and the Attractions. It was a gig that had a profound effect on him. 

“I had never heard of The Pogues, I had no idea who they were,” says Richard. “I walked into the UEA, heard this racket clattering away on the stage. I was transfixed, I had never seen anything like it. 

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“The 80s pop scene was Wham!, Duran Duran on yachts in the Caribbean, it was quite a materialistic culture at that time. 

“This band was different. They had an accordion, a banjo, this guy smashing a beer tray off his head, Shane was really drunk...and I was just really struck by them. So after that I found out a bit more about them and after that I got to see them at Hammersmith Palais, when they were much bigger and then bigger again at the Brixton Academy.” 

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Seeing The Sex Pistols live for the first time was a pivotal moment in Shane’s life – and, says Richard, The Pogues were imbued with that same punk spirit.  

“Cait O’Riordan was a really intimidating figure on bass, you didn’t know whether she was just going to jump in the crowd. Shane would be swigging away from a bottle of whiskey, the guy with the tin tray would be smashing about, there was a sense of complete abandonment. It was just chaotic, but it was fun.” 

Years later, Richard met Shane for the first time when he went to interview him for a book he was writing about Stiff Records, the maverick label The Pogues were signed to. It was his first glimpse into Shane’s world. 

He had got in touch with Shane’s wife, Victoria Mary Clarke, and arrangements were made via Shane’s old friend Paul Ronan for them to meet up in London. 

“I had to meet Shane and Paul outside a private clinic in London, so I’m basically standing on the corner of the street at the allotted time and out comes Shane MacGowan with black shades on.  

“I shook hands with him, said ‘alright’, but he was on a mission, he was powering on. I understood straight away that this wasn’t going to be that we sit down and I start firing questions at him in the way you would normally interview somebody. So we sat in a pub and were chatting away, and Paul indicated to me that maybe now I could start asking something.” 

It wasn’t a meeting that was without incident - at one point Shane fell asleep on Richard’s tape recorder – and he also managed to get himself locked in the toilet and the pub staff had to let him out. 

But Richard was totally intrigued by Shane – and how different he was to how he expected.  

“He’s actually just terrific company,” he says. “I thought he’d be quite intimidating somehow. Sometimes when someone has the reputation that they do in the tabloid papers, they’re always writing about their antics and stuff, you’re not sure what they’re going to be like. He’s so well-read and frighteningly intelligent, but he talks quite quietly. Chuckles away to himself about things that he remembers from the past.” 

Norwich writer Richard Balls with his book, an authorised biography of The Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan. 

A Furious Devotion: The Authorised Story of Shane MacGowan by Richard Balls. - Credit: Brittany Woodman

Richard, who lives in Norwich, was a newspaper journalist for 20 years – he spent some of his career in Ireland and also worked on the Eastern Daily Press. A lifelong and passionate music fan, his first book was a biography of another singular artist – Ian Dury.   

When Richard was ready to write another book after his history of Stiff Records and was looking for a subject, he got back in touch with Paul Ronan to see if Shane would entertain the thought of him writing his biography. 

“Paul came back and said ‘he’s not against the idea’ and he started taking me to Ireland with him.” 

Shane dislikes being interviewed, so in those early meetings, Richard had to earn his trust. 

“Somebody once likened doing an interview with Shane as like doing a wildlife documentary. You have to wait for hours and hours and hours and hours and then eventually you might get a few quotes or something. 

“The first time I went [to Ireland], I remember thinking I won’t even try and interview him, because I just sensed that it was better to get him to trust me and to have me around. After all, he was kind enough to have me in his home and to host me like that, so in respect to that I thought let’s take this very, very slow. And the next time I went over I started recording things.  

“So I ended up in a privileged position, one that I hopefully never took for granted, which was basically sitting there beside him in his own house for hours or days on end just chatting and having a drink. 

“A lot of it was probably got in the early hours of the morning, or maybe in the afternoon if he was up for it. But I never pushed him because he hates being interviewed, loathes it, hates talking about his work, so I would probably ask him more about things that weren’t his work. He seems much happier to talk about his childhood, the bands he was into when he was younger or other things in his life, his teachers, or his family, rather than actually talking about The Pogues.” 

In the course of his research and writing, fitted in around his day job, Richard interviewed around 60 people: members of Shane’s family including his dad, Maurice, former girlfriends, schoolmates, including fellow musician Thomas Dolby and the teacher who had noticed his early promise as a writer.  

Through Shane’s sister, Siobhan, who was closely involved in the project, Richard got to visit Tipperary and see The Commons, the family homestead which had a huge influence on Shane. 

Richard Balls with members of Shane MacGowan's family at The Commons in Tipperary

Richard Balls with members of Shane MacGowan's family at The Commons in Tipperary - Credit: Paul Ronan

And a picture of a fascinating, shy, complex man, revered by contemporaries including Nick Cave and Sinead O’Connor emerged.  

“There have been a lot of myths that have grown up around Shane, like a blackberry bush that’s out of control,” says Richard.  

“There’s a reason for that. Sometimes things get misreported and they just get repeated and repeated and they become fact.  

“Like he was born in Ireland, which he wasn’t. And people say it doesn’t matter where he was born and no, it actually does matter.  

“I think a lot of people will be quite surprised at some of the things they’re reading about and never realised about him.” 

Shane grew up in a middle-class suburb in Tunbridge Wells. Attending Holmewood primary school, his English teacher Tom Simpson noticed his early promise as a writer – and had even kept pieces of his work. When Richard interviewed Mr Simpson, who has since passed away, with Shane’s family’s permission he took the school books and handed them back to Shane’s wife, Victoria. 

“He had no way of knowing that Shane was going to become who he became, and yet he kept it all – he didn’t do that for any other pupil. That’s evidence right there that Shane had that natural gift for writing right from the outset,” says Richard. 

Shane won a scholarship to Westminster School, but, always a rebel, was later expelled. 

During his childhood it was Shane’s trips to Tipperary and The Commons that were his real education and shaped the artist he became. 

“Here was this kid who was being brought up in an English suburb in Kent and going over to Ireland to this cottage, which was like going back in time 100, 200 years and he just loved that whole bucolic existence,” says Richard.  

“That’s where the influence for The Pogues really came from, because that’s where he first heard Irish music and heard stories about the Irish Rebellion.” 

Visiting The Commons was a great privilege and a pivotal moment for Richard during his research which deepened his understanding of Shane. 

“The Commons is absolutely fundamental to who he is, I think. The actual building itself is just an extraordinary place,” says Richard. “You can feel the history just sitting there. So that must have been an incredible place for a child, him and Siobhan on their holidays. They worked on the farm, they helped with all the animals. Shane would be taken to mass. He’s quite a spiritual person. He’s not a church goer, he doesn’t go to mass, but he has got religious icons around, he prays.” 

A Furious Devotion: The Authorised Story of Shane MacGowan by Richard Balls.

A Furious Devotion: The Authorised Story of Shane MacGowan by Richard Balls. - Credit: Brittany Woodman

During the course of his research, Richard also heard about a harrowing time that Shane went through as a teenager. 

“He was in a psychiatric care for about six months when he was 17, he spent his 18th birthday on a psychiatric ward at Bethlem Hospital, and you can’t overstate what effect that must have had,” says Richard. “He wasn’t in there for a few days or a few weeks. It was months and around some people who were getting electroconvulsive therapy.  

“Siobhan remembers going to see him with her mum and dad on Christmas Day, which is his birthday, so this is his 18th, and coming out and feeling so sad about the state he was in and having to visit him in that place.  

“So I think that is another part of who he is, that he went through that really traumatic time.” 

Not long after he’d left hospital, Shane went to see Joe Strummer’s band the 101ers play. That night they were supported by The Sex Pistols. It was a defining moment – and not just in Shane’s life. 

“That literally was a defining moment, that was when the penny dropped,” says Richard.  "When Joe Strummer saw the Pistols he knew that it was the end of the 101ers and that The Clash must come next. 

“And Shane was looking at John Lydon on stage and was just blown away. 

“This guy was from an Irish background. He looked odd and Shane used to get a lot comments about the way he looked, and picked on sometimes because of the way he looked.  

“Punk was inclusive and I think Shane had always felt like he didn’t really fit in, there was a sense of dislocation with him. But when he saw them, it was like it doesn’t matter what you look like, you can look odd, in fact that’s probably better, it’s a good thing.  

“And that I think was a real seminal moment in his life, that that gave him a direction. He could also channel all that anger that he had that came from his feelings about the British troops in Northern Ireland, the way that Irish people were being discriminated against in Britain, his anger about what was happening with his own health and his family. 

“At that time his dad and his mum were living separately, they were still together but his mum couldn‘t cope with living in London, so there had been quite a lot of things going on and I think punk allowed him to channel all that anger rather than just bottling it up.” 

Shane started out in The Nips and then formed The Pogues, which catapulted him to fame – and tabloid infamy. 

Shane has a gift for creating poetry out of the seamier side of life – finding beauty in the down on their luck characters who aren’t usually celebrated in song. It’s something which resonates with many – think of their biggest hit, Fairytale of New York, in which Shane duets with Kirsty MacColl,  which has become part of the Christmas canon. 

“A lot of people talk about The Pogues and say ‘oh yeah a great Irish band’,” says Richard. 

“When The Pogues formed there wasn’t a single person in that group who was born in Ireland, not one.  They weren’t an Irish band, they were effectively a band of people from England, some of whom had Irish connections, Irish family, but I think that’s why The Pogues’ music, had that real rebel heart to it and that’s why Shane wrote about the things that he did. 

“It was through the prism of being a second generation Irish person in Britain and seeing first hand the way that a lot of Irish people were treated. 

“Fairytale of New York is so brilliant because it just looks at two people, who’ve maybe had a bit of a rough time, their dreams had not worked out. It’s just humanity, isn’t it? And that’s what Shane’s so good at – he writes brilliantly about people and real situations. Some of those songs are just incredible. Who writes about people lying in doorways in London? He’s just writing about what he saw.” 

Author Richard Balls at Eaton Park, Norwich

Author Richard Balls at Eaton Park, Norwich - Credit: Brittany Woodman

Of course, some of Richard’s questions did remain unanswered. 

“Shane’s quite a complex figure and so many times I was sitting with him, I’d be thinking what is going on in his mind, what does he really think of this? 

“It’s well known that his physical health isn’t great and so when he does go out, he’s in a wheelchair, so he does spend quite a lot of time just sitting and you wonder how he copes with that as well. There are certain things that will always a bit of a mystery.” 

And the biggest is about his prodigious appetite for excess. 

“That is one of the hard things really to understand,” says Richard. “I think when The Pogues certainly first started he was really into [poet] Brendan Behan who was an alcoholic.  

“I think there was a sense that in a kind of way Brendan Behan was his muse. Shane had a picture of him on the wall of his bedsit in King’s Cross, so I think there was a sense of you’ve got to drink to inspire yourself, to be creative and so on.  

“Why he has taken it to such extremes? In the 90s he had a big heroin habit, which really he didn’t give up until 2002 maybe, and with his physical health he has really paid the price for that.  

“Why’s he’s felt he’s needed to do that I don’t really know and I don’t think anybody does, he may even not know himself.” 

It was important to Richard that he did Shane justice – and that included not shying away from the darker side of Shane’s life. 

“It’s a huge weight,” says Richard. “You are writing about somebody’s life and you have got such a responsibility to them and their family to get it right. Also, you don’t want to cheat and give a sanitised version of their life, so you’re trying to achieve that balance between making it as honest as it can be, but also really respecting the person. 

“You want to hear the stories like about when he paints himself blue, but I didn’t want it to have so many that it falls into the zone that he’s just a drunk. 

“I hope I’ve achieved a balance here. I’ve included the darker side of his life, but also shown the respect that he’s held in. The Ivor Novello Award for songwriting, the lifetime achievement award from the National Concert Hall, the Late Late Show tribute show to him. He’s so revered and I hope that the book adds to that recognition.” 

As Richard explains, while it’s unlikely that Shane has or will read the book (”he lives in his head, he’s not really interested in the book at all”) it has been well received by his family. 

“Without Siobhan this would not be the book it is. She has read it and absolutely loves it and his dad has said that from a family perspective that this is the book of record. 

“It’s kind of surreal to me that I’ve been able to write books about people like Shane, who is an idol to me. You never imagine when you’re at gigs as a youngster looking up at people on stage you’ll end up sitting in their living room with them, watching the World Cup on telly.” 

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I am reading... 

The Woman in the Window by AJ Finn

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Public Service Broadcasting – Bright Magic

A Winged Victory For The Sullen – The Undivided Five

Olafur Arnalds – Some Kind of Peace

Furious Devotion: The Authorised Story of Shane MacGowan by Richard Balls is out now, published by Omnibus Press. 

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