A Christmas meditation on a fairy tale

Yesterday, my Darling and her mother spent all day doing the Christmas cooking.  The kitchen is now filled with tureens of soups with names I can’t pronounce that end in toraloory. As I write this my Darling is feeding me cakes from Rozsika neni’s, our favourite cake shop. (Ask for the Gerbeaud and tell 'em Holzer sent you.) We need all the cake strength we can get because today is ‘put the tree up day’. She has a plastic tree dusted with fake snow which is already coating the living room and going up my nose.

Everyone in Hungary with a home to go to waits until the 23rd before they put up their the tree and, on the same day, they clean. Our neighbourhood echoes to the sound of vacuum cleaners. If you don’t vacuum, it’s a shame.  I’m thinking there’s a gap in the Hungarian market for CDs of nothing but vacuum noise.

Ain’t there one damn Christmas song that can make me break down and cry?

The soundtrack to our efforts – or my Darling’s – is Rod Stewart’s Merry Christmas Baby album, actually quite terrific.  Hungarians go to town at Christmas but they don’t do festive pop.

This afternoon, when I was hiding out in the sauna along with most of the male population of Szeged, the saccharin plinky-plonk soundtrack of Yuletide faves was interrupted by The Pogues ‘A Fairytale of New York’. After I wiped the wonder away with my perspiration and had a little sniffle, I began to contemplate the song's glory.

Chipping away

Apparently, ‘A Fairytale’ started life as an anti-Christmas song. Fortunately, Shane and the boys failed miserably in that one. Pogues singer Shane MacGowan, born Christmas Day 1957,  swears that Elvis Costello bet him he couldn’t write a good Christmas song.  (Many a stroke of genius has started in a bet. Think of the word ‘quiz’.)

When he began writing the song in 1985, Shane hadn’t even been to New York. Which perhaps explains why he refers to the non-existent ‘NYPD Choir’ in the song’s lyrics. It took Shane two years of chipping away at ‘A Fairytale’ for it to become the beautiful thing I heard in my Hungarian sauna. As Shane says, ‘It is by far the most complicated song that I have ever been involved in writing and performing. The beauty of it is that it sounds really simple.’

It also took time to arrive at the perfect title. A Fairy Tale of New York is the name of Irish-American writer JP Donleavy’s 1973 novel. The book tells the story of a heartbroken Irish-American’s return home to Manhattan from Ireland.

‘A Fairytale’ was released at the end of November 1987, again in 1991 and 2005 and it’s appeared in the UK Festive 50 every year since then.

Knowing not ersatz

Although The Pogues themselves say ‘A Fairytale’ owes a debt to Tom Waits in its ramshackle, drunken, maudlin feel, I’d say it’s far superior than anything than faux-bum Tom ever did. Shane is playing a character but somehow he isn’t.  ‘A Fairytale’ may be clever but it's not obviously knowing – it’s unabashedly sentimental, with the choruses offering a memory of the Auld Sod and a shimmer of hope. 

And what about that wonderfully miserable sentiment? It’s fitting that the song’s title should have been lifted from a book by an Irish-American. The failure of immigrant dreams is what gives ‘A Fairytale’ its emotional punch. Shane, of course, was born in Kent and not Ireland.

(This is also perhaps why the song struck such an emotional chord with me as I shuffled out of the steam and plunged into an ice-cold pool. I'm a romantic immigrant in Hungary.)

I always get the feeling that, while they kind of like Shane as the anti-Bono, the Irish are a bit embarrassed about him. (I hope I’m wrong.) His drunkenness went way past being poetic years ago. Today, he simply looks and sounds like he’s staggering and slurring through the worst hangover a man could ever have.

And, thanks to ‘A Fairytale’, he can afford them.

All I want for Christmas

In 2013, ‘A Fairytale’earned Shane and Jem Finer of The Pogues, who wrote the music, around $633,000 (£386,270). While this is small beer compared to the millions earned by someone like McCartney, it’s certainly enough to keep Shane in booze and to pay for his new tooth implants. My thoroughly unscientific estimate puts the cost of a full set of implants at around £30,000.

A few days ago, UK Sky TV showed a documentary about Shane’s new teeth. There’s a scene where, to show off his sterling work, the dentist encourages Shane to eat an apple. The sight of a trembling, ashen-faced Shane biting into the apple is just downright awful and the opposite of uplifting. 

Shane apparently said he wanted new teeth but I can’t imagine him eating an apple a day from now on.

Although I’ve got this far without mentioning Kirsty MacColl, Shane’s co-star in ‘A Fairytale’, it's her pure voice, on the edge of harsh, that illuminates the song. Kirsty lost her life at a tragically young age and, without sounding too pompous, I can’t help but see what Shane’s done to himself as a terrible waste.

Oh well. We have the song. God bless us every one.