Drink, drugs and dentistry

A Drink with Shane MacGowan

Victoria Mary Clarke and Shane MacGowan <em>Sidgwick & Jackson, 360pp,

There has been much speculation about the health of Shane MacGowan, the legendary, hard-drinking singer of the great Irish band The Pogues. Is he more dead than alive? What have years of self-abuse done to his sense of self? A Drink with Shane MacGowan offers some answers. It comprises the singer's alcohol-fuelled conversations with his girlfriend, Victoria Mary Clarke (recently described as "preposterous" by Julie Burchill because of her reputed addiction to famous people), which are at once hilarious, sad and yet constantly edifying. Revisited is a past coloured by the three Ds: drink, drugs and dentistry.

MacGowan tells of his early alcoholism, his spell in the "loony bin", and his family's connection with the IRA. Brendan Behan rubs shoulders with Matt Dillon and Michael Collins, while Johnny Rotten looks on, sneering. MacGowan's life is a cultural cocktail, shaken and stirred with the vigour of a pneumatic drill.

When the mental knots of his disturbed youth are untangled, there is, curiously, a great deal of black comedy. Clarke's inquiry into his mother's nervous breakdown leads to an explanation as to why a "peanut" is a kind of mod (as opposed to rocker, one presumes), whether or not Reggie Kray was good-looking, and other such diversions. The account of how his friend Maurice O'Toole mastered the art of the "sympathy fuck" is exemplary - and the early days of Sex Pistols are given the MacGowan touch (he explains how the band's anti-monarchist stance angered the loyalists, and describes the effect that Catholicism had on punk).

Clarke's journey through MacGowan's life and their relationship is funny and poignant. Her sometimes incredulous responses accentuate his most extreme exploits, while at other times she is rueful and sensitive to any lack of trust; there is a definite love affair here, telling its own story.

Can such a personal account be objective? Are all his boasts to be believed? Is he, as some would have it, a genius? MacGowan tells it like it is, and says whatever he feels like saying (he is often too drunk to do otherwise). The result is a refreshing candour.

This is much more than the usual catalogue of musical men behaving badly. God forbid if this book should start a publishing trend - A Drink with Gyles Brandreth, say, or A Lemonade with Alastair Campbell. But I'll drink to this one, all the same.