Here’s a heartwarming tale for Christmas: Back in the 80s, I used to spend a lot of my lunch hours and even more of my money in a second-hand record shop called Rocks Off. It was run by a voluble Irishman and his gormless-looking assistant. This creature never spoke or served customers. He’d just fetch whichever crates of vinyl the Irishman asked him for. To my shame, I assumed he was perhaps mute or, to use the parlance of the day, ‘a bit slow’. It soon became apparent that he was neither. That assistant was Shane MacGowan and a few years later he wrote and sang ‘Fairytale of New York’, the greatest Christmas record ever made. Sometimes behind the face of a farmhand lurks the soul of a poet and, like millions of others, I’m moved by the poetry of this song.
I’m bewitched by Shane’s tuneless vocals, complemented though not complimented – ‘You scumbag, you maggot, you cheap, lousy faggot‘ – by Kirsty MacColl. But it’s that lush crescendo of Celtic orchestration that really sets me off. It reminds me of my dad, my London Irish childhood and the bittersweet beauty of Christmas. I cry every time I hear it. Fortunately for those around me, I only hear it in December because that’s the peculiar truth about Christmas music. It may sound glorious at this time of the year but at any other time, it’s just wrong.
I’m told the same is true of Baileys. It’s practically illegal for eleven months of the year but people knock it back by the litre in December. My wife and her friends are among them, so that big bottle I bought this morning will be empty by Boxing Day. But this year, for the first time, it’s me who breaks the seal. To the opening bars of The Pogues & Kirsty MacColl, I pour myself a generous measure. My God, what have I become? I’ve gone from naïve teetotaller to drinking hard liquor on my own at 9.30 in the morning. And, given the song I’m listening to, crying while I do so. Shane MacGowan would be proud of me. I take my first sip and the parallels between the drink and the music are instantly apparent. Baileys is Fairytale of New York on ice. Shane’s growling voice is its potent essence of Irish whiskey and Kirsty’s vocals are the cream that soften and sweeten it.
Another sip and I’m drinking in the spirit of Christmas – literally – because I love everything about this time of the year. Maybe not that weird and unlikely tale about a virgin giving birth in a stable but I adore the stuff that actually happens. I love the giving, the receiving and the spontaneous acts of kindness. I love the holly, the ivy and, if they haven’t been banned post-Weinstein, the overhead sprigs of mistletoe. I love the festive music and this creamy Irish tipple called Baileys. Though maybe, like Fairytale of New York – its musical equivalent – I’m only loving it because it’s Christmas. Ask me again in January.