"Thousands are Sailing"


Will reminds us of the impact that a single song at one single moment, can have.


Hope you’re all doing well and settling into the new normal. I wanted to tell you about my favourite song – a sort of one tune Dessert Island Disc. Unlike a lot of other music nuts the answer to the question of what is your favourite song for me, does not take a lot of ‘umming’ and ‘ahhing’. It is (and has been since I was eight years old) Thousands are Sailing by The Pogues. This poorly shot video has the writer of the song, Phil Chevron, rather than Shane MacGowan singing. It’s not great but it’s the version of the song I love.


We go way back, me and this song, I first heard it when my dad was driving me to school; he’d a CD playing in the car and it came on. I cried like I never had before. I cried so much that a shocked father had to pull over and cuddle me. Being a good parent, he offered to turn it off – the opposite of course of what I wanted. My vigorous protests meant that he then played it on repeat for about twenty minutes (still the best reason I’ve ever had for being late for anything).

"It’s the struggles of the people that never really fit, and if you play that to a disabled kid who doesn’t fit in anywhere, you’ve just given him a musical life-line. "

I knew then I’d found my anthem. A song written just for me. It’s not surprising that the age-old story of the journey from Ireland to America to try and make a life for yourself also spoke to me. It’s the struggles of the people that never really fit, and if you play that to a disabled kid who doesn’t fit in anywhere, you’ve just given him a musical life-line.

For me it's a song that has everything, musically and lyrically. The bass-line are the waves of the Atlantic and the tin whistle soars above the rest of the band like a swallow in the squall. And the words, oh the words. It shows you the best and the worst of life. It lifts you into joy and when you’re there it takes you further. But it’s also understanding and lets you grieve. This is me in a song and it has what I think are the greatest lines ever written:

“In Manhattan’s desert twilight, at the death of afternoon. We stepped hand in hand down Broadway, like the first men on the moon.”

They told me that even at the end of it all, when everything is at its most hopeless, you can still achieve your dreams.


Needless to say, it became my life’s ambition to see this song performed live. That dream came true on the 20th of December 2012 at the O2 arena in London. When the time came, I stood and cried as waves of sweaty, joyous, people crashed against me like a rock in that storm. I knew I could die happy.

It’s not surprising that a man like Phil wrote it. He also knew what it was to be an outsider. After all he did write Under Clery’s Clock’, one of the greatest LGBTQ+ love songs I’ve ever heard and in 1970's Ireland that can’t have been easy.


Sadly, his own ship sailed early. Phil Chevron (real name Philip Ryan) died in 2013 at the age of 56. Humorous, self-effacing and courageous to the last he summed up his life in an interview with Jason O’Toole, of the Irish Mail: “I am a gay, Irish, Catholic, alcoholic, Pogue who is about to die from cancer – and don’t think I don’t know it.”

WR

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