The Oldie Magazine: Shirley Collins wins The Penderyn Music Book Prize

Shirley Collins Penderyn Prize
Photograph by Emyr Young

I did a short piece on The Oldie website yesterday on the great English folk singer, Shirley Collins:

For the last ten years, an eccentric arts festival has taken place in the West Wales township of Laugharne, once home to Dylan Thomas (pictured, his old house, the Boathouse) and a gaggle of pre-war bohemian refugees from London.

It feels like little has changed since Dylan and Caitlin were squabbling in the Boathouse by the estuary and then making up in the boozy bar of Browns Hotel. Elegantly tipsy festival-goers at the Laugharne Weekend stand about on sunny pavements listening to poets and drinking beer while the residents tolerate them with a weary but amused accommodation.

Each year, the festival also announces the winner of Britain’s only music book prize, the Penderyn Prize, and today this year’s winner was announced: Shirley Collins, for her account of a life in English folk music, All In The Downs.

Collins is perhaps the most authentic folk singer the English have produced, beginning her career as an ambitious 20-year-old in London, up from the sticks in Sussex, having to dodge the drunken advances of the largely male folk fraternity of the early 1960s (‘charming when sober, horrendous when drunk’).

For the next twenty or so years, she recorded a series of albums which celebrated the purity of the English song. ‘I had to defend English folk music because so many people didn’t understand it.’

Then, in the late 70s, a painful divorce literally took her voice away.

She was heartbroken and humiliated, and her voice began to crack and finally abandoned her. It was not to return for 35 years.

All In The Downs tells the triumphant story of her return to singing in 2014 after years of surviving – working as a cleaner and as a job centre clerk just to keep her two children fed and clothed. Now, with an MBE behind her (‘The Penderyn Prize means much more to me – they don’t even give you a cup of tea at the Palace’) and a successful new album Lodestar released in 2016, she is finally recognised, not as the great Unsung Hero of the English folk movement, but one whose song is now being sung loud and clear.

At 82, Collins is still filled with the desire to, as she says, ‘sing to people, not at them’, much as her grandfather sang the songs of the Sussex landscape to her and her sister Dolly in the indoor Morrison shelter during the air raids in Hastings during World War Two. Her prize-winning book is an eloquent account of a vanishing world but one which, in her wonderfully capable hands, might prove oddly resilient in years to come.

The Damnation Of Peter Pan

My third novel, The Damnation Of Peter Pan, is published today. It’s a dark and unsettling story of one family’s blighted relationship with JM Barrie’s most famous creation.

From the blurb on the back cover:

“Peter Mannering, the 75-year-old son of Maimie, one of the characters featured in Barrie’s novel The Little White Bird, reflects on a life of wealth, misfortune and violence. Demons summoned from the past combine to present an horrific foretaste of the future, yet down in the basement of his Kensington mansion, a new generation of the family surely offers the possibility of redemption?

“Ranging from the sweet green hills of Laugharne, the Welsh town made famous by Dylan Thomas, to the frenetic life of Soho and the new pop culture of the 1960s, The Damnation Of Peter Pan tells the story of the twentieth century through a prism of love, literature and the lexicon of the occult.”

The novel arose from a number of obsessions: an excessive interest in the life of JM Barrie, a curiosity about the turn-of-the-century secret societies such as The Order of the Golden Dawn, an abiding affection for the township of Laugharne in Wales where Dylan Thomas famously wrote Under Milk Wood, and an underlying thread of Oedipal psychological impulses.

You can buy the novel in paperback or e-book at Amazon or by contacting the publishers.