Shirley Collins Q+A: “Philip Pullman is God, as far as I’m concerned”

The folk singer talks childhood lessons, Inspector Montalbano and Renaissance Italy. 

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Shirley Collins was born in Sussex in 1935. A significant contributor to the English folk revival of the 1960s and 1970s, she has collaborated with artists including her sister Dolly, Bert Jansch and Alan Lomax.

What’s your earliest memory?

I really wanted a doll for Christmas when I was about four. I was so thrilled when I got it, I kept throwing it up in the air. Mum warned me that if I dropped it, it would break. I dropped it, and it broke.

Who are your heroes?

My grandad was my childhood hero. He was a gardener and he was always very patient with us children. We could sit on his knee and comb his moustache with a metal comb. My adult hero is a Sussex man called Bob Copper who comes from a family that sang traditional songs. He was a great local historian.

What book last changed your thinking?

I never enjoyed fantasy books until I read His Dark Materials. Philip Pullman is God, as far as I’m concerned.

Which political figure do you look up to?

Oh, come on. All I can say is I look up to anyone taller than me.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

English traditional folk music. I’d do well, if they asked me the right questions.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

Renaissance Italy: great art, wonderful music, lovely clothes. But I know, really, that it was dirty and dangerous.

What TV show could you not live without?

Inspector Montalbano, thanks to BBC Four. And Detectorists. I love the gentle quality of it all, the lovely countryside, the slow story, the lovable characters. It’s perfect slow television for me.

Who would paint your portrait?

Alex Merry has just finished one for my new album. She works with Gucci as well! She’s also a Morris dancer and a costume-maker. She’s the most talented woman.

What’s your theme tune?

George Butterworth’s “Banks of Green Willow”. We played it at my sister’s funeral and everyone was in tears at the beauty of it.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

To sing and speak in your own natural voice. I’ve always followed that.

What’s currently bugging you?

Those inanimate objects that don’t behave properly! I’m talking about anything wrapped in plastic that you have to fight or hack your way into: jar lids, milk cartons and now washing up capsule boxes. You’re supposed to squeeze two ends and pull them apart; it doesn’t work.

What single thing would make your life better?

To remain in the EU; to walk without pain, because I’ve got a bad back; and to have a husband who could open those jars for me

When were you happiest?

Walking the South Downs with my friend Pip Barnes. Empty, beautiful landscape; skylarks singing up in the air so high you can’t see them. I did that, luckily, for years and years, and never tired of it.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

A gardener, like my grandad. He was the most contented person.

Are we all doomed?

It seems closer than it might be, now we’ve got this present government. We’re in their hands. I don’t feel optimistic. 

“Heart’s Ease” by Shirley Collins is out now on Domino Records

This article appears in the 11 September 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Saving Labour

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