Ralph McTell

By Jeremy Miles

Ralph McTell laughs happily when he recalls the times he spent living in Bournemouth and Poole back in the early 1960s.

This might seem surprising as he was literally struggling to stay alive at the time. He barely had enough to eat, had to steal coal to keep warm and once even helped plan a robbery in a bid to survive.

But McTell and the housemates who shared his freezing hovel in Southbourne were not natural criminals. Their ‘super-heist’ yielded not the £200 they had hoped for but two soggy Marmite sandwiches.

It’s a long story and though it is recounted in McTell’s newly published autobiography, As Far As I Can Tell, it is one tale that the singer-songwriter and guitarist is having second thoughts about having shared with the world.

"I probably shouldn’t have put that in the book at all," he told me. "But I sort of got carried away when I was writing it."

McTell, now 63, says that those days, long before he found fame and fortune, when he and his guitar resided first in a squat over a bookies shop in Poole High Street and then at the beaten-up old house in Southbourne Grove were among the happiest of his life.

"Times were certainly tough but I was young and found myself among a fantastic group of people. That whole beatnik thing was just so liberating. I still vividly remember the sense of freedom that I felt. I absolutely loved it."

Playing guitar in the evenings with friends from the local art college, McTell (who answered to the name of Ralph May in those days) hustled a crust taking whatever work he could find. He did shifts at the Metal Box Company in Poole, took work as a Hoffman Presser at a Bournemouth laundry and did stints as everything from kitchen porter to builder’s labourer.

With the songs of Woody Guthrie, Robert Johnson and the man who gave him his stage name – Blind Willie McTell – running around his brain, he was hell-bent on making it as a blue-collar hero with a facist-slaying guitar. "Doing manual work was important to me. I took whatever was going but it had to be something that allowed me to free up my mind."

To this day McTell – an eloquent and highly intelligent orator and writer – says he loves physical work. "I spend a lot of time in Cornwall where I have been terracing my garden. I really feel good with shovel or a pick-axe in my hand."

Memories of his year of living dangerously in Bournemouth and Poole wil come flooding back when bring his most extensive tour in years to Wimborne’s Tivoli Theatre tonight (Thursday November 13).

The tour marks his return to traditional concert style and repertoire with McTell concentrate on his self-penned numbers and the live format that he and his audiences love most – one man, his guitar and his songs.

After 'resting' some of his most popular songs (the much-covered Clare To Here and the million-selling Streets of London among them ), he says he’s looking forward to giving them a new airing. But the current concerts also contain rarer gems and at the Tivoli, McTell will intersperse old favourites with less familiar compositions including some that have never been played on stage before this tour.

Returning to his old stomping ground of 45 years ago, McTell is hoping that this evening’s gig might put him in touch with one or two old friends who are still living in the Dorset area.

"There are one or two that I haven’t seen since those days. It would be great to catch up with them again," he says. "People like Keith the potter from Lytchett Matravers. I’d love to see him again. We had such good times."

With an international reputation as one of the most accomplished singers and songwriters of his generation, Ralph McTell considers himself a lucky man. "The most amazing thing is that there was never any plan. I really didn’t have a clue what I was going to do," he says. "But I here I am still happily working after all this time. When I think about the people I’ve and the things I’ve done – I’ve been married to my wife Nanna for many years, have four children and eight grandchildren –everything I’ve got, everything I’ve achieved is down to playing the guitar and writing songs."

Ralph McTell plays the Tivoli Theatre in Wimborne tonight (Thursday November 13). His autobiography As Far As I CanTell is published by Leola Music Ltd at £12.99.

Further information at www.ralphmctell.co.uk

© Jeremy Miles 2022