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Book Of A Lifetime: English Songs and Ballads, By TWH Crosland


After the Second World War, my family moved from a Displaced Persons camp in Schleswig-Holstein to a refugee camp in Sussex. From there we were taken in by English families. My mother worked as a domestic, and my father as an agricultural worker. Our first "host" family were the Dobbses of Whatlington. Rosalind Heyworth Dobbs (née Potter) was an artist and mother-in-law of Malcolm Muggeridge, connected through her parents and eight siblings to the Bloomsbury set. After she died in 1949, we transferred to Miss Winifred Morton in nearby Burwash Common.

I don't remember much about the more colourful Dobbses, but I remember Miss Morton as a large, stern, bed-ridden lady, swathed in silk dressing gowns, fond of fresh peaches. And I remember her because she taught me English and gave me my first ever book.

You might think 'English Songs and Ballads', compiled by TWH Crosland in 1903, and overloaded with gloomy accounts of maritime battles, was a strange choice of Christmas gift for a Ukrainian-speaking four-year-old. And I have sometimes wondered unkindly whether her gift, well-thumbed and pencilled with cryptic marginalia, was of the oh-hell-I-forgot-to-get-something-for-that-girl variety. But I have treasured it all my life.

It must have been some years before I could read it for myself, but as I grew up, the vivid figures of the Ancient Mariner, Oriana, the starving seamstress, the boy on the burning deck, Lochinvar, proud Maisie and Lord Ullin's daughter became my entourage, better company than the teasing, hair-pulling kids at my drab Doncaster and Gainsborough schools. By the time I reached my mid-teens, my tastes had become more sophisticated. I read "real" poetry, and started to despise the melodramatic stories and overwrought language of Crosland's balladeers, and I only picked up the book occasionally, for reference to a half-remembered refrain.

Much later, in the age of Google, I discovered that Thomas William Hodgson Crosland was himself quite a colourful figure, and not someone I would have much liked in real life. A right-wing Tory, anti-Semite and militant homophobe, he was an associate of Lord Alfred Douglas, Oscar Wilde's lover. After Douglas was "cured" of his homosexuality, he and Crosland joined forces to persecute Robbie Ross, Wilde's close friend, trying to get him arrested for homosexual offences. Did stern Miss Morton know of this?

In 1902 he published a bizarre anti-Scottish diatribe called 'The Unspeakable Scot', yet curiously 'English Songs and Ballads' contains many Scottish dialect poems, including several by Robbie Burns.

Crosland was a poet himself, not a very good one, but 'English Songs and Ballads' inspired me to write poetry too. Unfortunately the dum-di-dum-di-dum it inspired also ensured that I was doomed to fail as a poet. Maybe that's how I became a novelist instead.

Marina Lewycka's 'Various Pets Alive and Dead' is published by Fig Tree; she will be appearing at the 'Independent' Bath Literature Festival on 10 March