How's this for an earliest memory? Linda Thompson is walking to school for the very first time in Finsbury Park. It's 1952. She's four. She falls in with some bigger children also on their way to St Mary's.
"Constantinople is a very long word," they say to her, solemnly. "How do you spell 'it'?" It's the oldest trick in the book of playground lore. Linda attempts to spell Constantinople. "I felt such a fool," she says happily.
This seminal episode has stayed with her ever since. What does that fact tell her about herself? Perhaps it tells her that, almost from the beginning, she has known she is always game for a mugging?
"Ooo-er," she says. "I've never thought of that before."
She isn't a mug at all, and never has been. But she has been through the mill. You can tell that just from listening to her new album, Versatile Heart, which is the best work she's done in more than 30 years: a sad, funny, wise, wounded but redoubtable record of a lifetime's-worth of seeing things for what they really are; or at least trying to.
Not that there's been that much work to speak of since the start of the 1980s, when she separated from her husband of 10 years, Richard Thompson, and then embarked on a tour behind the album they'd made documenting the breakdown of their relationship, Shoot Out the Lights. The tour – it became fondly known as "The Tour From Hell" – achieved cult notoriety for its singular mixture of brilliant music and on-stage contumely. Back-stage fittings, Richard's shins, many, many bottles of whatever came to hand – they all took a battering in the gale of Linda's distress. But why not? By then, she had already been struggling for nearly a decade with the effects of Spasmodic Dysphonia – a neurological throat condition which periodically robs her of her voice – and with the consequences of trying to be a good Sufi Muslim wife.
It's hard not to connect the two, although Linda won't do it. She and Richard get on well, see each other occasionally, have never been in the habit of scoring cheap points off each other's foibles. Not in public, anyway. Nevertheless, Richard's devotion to the anti-materialist way of life was all-consuming and Linda went along for the slow ride. "He was a very intense young man," she says of the pasty-faced boy-wonder she sat next to at a Chinese restaurant following the end of her engagement to the eminent producer Joe Boyd, "and I was a flibbertigibbet. And you know how that goes." She had been, she says, a "weekend hippie". "I was not really into that peace and love and brown rice thing. I just thought the clothes were nice, the beads and the bells." On mature reflection then, Linda, what do you think the hippie elite saw in you?
Nevertheless, having been a prominent and very pretty face on the folk scene of the late 1960s, Linda Peters, *ée Pettifer, eventually married the scene's pallid genius, Richard T, adopted his Sufic principles along
with his name and formed the musical partnership which gave British folk-rock its two finest moments of the next decade: I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight (1974) and Pour Down Like Silver (1975). For the cover of the latter album Richard wore a turban, while a detached-looking, make-up-free Linda sublimated her womanhood beneath a suitable head covering. The songs were unrelentingly grim yet beautiful. Linda's coolly undecorative contralto never fails to connect. There have been few marriages of song, arrangement, guitar and voice to match it.
Did the pair of them have an artistic or evangelistic plan? "A plan? Are you serious?!" Thompson splutters. "Me and Richard together couldn't find our arses with both hands. No, we definitely didn't have a plan. It was fun for a while but there was never a plan..."
What they did seem to have, the rigours of Sufism notwithstanding, were compatible senses of humour. Richard's remains trickily ironic to this day, as if designed to wrong-foot all comers. Linda's is about as self-deprecating and worldly as humour gets. You can imagine them back stage on the Tour From Hell kicking seven bells out of each other's shins and being funny about it with the next breath, as if the recognition of pain were a concession to a higher failing. Linda concedes: "Our kids say 'You and Daddy... How? We just don't get it.' But I do think humour had a lot to do with how we got on."
She was counselled against going on that tour in 1982, by just about everyone including Richard. So why did Linda feel compelled to go ahead?
"I'm a show-off. And maybe, as well as being cathartic, it was pathetic as well: we had kids and maybe I thought that if we did the tour, Richard –who'd just left me – would change his mind. Yes," she adds, robustly, "it was very pathetic."
The "Richard and Linda" period remains for most of us the most compelling passage of the Linda T story (so much so that Nick Hornby recently embarked on writing a film script, now aborted, centred on the public disintegration of the Thompsons' marriage). Fair dos. But it is but a fraction of the bigger picture of a life lived pretty keenly.
Early life was spent on a north London council estate in the teeth of post-war austerity. "My father was a bit of a dilletante: he bought and sold TVs and cars and had a TV repair shop – always losing every penny he ever had. He was exciting though. You'd be watching the only TV in the road and it would be carried out the front door as you watched it, by the repossession men. And irate punters knocking on the door after buying a car: 'There's no third gear!' You'd think it would be traumatising but I actually found it funny. My mother was very traumatised..." Eventually the family moved to Mère Pettifer's home town, Glasgow. Men, eh?
The former Linda Pettifer-Peters-Thompson is now Linda Kenis, married to the former head of the European wing of the William Morris Agency. After renouncing the life of the voice in the late 1980s,and buying and selling jewellery for a posh Bond Street dealership, she has made a second vocal comeback in the new millennium. Her voice is too unreliable for live performance, but it works all right in the studio. Versatile Heart is her second effort for the Rounder label, made with considerable input from her offspring, Kamila and Teddy. It's the kind of record that takes a lifetime to make.
"I'm not a natural song-writer," she says. "But I'm getting better. I never would have written a song, actually, if I hadn't had dysphonia – I couldn't work when Richard left and so I turned to writing."
And men? Does your experience correspond with your theory?
"Does anybody's? I've never said or even thought that life is tough for women. I used to be friends with Germaine Greer. But I could never understand the soapbox thing. Can't say I have any theories about men. But I have been married my whole life. I was actually married for about five minutes when I was 16, Gretna Green and all. And I married my present husband five minutes after my divorce from Richard. It's good for your health, having a base, especially for an emotional yo-yo like me.
"The thing with equality is this, I think. Really beautiful people never enter talent contests. Really talented people never enter talent shows. Really emancipated women never bother with agitating about it – they just go about their emancipated way." *
'Versatile Heart' is released by Rounder records tomorrow. Richard & Linda Thompson 'In Concert: November 1975' is is out on Universal/Island records
Hot strummers: One fairy step beyond: five folk-rock classics
The Pentangle (1968) - Pentangle
Jazz, blues, folk, free-improv, mythology... San Francisco's Bay Area reborn in the Tottenham Court Road, with beer instead of acid
Liege & Lief (1969) - Fairport Convention
The electric guitar brought to bear on the less cosy aspects of the English folk tradition, with a swinging rhythm section, plus Sandy Denny
On the Shore (1970) - Trees
Obviously influenced by the Fairports' electric tapestry, but cross-woven High-Romantic leanings of the psychedelic kind. A minor classic, recently reissued
Led Zeppelin: III (1970) - Led Zeppelin
Zep's semi-acoustic blues-folk masterpiece was one of those moments when rock does an about face and meets folk head on
Pour Down Like Silver (1975) - Richard & Linda Thompson
The nearest Brit folk-rock ever came to matching the musical grit and historical reach of the great pioneers of American folk-rock, especially The Band'sReuse content