A Shirt Box Full of Songs, By Barbara Dickson

Looking for talent? No contest!

Reviewed,Liz Thomson
Tuesday 10 November 2009 01:00

In an age when a few weeks' exposure on grim reality television leads inexorably to at least one memoir, how refreshing to discover that a singer whose career spans 40 years, a million-selling record, a handful of theatrical awards and an OBE had to be persuaded to put metaphorical pen to paper – and that money wasn't a deciding factor.

As Willy Russell writes in his foreword, "Barbara Dickson, singer and actress... has never chased celebrity or stardom". Dickson is a musician who takes what she does seriously but is, beyond that, a wife and mother who, when not on the road or in the studio, far prefers making music with her sons to smiling to camera from a cheap red carpet.

"A happy childhood. No drink or drug problems to speak of. No health crises. No big scandal. Only one marriage" – that's not the stuff of memoirs these days, which makes Dickson's all the more engaging. Aside from an attack of nervous exhaustion in the London run of Blood Brothers, the closest she has come to a crisis was when the shirt box that gives the book its title and in which, since 1965, she has stored words and music to songs, went missing during a move. After her family and the cat, this treasured possession is the one thing she'd rescue from a fire.

A Dunfermline-born child of the baby boom, Dickson was a teenager when she first stood up to sing in a folk club. Folk, on which she has lately refocused her attention, was her first love. In 1960s Edinburgh, she played with some of the best, among them the Corries and the Chieftains, and got to know such fellow folkies as Gerry Rafferty, Billy Connolly and, crucially, a trainee teacher named Willy Russell. In 1973, he persuaded her to reinterpret the Beatles catalogue in John, Paul, George, Ringo... and Bert, his first play, written for Liverpool's Everyman theatre. It transferred to London and Dickson found herself an unwitting star. But all these years on, "I am who I am, a woman in a smart black outfit with a guitar slung around her neck who knows she can sing. Take it or leave it." Three cheers for that.

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