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DAVID SUTCLIFFE - The Keys Of Heaven: The Life Of Revd Charles Marson

DAVID SUTCLIFFE - The Keys Of Heaven: The Life Of Revd Charles Marson
Cockasnook Books ISBN: 978-0-9557460-7-9

Despite living all my life within 20 miles or so of Charles Marson’s parish of Hambridge, I had no idea what a gap there was in my knowledge of the early days of song collecting until I read this book. I strongly suspect that many others share my ignorance, and I can thoroughly recommend this book as a means of dispelling that lack of knowledge. It also happens to be engagingly readable.

Most of us will be aware that Marson hosted Cecil Sharp at the Vicarage on his early collecting forays into Somerset, and may also be familiar with the story of Sharp hearing the gardener John England (who was in fact Marson’s sexton, general factotum and Jack of all trades, not just “a gardener”) singing The Seeds Of Love, which kickstarted Sharp’s collecting activities. Those few of us fortunate enough to own copies of the early Folk Songs From Somerset books will have noted Marson’s name beneath Sharp’s on the front cover, but may not have given a lot of thought to how the two men worked together – after all, Sharp ended up devoting the rest of his life to traditional culture, while Marson’s early death meant that his memory faded.

David Sutcliffe is eminently qualified to write Charles Marson’s story; he lived and worked in Hambridge Vicarage in its new incarnation as a retirement home, he’s a singer and morris dancer and an excellent writer, taking us through Charles’ life in a manner that draws in all the strands of a life that took its subject through literary forays (he crossed paths with Edith Nesbit, GB Shaw and Jerome K Jerome, among others), ordination, his work in the embryonic socialist movement and consequent battles with the Church hierarchy, and work in Australia before his eventual final living in Somerset. David’s thorough research is always evident, but never tedious, and enables the reader to really get to grips with Marson as a complex human being.

At the same time, inevitably, he raises questions as well as answering them; for me, the biggest of these revolves around the role of Marson in motivating Cecil Sharp. Marson’s papers show that his interest in what we would call folk song predated Sharp’s by many years, and the “staging”(if that’s what it was) of John England’s singing would not be untypical of Charles Marson – a sort of subtle pushing of his friend. He comes over as a fascinating and unusual man, far in advance of his time in so many ways. The story moves at a smart pace, all the loose ends are followed up, and it was with regret that I reached the last of the book’s 306 pages.

The Keys Of Heaven (the title is taken from a song collected from one of Marson’s parishioners) is well researched and copiously illustrated – including many of Marson’s cartoons – largely from an archive gathered up in preparation for a biography 80 years ago and never completed. It also boasts a very full bibliography, a useful index and relevant family trees, and it’s printed on fine quality paper. That David Sutcliffe has accepted the challenge and written this life, and has done it so very comprehensively and well, means that the historical perspective can be improved a little, and that is something we should all be grateful for. I know I am.

John Waltham


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This album was reviewed in Issue 95 of The Living Tradition magazine.