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SOPHIE PARKES - Wayward Daughter: An Official Biography of Eliza Carthy

SOPHIE PARKES - Wayward Daughter: An Official Biography of Eliza Carthy
Soundcheck Books ISBN:978-0-9566420-7-3

Let me start this review with an admission. I have never met the writer of this biography, nor indeed formally met her subject. Mind you, this I think, is how it should be. Such “distance” helps a reviewer be objective in his assessment.

I had some initial misgivings here, when I realised it was an official (i.e. authorised) biography: for I far prefer the unauthorised variety, as one is more likely to get a warts-and-all picture in the latter. But I need not have worried, Sophie Parkes is in nobody's pocket, and it should be said at the outset, that my hunch is also that Eliza would not want her “in her pocket” anyway! Eliza is someone who exudes such confidence that I guess there is nothing any biographer can say that would dent her belief in herself. This confidence first became apparent to me when she was still in her late teens.

I recall once being in the queue for chow at a National Folk Festival at Sutton Bonington. Who should be immediately behind me, but Eliza herself. However, when I got to the till, something curious happened: I found myself wanting what she had on her tray! Make of that anecdote what you will, but I have always figured that it spoke volumes about Eliza's unspoken powers of persuasion. Powers, that Sophie Parkes here shows her using at vital times throughout her career.

But first, let us begin at the beginning, which is something that I was pleased to see her biographer do too (with baby Eliza's arrival in Whitby Hospital in 1975). I have a bit of an aversion to non-linear biographies, and thankfully this book usually follows a clear chronological line.

The book is very strong on Eliza's childhood in Robin Hood's Bay, and describes her famous family tree to a depth that would satisfy all those folk at … and covers her schooldays (at Hunmanby Hall and Fyling Hall School) with the kind of detail that would not be out of place on an Ofsted report.

This is a seriously well-researched book. Throughout, the author shows that she has walked the hard yards down Researchers' Road, and this is never more evident than when it comes to listing and explaining Eliza's various stage collaborations and telling us the background of all the individuals involved with her. Going right back to King Ligger and the Bathing Boys: many of the people Eliza would later go on and work with, came from this early band.

I have reviewed the occasional biography before for literary journals, and I can confidently say that Ms. Parkes can hold her own with most biographers I have come across: she is a proper writer and not the fanzine editor that so many biographers of popular celebrities “come across” as.

The book is well-edited with no repetition and no spelling howlers that I detected. It also has an impressive series of notes at the back, and a list of suggested reading. (If I were hyper-critical, I might bemoan the lack of an index, but that would be nit-picking.) There is also a very good use of colour photos – many from way back in her childhood – and a startlingly frank series of quotes from Eliza.

No attempts are made here to airbrush out the occasional contretemps. Eliza is shown as a complete human being: one unlike most of us in that she is more talented, but one very much like us in that she has the occasional off-day! Trust me, this is no bland read: every other page, something startles you and makes you sit up in your chair.

Revelation follows revelation. Okay, so early on we learn quirky trivial little things like her dad Martin having never learned to drive till this day; that mum Norma only learned to drive in order to be able to ferry Eliza to Scouts; that Martin failed all his A-Levels.

But the revelations get more eyebrow-raising. Of Eliza's early relationship with Nancy Kerr, the writer says “It is a shame that a friendship that had started so frostily, came full circle to end much as it had begun”. Golly.

And yet, these revelations can be downright funny and heart-warming. Ms. Parkes describes Eliza and her dad writing Company of Men together. You might think that there was nothing special in Martin helping put her words to music here? Er … you'd be wrong, in that this song is also known as The Blowjob Song. Ha! But what a great and healthy relationship they must have to collaborate on a song that would get other fathers/daughters blushing.

Then, another smile comes when Eliza tells us that the reason Martin had his hair cut short, was that Joan Baez refused to tour with him with his then shaggy mop!

A fine 249 page read. I note with interest that this is the first book Sophie Parkes has written.

I bet it's not her last.

Dai Woosnam


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This album was reviewed in Issue 94 of The Living Tradition magazine.