A Post-War Childhood

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“Most of my songwriting is autobiographical.”

Ralph May was born in 1944 and brought up in Croydon in south London, where he lived on a council estate with his mother and younger brother. He left school to join the Army, but bought himself out after six months. He busked around Europe and met his future wife, Nanna, in Paris. Back in England he went to Cornwall with Wizz Jones to make music. And he changed his name to McTell.

Ralph’s extraordinarily detailed memory of his childhood and youth gave rise to a two-volume  autobiography. ‘Angel Laughter’ (2000) starts with his earliest recollections and ends with his release from the Army in 1960. ‘Summer Lightning’ (2002) takes the story as far as his meeting Nanna in 1966. “From that point on”, he says, “my musical career ran in tandem with my life with Nanna and my family, and that is our story. This (autobiography), however, is mine”. (‘Summer Lightning’, p. 10.)

In 2008 Ralph revised and combined the two volumes of autobiography into one. His Preface to ‘As Far As I Can Tell’ opens with “Most of my songwriting is autobiographical“. (p. ix.) It is quite appropriate, then, to read ‘Time’s Poems – The Song Lyrics of Ralph McTell’ as an extension of his autobiography. In fact, Ralph does just that on the audiobook version of ‘As Far As I Can Tell’, on which he interweaves readings from the book with the songs they inspired.

Ralph’s biography is also well documented by Chris Hockenhull in ‘Streets of London: The Official Biography of Ralph McTell’ (1997); by Michael Grenfell’s ‘Parallel Lives: The Biographies of Ralph McTell’ (2nd edition, 2017); and by many press articles and interviews preserved on the internet fansite Ralph, Albert & Sydney.


Angel Laughter
Autobiography Volume One.

Book – Published 2000 – Amber Waves.
Book – Paperback edition –  Published 2005 – Leola.


Summer Lightning
Autobiography Volume Two.

Book – Published 2002 – Amber Waves.


Time’s Poems
The Song Lyrics of Ralph McTell.

Book – Published 2005 – Leola.


As Far As I Can Tell
Readings from Ralph’s autobiography and the songs they inspired.

Treble CD – Released 2007 – Leola TPGCD28.


As Far As I Can
A post-war childhood in south London.

Book – Published 2008 – Leola.