For those who don’t know, John Peel was a radio DJ. He was an icon of my generation, playing music that no other DJ would touch and doing a huge amount to encourage new talent. That was back in the seventies. He was an icon of every generation since, doing exactly the same thing. When he sadly died, far too young at 65, in October 2004, he was mourned by a nation of music lovers.
The book is remarkable in many ways. The manuscript was not even half finished when he died, and his family decided to take the story on from where it abruptly left off. The result is a book which is half autobiography and half biography. It says much about the relationship between John Peel and his wife, Sheila Ravenscroft, that the transition between the two halves of the book is marked primarily by the change from the first person to the third person. The style, atmosphere and humour remain much the same.
No matter whether it is the brutal frankness of his descriptions of unwelcome sexual experiences at an English boarding school or the endless anecdotes about Liverpool Football Club, tales of the abandon of his early years in the States through the startup of Radio One and right up to his established position in the music scene in the UK, one abiding impression is left by every page. Here is a man with all the hang-ups and fears that we all have (and probably a good few more besides), a man who achieved something little short of cult status and yet seems to have remained utterly lovable, precisely for all his failings.
The favourite passages are too many to mention. Perhaps those where he tells of his frustration at being constantly mistaken for that other whimsical Radio One DJ Bob Harris. (Now be honest, how many of you were thinking of the “Old Grey Whistle Test” when I mentioned John Peel?)
Perhaps this wee passage sums it up:
Oh, and then there’s his meeting with Kennedy. Yes, President John F. Kennedy. Or his friendship with Marc Bolan, or Captain Beefheart, or...
He was overjoyed to be considered eccentric, though he wondered what exactly he did that genuinely merited that adjective, unless you counted occasionally going to the village shop in his bedroom slippers, or refusing sometimes to wear his trousers around the house. ‘My legs get overheated,’ he would protest whenever Danda [PW: Sheila and John’s daughter] complained that her friends had been traumatised by accidentally seeing him in his underpants. She would find herself silently praying ‘Please let him have his kecks on’ whenever she was bringing a friend home.
If you’re a Brit who loves music and are under seventy and not in the early stages of rigor mortis, there’s a fair chance that you’ll enjoy this one.
margrave of the marshes, John Peel, Bantam Press, 2005