Saturday, May 13, 2006

John Peel and Sheila Ravenscroft - 'Margrave of the Marshes'

The day John Peel died, I was sitting in a small office in Duncan of Jordanstone art college, temporarily given over to the demonstration of my M.Sc. project. A slow trickle of students and lecturers came to see this and other students' work (my favourite was an exercise bike hooked up to video clips filmed in Paris, on a genuine cycling trip and in a lift, in which the playback speed altered as you pedalled faster and slower, and the scene changed if you pedalled backwards), and in the time between demos I looked hopefully at job websites, eventually ending up on The Guardian's site, to be confronted with the news. 'John Peel dies'. Oh my God. Earlier this week, discussing Grant McLennan's untimely death, a friend said he was 'not as upset as when Joey Ramone died. That's my benchmark.' I think perhaps John Peel may be mine. Not, shamefully, from a dedication to his Radio 1 show, but from a more nebulous sense that he loved music and was fighting the good fight, a national treasure, an institution as permanent as the BBC, or The Fall. (Who I've also neglected to listen to for long periods, but a recent re-awakening of interest was stirred by the 'Complete Peel Sessions' box, which is more or less the most exciting record in rock). I did listen to 'Home Truths' though (don't any more - how dare they continue it?), and he was the warmest, most down to earth of broadcasters. You felt as though you knew him, that his silliness was the wisest possible position to take. His death felt more akin to losing a family member (an uncle, obviously) than that of any other celebrity I can think of. He was loved, I suppose, is what it amounts to.

Peel's half-finished autobiography (completed by Sheila), is a rather wonderful memorial. There can't be many people reading it who aren't intimately familiar with his latter day persona, the all round good bloke who kept his finger on the pulse of pop music practically from the time it was invented. And how strange an achievement this is: to be identified with era after era (they come around quickly in pop), when most get stuck in the first which brings them recognition. Little of this is recounted by John himself: though the narrative isn't strictly linear, by and large it's true to say that he stops at some stage in his seven year American sojourn of the '60s (Shelia notes wryly that he stops just outside a brothel - a proper cliff hanger). Sheila gets to tell of the years at Radio 1, the home life, the unpromising beginnings to their relationship (he picked her up at 5 PM for their first date, swung by the doctor's on the way, got diagnosed with jaundice, and insisted she accompany him home to play nursemaid). There are great friendships with the Bolans (which T-Rex's massive success did for), the Walters and The Faces, of which the dinner parties with the Walters are particularly amusing: they'd have themed evenings on a Saturday, the theme depending upon the film shown that evening on TV. E.g. cranking up the heating and turning off the water the night 'Ice Cold in Alex' was on, to simulate a desert. 'For "The Three Musketeers", an assortment of vegetables and baked potatoes were skewered on to a fencing rapier' (p. 250), and so on. Sheila's half of the book is less event-packed than the first - understandably, as they settle down to raise a family, and John gets on with playing records, records and yet more records. It struck me how much more endearing this was than a biography I read last year, Robert McCrum's 'Wodehouse', in which the subject, similarly, is of a shy temperament and simply gets on with his job for the bulk of the time. Always another radio show, always another novel. Peel, despite the shyness, was far more about real-life contentedness than Wodehouse, and although Sheila points out how unrealistic his expectations were of what fatherhood would actually be like (he could get terribly upset if a child wasn't affectionate enough), his life in the country with her was a manifestation of strongly held beliefs in the value of family, company, home, people, being nice. Simple things.

Peel's own reminiscences cover far more ground, though fewer years. He does badly at school, sees the threat of not going to university if he doesn't raise his game as more of an opportunity than a reason to apply himself. He defines his trajectory in terms of failure: to go to university; to become an officer whilst on national service (almost unheard of for a public school boy, he maintains); to adequately deflect his father's intent to deport him to America to get ahead in the cotton trade; to disabuse 'geographically challenged' Americans of the idea that because he came from Liverpool he must therefore know The Beatles. Of course this is disingenuous, but it makes sense too. Once he'd fallen through the first three safety nets, he was free to pursue his love for records, and the radio stations were there (thanks in part to the records he had, and in part to the Beatles thing) to pick him up. If he'd been a competent scholar, soldier or cotton trader this couldn't have happened. My favourite instance of Peel being a crap soldier is when he marches a troop through a flower bed - he thought it was this which marked him out as not being officer material. Once out of the army, it's off to Dallas and cotton, and a JFK drive-by in 1960 in which the presidential candidate chats at surprising length to Peel and poses for some pictures. He discovers sex, and has lots of it with Beatlemaniacs before making a disastrous choice of wife, but now I'm skipping ahead again to Sheila's section. By the end of John's, he's ready to hit the world: young, single, sexually liberated and with a burning passion for Elvis and Gene Vincent. The rest was, it's hard not to believe, inevitable.

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