Margrave Of The Marshes (John Peel’s Autobiography)

If you haven’t already heard, parts of John Peel’s record collection will soon become a virtual museum of sorts from now till the end of October 2012. John kept his collection meticulously catalogued and filed with cards he hand-typed on his old Olivetti typewriter, and each week for 26 weeks, users will get access to whatever music was on the first 100 filecards of a given letter of the alphabet, with 1 album highlighted for special attention. (Unfortunately, since access is through Spotify those of us in Singapore can’t actually be part of the fun.)

Alexis Petridis got a first peek into the collection, and wrote a charming article for The Guardian about what awaits us:

In one instance, the sheer obscurity of the music seems to have overwhelmed even Peel. There is a card that features no track listing at all, merely the dark summary “16 songs in Hungarian”.

In light of this, now seems a good time to share some favourite excerpts (I haven’t done that for so long!) from John’s autobiography Margrave Of The Marshes, which was half-written during his lifetime and finished posthumously by his wife Sheila. Funnily enough, I actually prefer the writing in Sheila’s half – the half written by John suggests he never met a comma he didn’t like. Nonetheless, the book is a wonderful read not just for music geeks but anyone who ever enjoyed John’s inimitable personality and radio presence – in my household, for example, Alec (who never listened to The John Peel Show but loved Home Truths) and I (who never listened to Home Truths but loved The John Peel Show) enjoyed it equally. 

The book opens with a quote from John, writing in Disc and Music Echo, 1969:

It is obvious that disc-jockeys, as a class, are essentially parasitic. We are, with lamentably few exceptions, neither creative nor productive. We have, however, manipulated the creations of others (records) to provide ourselves with reputations as arbiters of public taste. There is no more reason (nor no less) why I should be writing this column than you – however I am in this unmerited position and you’re not. I believe very much in radio as a medium of tragically unrealised possibilities and also in the music I play. Therefore accepting the falseness of my own precarious position I will do what I can, wherever I can, to publicise these good things I hear around me. These musicians have made you aware of, and appreciative of, their music – not J. Peel.

On John’s rear end:

Although I have always striven to give the impression that, regardless of what I may look like as of even date, I was a comely child, Mother was convinced that in one respect at least I was seriously malformed. Arriving in the Boys’ Uniform sector of Browns she sought assurances, in a booming voice, from the staff members who scurried obsequiously forward to offer assistance, that clothing could be found that would adequately cover what she characterised as an excessively large backside. As she shouted these her thoughts, the centre of Chester came to a standstill. Like something from an H.M. Bateman cartoon, I would shrivel almost to nothingness as other customers and members of staff craned to see the malformed body part and its unfortunate owner, doors to Accounts Departments and Managers’ Offices would open and people would peer out, careworn faces eager with anticipation for what was likely to prove the day’s only laugh. When I got home, I would, in the privacy of my own room, inspect, as best I could, my bottom and could see nothing abnormal in its dimensions whatsoever. I was never able to tell Mother when, a few years later, at Shrewsbury, my pert little rear was somewhat admired by a fair number of older boys. There are some things you cannot sensibly share with a parent.

On childhood sex education:

In the final week of each boy’s sojourn at Woodlands he would be called into the Revd Brooke’s office for what might loosely be styled ‘sex education’. There is little doubt that we really needed this. We had heard that the masturbation in which we indulged whenever possible would lead to poor eyesight, disfiguring spots, rounded shoulders and rapid mental deterioration, but apart from this knew little or nothing. From time to time rumours would spread around the leavers. ‘Girls,’ someone would announce excitedly, ‘are not allowed to have long-handled hairbrushes at school,’ and we’d exchange knowing glances without ever fully understanding what the significance of this information might be. Brooke, I’m afraid, did little to clarify the situation, possibly because he didn’t really know much about sex himself.

 

‘When you get to your next school,’ he’d say, ‘you’ll find that, er, if you have a jug already filled with water and you add more water to it, it will overflow. Well, good luck (consults piece of paper) at Shrewsbury. Come back and see us sometime. Goodbye.’ If it hadn’t been for one or two happy accidents in the intervening years, I could easily have alarmed Sheila on our wedding night by smiling winsomely and cooing that I’d pop upstairs and prepare the jug of water.

On the divorce of John’s parents when he was in his early teens:

Years later, Francis and I spent two of the saddest weeks of our lives in a caravan parked on open land at the other end of the beach as Father tried to persuade us – and, I suppose, himself – that a semblance of normalcy could be maintained after he and Mother had gone their separate ways. I still feel pangs of guilt about the way we teased him over the lumps in his custard.

On John’s Liverpool fandom:

I had been to the Wembley game in 1978 on my own and had stood alone on the Kop. When Dalglish scored his winning goal, a huge lad standing in front of me turned and jumped into my arms as we all surged forward. Under his weight, I fell to the ground and for a moment feared for my safety. I trace my recurring back problems to this moment but I didn’t care then and I don’t really care now. I have seldom felt such joy. People say, ‘But surely, John, the birth of your children…?’ Close, I concede, but Dalglish and Kennedy’s goals top that particular chart. ‘What about when you and Sheila got married then?’ they persist, but I am deep in conversation with someone else, possibly about the Analects of Confucius but probably not.

And:

Whenever our son, William, full name William Robert (after my Dad) Anfield Ravenscroft, complained about the Anfield part of this splendid name, I would silence him by pointing out that had I supported Shrewsbury rather than Liverpool, he would be William Robert Gay Meadow Ravenscroft. That usually stopped his whingeing and, indeed, that of his sister, Alexandra Mary Anfield Ravenscroft.

On getting along with BBC management:

…here comes one of my guiding principles for Getting Along Just Fine With Management – Johnny Beerling, a much-criticised (often by John Walters and me) Controller of Radio 1, who has since turned out to be rather a good geezer, once asked me, following one of the occasional schedule changes that have made me old before my time, if I could make the first half-hour of the programme a little more consumer-friendly in order to ensure that it chimed seamlessly with the programme that preceded it. Whereas someone like Andy Kershaw, a great but combative broadcaster, would have put himself on an immediate war footing, issued an ultimatum and breathed fire in all directions, I smiled winningly, promised instant cooperation and continued to programme as before. Five or six weeks later, Johnny stopped me in the third-floor corridor of Egton House to thank me for acting so promptly upon his request and to assure me that the new policy had made all the difference. This will be the first notice Johnny has had that no such policy had been introduced. What had changed was his perception of what he heard issuing from his radio.

The rest of the excerpts are from Sheila’s half of the book, and are just as entertaining as John’s half:

John’s frankness could be alarming. In 1969, the BBC commissioned a programme about the epidemic of venereal diseases that was apparently sweeping the nation, and suggested to the producer-presenter, Tony van der Berg, that he should plug his work on one of John’s Radio 1 shows, Night Ride. The unspoken subtext was that management believed John’s listeners were more likely to suffer from venereal diseases than most. In the course of their on-air chat, Tony said that one of the problems health officials encountered in reducing ignorance about VD lay in the reluctance of anyone who was suffering from sexually transmitted diseases to admit it publicly. ‘I believe I can help you with that,’ John chirruped. ‘I’m suffering from one now.’

An anecdote about John Lennon:

John once overheard Lennon asking an assistant to fetch the papers so that he could peruse reviews of the latest Beatles single. ‘Why would you want to do that?’ John asked. ‘I like to find out what our songs are about,’ explained Lennon.

On John’s relationship with his producer, John Walters:

John frequently characterised their relationship as being like that of a man and his dog, but with each plainly believing the other to be the dog.

On occasional (ridiculous) accusations of playing only white music, John wrote:

Frankly, I listen to music with no concern whatever for the race, colour, religion, preference in breakfast foods, height, shoe size or whatever-you-like of the music makers. The only footling prejudice I do permit myself is this: musicians I suspect of supporting Everton or Arsenal have a bugger of a time getting their ponderous tripe on to the programme.

On Courtney Love:

He was much taken with Courtney Love, and thoroughly approved of Alexandra’s efforts in her late teens to actually turn into the Hole singer, though he did express mild concern at her habit of affecting a Courtney-esque lack of clothing when she sought fun in Stowmarket. John was introduced to Courtney at the Reading Festival by Kat Bjelland, singer with the wonderful and much-missed Babes In Toyland. ‘John,’ said Kat, ‘this is my best friend, Courtney,’ after which John got a fleeting impression of lots of lipstick and giggling and bare flesh.

 

The following year, he was leaning coquettishly in the VIP area at Reading with Alexandra and Flossie, hoping to catch Courtney before Hole took to the boards. When she came into view she appeared to be in an advanced state of intoxication. She spun and wheeled and stumbled about until she caught sight of the three of them. ‘Hello, Mr Peel,’ she cried respectfully. ‘Hello, Courtney,’ said John, ever the master of the snappy riposte. ‘These are my daughters and they would like very much to meet you.’ With that, Courtney grew suddenly calm, squatted with them on the grass and wrote them each little notes, more letters than autographs, in which she wished them well and advised them to miss her band and pop off instead to see Pavement, who were playing on another stage and whom she considered to be the far superior outfit.

On music he didn’t like – an abrasive review of Jambalaya in 1974:

Lots and lots and lots and lots of people think the Carpenters are just as neat as neat can be. I think they’re revolting and they sing this righteous old country raver with all the verve and passion of a cadaver in an advanced stage of decomposition. They make the soundtrack of Oklahoma sound positively depraved. Such blistering wholesomeness is not a digestible commodity. Bring me my commode of burning gold.

On helping his children with their homework:

Danda once came to him asking for help with a story on the theme of suspense. Everyone else in her class handed in generic scary stories. But Danda, following the advice of her father, wrote an account of an ordinary humdrum day that ended abruptly when the specified word-length had been reached. ‘Now that’s suspense,’ reasoned John, ‘because you’re left wondering what happened next.’ What happened next was that Danda got an ‘F’.

On recording Peel sessions at their home:

Inevitably, those evenings when bands were here would descend into drunken chaos once the show was over. I don’t mean to single out Belle and Sebastian, but it has to be said in their favour that as well as bringing gifts for me, they turned up with their own ingredients to make White Russians for everyone. When they asked if they could use the fridge, I thought, ‘Why have they brought their own milk?’ But then the vodka and Kahlua came out of the bag and the penny dropped. By the time they left, we were incapable of speech or properly coordinated movement.

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