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.

Read on for more excerpts from Margrave of the Marshes


Two friends of mine (with two other people I don’t know) edited GASPP: a Gay Anthology of Singapore Poetry and Prose, so I thought I’d pimp it here. Proceeds from its sale go to the Counselling and Care Centre, a non-governmental, non-profit agency offering psychological counselling services and training for mental health and social services professionals, so that’s nice.

Okay, you got me. I’m all for supporting good causes, but actually the real reason I mentioned this here is to show you the best autograph I have got in a book since Neil Gaiman drew me a rat:

Taken with a phonecam, terrible milk shake pun honestly unintended at the time of the photo but totally intended now.

2008 Reading Rundown

I was horrified at the tiny number of books I read in 2007 (wedding stress plus, okay, the addition of a large amount of X-rated X-Files fanfic to my PDA) so decided to keep a log of the books I read in 2008. I didn’t bother to record any of the cookbooks I read and probably missed out one or two photography books too but am happy enough with the 26 I did record, it seems a decent number for a working adult with a life and various other addictions.

Here’s an executive summary for anyone who might find it useful.

5 stars:

  • On Chesil Beach (Ian McEwan): Perfect distillation of McEwan’s best abilities unmarred by any of his failings. [My entry]
  • Epileptic (David B): Interesting plot, but it’s the complex, surreal drawings which elevate this to extraordinary. [My entry]
  • Stuart: A Life Backwards (Alexander Masters): Funny, illuminating and really sad. The choice of a “backwards” narrative (Stuart’s idea) is spot on. [My entry]
  • Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro): Elegantly unfolded plot, wonderfully perceptive writing. [My entry]
  • The Road (Cormac McCarthy): Literary triumph, real life downer – it’s transporting, but be warned that it transports you to a meticulously imagined post-apocalyptic world of almost unremitting bleakness.
  • Nine Parts Of Desire: The Hidden World Of Islamic Women (Geraldine Brooks): Engaging, often surprising, and (came across as) mostly balanced. It made me want to read further into the topic.
  • Understanding Exposure (Bryan Peterson): A really accessible and useful introduction to the topic for this photography noob.

4 stars:

  • Memoirs Of My Melancholy Whores (Gabriel Garcia Marquez): Much of what is wonderful about Garcia Marquez’s writing, in a shorter and more accessible package. [My entry]
  • In The Bedroom (Andre Dubus): Even if you’re not much of a short story person (neither am I), these are some of the most masterfully written short stories I’ve ever read. I’d never heard of Dubus or this book until Karen pressed it into my hands, and am grateful for the recommendation.
  • What Is The What (Dave Eggers): The story of the Lost Boys of Sudan is worth reading in itself, but Eggers also does a great job of telling it.
  • An Artist Of The Floating World (Kazuo Ishiguro): Last read this as a teenager and still find its particular insights into Japanese society interesting.

3.5 stars:

  • Northern Lights (Philip Pullman): Rather too dull to unseat C.S. Lewis’s Narnian chronicles, but its ambition is impressive.
  • Black Swan Green (David Mitchell): Pleasant and well-written, but while I can’t think of any flaws I can’t remember much of the book at all.
  • What The Dead Know (Laura Lippman): I haven’t read many crime novels, but if they’re all this riveting I should read more of them.

3 stars:

  • When You Are Engulfed In Flames (David Sedaris): Fine if you’ve never read him, but disappointing compared to any of his previous books.
  • Wide Sargasso Sea (Jean Rhys): Impressive if you think of it as ambitious fanfic, otherwise it’s rather unsatisfying despite the good writing.
  • The Wasp Factory (Iain Banks): Passably diverting account of a disturbed teen and his freaky little universe. Might gross out the squeamish.
  • The Shadow Of The Wind (Carlos Ruiz Zafon): Enjoyable enough as an escapist romp through a fantasy Barcelona, but a tad overlong and predictable.
  • The Harmony Silk Factory (Tash Aw): Its ambition somewhat exceeds its execution, but am glad a Malaysian-born author got famous with a book steeped in Malaysia and I’ll keep an eye out for what Tash Aw comes up with next.
  • Water For Elephants (Sara Gruen): Unmemorable writing but the story’s great fun, especially if you counted Mr Galliano’s Circus among your favourite childhood books too.
  • Magic For Beginners (Kelly Link): Whimsical, dark short stories. Good while you’re reading them, but forgettable afterwards.
  • The Somnambulist (Jonathan Barnes): A “fantasy London” book. Promising first half, but second half lost steam and went a bit nuts.
  • Learning To See Creatively (Bryan Peterson): Good reminders and examples of things you probably already know.
  • Understanding Shutter Speed (Bryan Peterson): Not as immediately inspiring as Understanding Exposure, but perhaps I’ll think differently when I experiment more with shutter speed.

2 stars:


Apologies to those hoping for more substantial content, this will just be a desperate catch-up list of quick notes on blogworthy things that I never found time to write properly about but don’t want to forget.


  • Dress Your Family In Corduroy And Denim (David Sedaris): Funnier, sadder, and generally more engaging than Barrel Fever.
  • A Burnt-Out Case (Graham Greene): Greene never disappoints. I don’t think this is an especially famous novel of his, but it is no less perceptive or original than any of his best. It also feels very elegantly structured – not usually something this O’level literature student is able to spot in a novel, but which seemed particularly outstanding in this one.
  • Maus: My Father Bleeds History (Art Spiegelman): Just Book I, I’ll read Book II as soon as the other borrowers in the library let me, and am aware that whatever commentary I attempt here is necessarily incomplete. Not sure if my feeling about the book is shared by others, but it seems to me that although it is ostensibly a fairly straightforward Holocaust story, the true heart of this book lies not in the story itself, but the fact and manner of its telling – by a protagonist to an author, from human speech into stylized illustration, and above all, by a father to a son.


  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy: Sorry for the blasphemy, but as someone who last read the books when I was 12, and therefore has no specific memory of them beyond an abstract aura of wittiness and a couple of ubiquitous email taglines, I found this thoroughly enjoyable.
  • Sideways: We didn’t rush to watch it in the cinema because it seemed like the sort of movie you could enjoy just as well on DVD, and it is. Despite its incredible acclaim I’m really struggling to come up with anything strongly positive to say about it. It felt like a slow car ride through pleasant but unremarkable countryside inhabited by people you care very little about. You don’t object to the journey, but you’d just as happily never take it again. Case in point: I can’t fault Paul Giamatti’s acting here, but despite playing a character far more likable than in his previous “loser” outing, something about American Splendor made me root for Harvey Pekar, and something about Sideways made me stop caring about Miles.
  • Downfall: The best film I have seen so far this year, and one of the top five of my life. Can you even imagine a similar film being made in Japan? [Very tangentially, the broader political/societal culture which gives fruition to films (among other manifestations) like this is one reason I think Germany is a great nation, and its disappointing contrast in Japan is one reason I have never been able to admire or embrace Japanese culture the way many of my peers seem to do.]


  • Poetic Licence: I love poetry on paper, but poetry readings much less, so I have to admit the only reason I went to this was that Yish had free tickets. Well, shame on me for my rock-bottom expectations, because this was one of the best poetry events I’ve ever been to. The team behind this should be very proud that they took on something quite ambitious – 46 poems to dramatize! – and did a pretty good job for most of them, finding and expressing the latent drama of the poems without compromising the primacy of their words. Yish gave an impromptu performance of Loud Poem to the cast afterwards, which was fun. The only part of the evening I didn’t enjoy was when Eleanor introduced me to Ivan Heng and, tongue-tied and star-struck, I stammered, “Hi…I’m a big fan…” AND NOTHING MORE.
  • Neil Gaiman in Singapore: My boobs came between me and Neil Gaiman on the Monday and Tuesday of his visit to Singapore (I’d had the surgery on Monday), but goddamit I wasn’t going to let them spoil my fun on Wednesday! (Yes, one can define queueing for 5 hours for two signatures as “fun” if the signatures in question are from Neil Gaiman.) By the time I got to the front, Neil was obviously pretty tired, so I didn’t get anything as elaborate as the Coraline rat I got the last time, but at least I got “Sweet dreams” on the last panel of The Sound Of Her Wings and eyes drawn in the skull on Neil’s “goodbye” message (just after the last page of The Wake). I mumbled something stupid about having had surgery two days before, but just having to come see him anyway. He stopped signing my book, and looked up at me. “And you’ve been waiting in this huge queue all this while?” “Um, yeah.” “You really shouldn’t have, but thank you so very much,” as he reached out and squeezed my hand. And just like that, five hours in line paled before thirty seconds of very genuine warmth from a man who, by the end of the night, had signed for a thousand people.

Ridden On A Horse?! You’re Using Coconuts!

From the online-only archives of The New Yorker, Dave Eggers talks about Monty Python.

The anarchic form of the show was really my first look into how you can break something down, break down the fourth wall and take it all apart, and then be left with not less but more.

So it influenced your writing directly?

Yeah, absolutely. Later on I found what they were doing in book form. The year after we found

Excerpts: Living To Tell The Tale (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)

Interest in national politics was rather thin at school. In my grandparents’ house I had heard it said too often that the only difference between the two parties after the War of a Thousand Days was that the Liberals went to five o’clock Mass so that no one would see them and the Conservatives went to Mass at eight so that people would believe they were believers.

* * *

At that time Bogota was a remote, lugubrious city where an insomniac rain had been falling since the beginning of the sixteenth century. I noticed that on the street there were too many hurrying men, dressed like me when I arrived, in black wool and bowler hats. On the other hand, not a single consolatory woman could be seen, for they, like priests in cassocks and soldiers in uniform, were not permitted to enter the gloomy cafes in the business district. In the streetcars and public urinals there was a melancholy sign: “If you don’t fear God, fear syphilis.”

Excerpt: Living To Tell The Tale (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)

“I had just dropped out of the faculty of law after six semesters devoted almost entirely to reading whatever I could get my hands on, and reciting from memory the unrepeatable poetry of the Spanish Golden Age. I already had read, in translation, and in borrowed editions, all the books I would have needed to learn the novelist’s craft, and had published six stories in newspaper supplements, winning the enthusiasm of my friends and the attention of a few critics. The following month I would turn twenty-three, I had passed the age of military service and was a veteran of two bouts of gonorrhea, and every day I smoked, with no foreboding, sixty cigarettes made from the most barbaric tobacco. I divided my leisure between Barranquilla and Cartagena de Indias, on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, living like a king on what I was paid for my daily commentaries in the newspaper El Heraldo, which amounted to almost less than nothing, and sleeping in the best company possible wherever I happened to be at night. As if the uncertainty of my aspirations and the chaos of my life were not enough, a group of inseparable friends and I were preparing to publish without funds a bold magazine that Alfonso Fuenmayor had been planning for the past three years. What more could anyone desire?”

* * *

Gabriel Garcia Marquez rOxOrS so much. This already feels like an autobiography and a half, and I’m only 20 pages into one book of an intended trilogy.

Excerpt: The Singapore Story: Memoirs Of Lee Kuan Yew

I may have had to wait four years to wrestle The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew away from the rest of my family, but at least I’m finally reading it. It’s great. Here’s a passage:

“By his unpredictable and inconsistent twists and turns, Marshall had alienated not just myself and the Liberal Socialists, but his key Labour Front members. His wanting to restart the talks to save himself was too much for them. “You cannot eat your own vomit,” as one Liberal Socialist delegate put it in vivid Hokkien. Half an hour into the meeting, Marshall knew that if he tried to resume negotiations, he would have to do so on his own. He had overplayed his hand and was isolated.

That night, he went to a performance of Madam Butterfly with Lennox-Boyd and Lady Patricia Boyd, and then on to a Spanish restaurant to dine to the tune of guitars and the stamping feet of flamenco dancers. Meanwhile, I decided to stop him from staging a recovery. At a press conference that same evening at Malaya Hall, I made it clear that the PAP would have nothing to do with a reopening of the conference. I said it was a ‘final, desperate attempt to hang on to office, a sign of incredible political ineptitude’, and rounded it off with ‘Never in the history of colonial evolution has so much humbug been enacted in so short a time by so erratic a leadership.’ “

Postgrad Library Privileges Totally Rock

Finally I can point to a tangible benefit I am obtaining from this Masters: as a postgraduate I can now borrow TWENTY, COUNT ‘EM!, books from the UCL library, instead of my previous limit of ten. I tottered home happily yesterday with nine books and will return for a second lot soon. Only two were actually about law.

  • The Past (Galway Kinnell)
  • Corson’s Inlet (A.R. Ammons)
  • Collected Poems (Philip Larkin)
  • Poems For The Millennium (a huuuuuuge anthology and therefore enticing even if naffly titled)
  • A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man (James Joyce, first foray – fingers crossed)
  • Life A User’s Manual (Georges Perec)
  • The Real Life Of Sebastian Knight (Vladimir Nabokov)
  • Legal Aspects Of The Information Age (Ian Lloyd)
  • Cases And Materials On Intellectual Property (W.R. Cornish)

I’m a happy bookworm. Between this and the fact that after two years of living in a hall with no Internet connections I now have unlimited access in my flat, the pertinent (rhetorical) question I am beginning to ask is: who needs a social life?