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Thursday, Aug 9, 2007
by Duncan Edwards
John Peel: Margrave of the Marshesby John Peel, Sheila RavenscroftChicago Review PressJune 2007, 432 pages, $19.95

John Peel: Margrave of the Marshes
by John Peel, Sheila Ravenscroft
Chicago Review Press
June 2007, 432 pages, $19.95


A portrait of the life of John Peel, not only the best radio DJ ever, but arguably the most important cultural figure in Britain in the last 50 years. Margrave Of The Marshes is a love story, or several: the love between John and his wife Sheila and their kids, for Liverpool FC, between John and music, and for John from his very fortunate listeners. 


No one needs have heard John Peel on the radio, or even be a huge music fan to appreciate this beautiful book. It contains enough intimate tales from John’s childhood and schooling to entertain and shock. His reference to the smoking of blotting paper at boarding school with the accompanying talk of the effects of different colors, brilliantly skewers drug-culture and pokes fun at himself. Included are refreshingly ordinary examples of his shyness and insecurity to which many people can relate, and there are hundreds of amusing asides and plenty of magnificent anecdotes. The book is a vivid joyful celebration of a life well lived, though tinged with sorrow that a terrific marriage is interrupted by his passing.


Another strength lies in the fact that Margrave of the Marshes is far from a litany of My Life With Various Rock Stars. For sure there are some low-key tales of a few musicians that will delight: John and Marc Bolan feeding their rabid addiction to Scaletrix, phone calls with Captain Beefheart about keeping chickens, messages from Bowie before he hit it big, but name-dropping was never John’s style. Instead, he spends more time talking about the people who wrote to him over the years, (like the disturbed person who simply would not accept that he did not share an apartment with Stevie Wonder and Lou Reed), or telling of characters he met during his National Service or while living near the White Rock Lake area of Dallas, than focusing on Mark E.Smith or the Undertones. Whilst the writing has a keen edge with a tone that is mostly gentle, enthusiastic, warm and dry, a sense emerges that the very few people of whom he speaks badly probably deserved worse.


John’s time in America could stand alone as reason to read this book. His interaction with JFK is both startling and a sad depiction of a bygone age of innocent connection. His comments on the attitudes of the time and of his adventures in cars, bowling alleys, and bars have a magical quality. Elsewhere, we can chuckle at photographs showing John trying to be Gene Vincent, and at his school reports, including remarks from the astute R.H.J. Brooke who also taught Michael Palin. Brooke appears to have been instrumental in giving the young Peel a lot of lasting confidence, though he wrote: “It’s possible that John can form some kind of nightmarish career out of his enthusiasm for unlistenable records and his delight in writing long and facetious essays ...”


The love between John and Sheila (for decades the woman referred to on-air and off as The Pig) is conveyed in many ways, from little notes and gestures, to her detailed understanding of his emotions. He was a great man and it’s not hard to conclude that she is a great woman. Their bond may be best summed up by John’s reaction when called by his daughter to learn of Sheila’s brain hemorrhage: “Do you realise that if your mum goes, I go too?” he blurted. “I don’t want to go on living without her.” Some aspects of John’s relationship with his children illustrate his vulnerability, particularly being convinced that the young Danda hated him, and fear of the infant Thomas. Nevertheless, the descriptions of him broadcasting from their house, always mockingly referred to as Peel Acres, and family photographs show a relaxed unity. The picture of Tom, in his “The Mighty Wah” t-shirt is interesting. Often John would announce some track and claim it was “a big favorite in our house” or “one of the Pig’s favorites”. It sounded true, and the overlap between music and family life is laid bare, not least with the picture of the White Stripes playing in the house. Sheila leaves us in no doubt that John was the emotional fellow his on-air tone drollery could never disguise. Sheila writes “I don’t think he ever shed quite so many tears as when the children left home” and John’s words when the youngest left for college should strike a chord with every father: “I felt as low as I can remember feeling in all my life as Floss disappeared down the lane.”


I follow a different team but can respect the clear evidence of John and Sheila’s devotion to Liverpool FC: the middle names given to the children, getting married in red, the framed photograph of Bill Shankly and even a Kenny Dalgliesh pillow-case in the house. The depiction of their thoughts and deeds on and after the sad tragedies at Heysel and Hillsborough are extremely moving. Maybe best of all is the whole family praying for John to intervene during the 2005 European Champions League Final and subsequently pouring champagne onto his grave when the Pool came back from a 0-3 deficit to claim the trophy! These, and other examples, strip away any idea that the famous should be considered fundamentally different from the rest of us. Peel has a measure of fame, yet his refusal to embrace celebrity was maintained with such natural aplomb that he never lost his accessibility. So, (although he would have heartily disapproved of my team) now I don’t feel so daft for naming my son Ryan and (after the name Erika was rejected) giving my daughter the initials EC.


That John’s love of music was an all-consuming obsession is an understatement. Excusing himself when friends were over for dinner so he could go and listen to something, music always on in the house, in the car, summers at festivals, rare family holidays punctuated by trips to record stores, thousands of demo tapes endlessly pored over and sometimes sadly discarded without being heard (presumably when the sheer weight threatened the foundation of Peel Acres, or when access to external doors became blocked). As with the notes for forthcoming volumes of his autobiography we are left with a sad feeling that there is so much now that we will never get to hear.


The surprising origin of the Peel Sessions is mentioned and like other more shocking episodes in Margrave of the Marshes I won’t spoil it by mentioning them here. Some of John’s favorite stories reappear in the book, not least concerning the Radio One Roadshow and the Bay City Rollers. I take issue with his dates concerning the Buxton Pop Festival, but the telling of the story is the thing, not exactly when it occurred. It’s fair to assume that John’s favorite record was the next undiscovered gem for which he endlessly searched. That he had access to the airwaves for so long is something for which millions of people will always be grateful. If only we could have cloned him.


A lot of words have been written about John Peel since he died in 2004, grand statements about his importance in bringing fresh music to several generations, tributes from artists giving him credit for their careers, heartfelt messages of thanks from listeners. All the words I’ve read seem to come, not out of a manufactured hysteria, but from a deep and genuine sense of the loss of somebody whose contribution to a broad section of cultural life was really appreciated. In Margrave of fhe Marshes John’s wife, Sheila, talks about how the public response has helped his grieving family, how respectful and real it has seemed, and how much it has meant to them.


Amongst many quotes is one from Harold Pinter:
“I pay tribute to John Peel. It is to John Peel that I pay tribute. The guy that kicked shit. And not only did he kick shit, but he kicked it right back up the arsehole, where it fucking belonged ... and he made sure it fucking stayed there.”


That he always did it with a self-effacing charm and a down-to-earth wit makes it all the more impressive. John Peel, is quite simply, irreplaceable


More of the reviewer’s thoughts on the late, great, John Peel can be seen here:


 


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Thursday, Aug 9, 2007

It sure as hell seems that way, judging by their broadcast of a Pearl Jam concert where unkind things were said about Bush.  Even though the company apologized for it, it was obviously deliberate.  I don’t think that means that the phone company are necessarily GOP members but they want to stay on the good side of the GOP and their FCC cronies as they petition them for a bigger piece of the telecomm pie.  The fact that they did acknowledge and apologize for it is good but also means that they know that bad press ain’t helpful to them, especially when it involves a major band like PJ.  Would they have done the same thing with a smaller band and tried to clean up the mess as well though?


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Thursday, Aug 9, 2007
by John Booth

In the car, I’m a total National Public Radio junkie.


Despite pretty regular on-air prodding, though, it’s rare that I visit the NPR website. When I do, it’s usually for a quick check on something like an author name or a movie title that I couldn’t write down while I was driving.


This week, though, I bounced online after one of the Morning Edition segments of Climate Connections - a year-long series NPR is producing in partnership with National Geographic – and found a whole lot more than just some pictures to go along with the broadcast stories.


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Wednesday, Aug 8, 2007

Elizabeth Taylor in Dahomey, West Africa, 1967


The Comedians (1967)
Dir: Peter Glenville


The Burtons, after a string of colossal flops, (Cleopatra, The V.I.P.s, The Sandpiper), were basking in the success of their bold collaboration with Mike Nichols—Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—and were looking for another piece of daring, unconventional source material for their next project. The left-wing political maelstrom of Vietnam America may have motivated them to cast their eye onto a story of the horrors of Third World dictatorship. Graham Greene’s stories of flawed, convictionless British anti-heroes discovering their humanity in turbulent countries (The Third Man, The Quiet American, Our Man in Havana) seemed to be a recipe for art-house success; in any case, they provided actors with memorable character roles and crackling, ironic dialogue. Torrid love amidst political unrest in the tropics was a formula that had been popular in Hollywood since Casablanca, only in Greene’s love affairs no one ever came out a hero. 


“The Comedians:”: Smith (Paul Ford), Jones (Alec Guinness), and Brown (Richard Burton)


Greene’s The Comedians tells of self-indulgent British and American expatriates emotionally going to pieces during the nightmarish regime of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier in 1960s Haiti. It blended the aching bitterness of The End of the Affair with the postcolonial anxiety and malaise of The Heart of the Matter. Greene noticed that in times of utter hopelessness, people coped through humor and self-delusion. The comedians of the title are two Brits, Brown (Richard Burton) and Jones (Alec Guinness), and an American, Smith (Paul Ford).  The deliberate banality of their names echoes some bad men’s room joke (“Three men, Jones, Brown, and Smith, walk into a bar…”).  Their neurotic personalities, amidst the tragic scale of death and murder in Haiti, are meaningless, and their identities, are essentially interchangeable.


Brown has just returned from New York in a failed effort to sell the depilated hotel he inherited from his late mother. His real reason for coming back to Port-au-Prince is to resume his affair with the Brazilian Ambassador’s German wife, Martha (Elizabeth Taylor).  Smith is a do-gooding American politician, an ex-presidential candidate of ’48, who has come to Haiti to set up a school and health center devoted to vegetarianism in the slums. He and his wife, played by the extraordinary silent-film actress Lilian Gish, were Freedom Riders during the Civil Rights Movement, whose ordeal in Mississippi, they believe, has prepared them for anything.  Jones is an amateur arms dealer who has come to supply American weapons to the Tontons Macoutes (Papa Doc’s sunglassed secret police). Unfortunately, his business partner in Miami has absconded the cash advance and fled, leaving Jones at the mercy of cold blooded criminals.  Jones is the catalyst of the story, and his attempted escape from the Tontons, is the farce that unseemingly unleashes a domino effect of mistaken murders and thwarted relationships.


Peter Glenville directing the voodoo ceremony scene


The director of the film was a talented veteran of British theatre, Peter Glenville. His 1965 film, Beckett, also starting Burton, and Peter O’Toole, made him a popular, “classy” filmmaker at the time.  But The Comedians would wind up finishing his career.  The movie was such a critical and financial failure, that Glenville would never work in Hollywood again. This is one of those unfortunate incidents where history is against an ambitious project. The Comedians opened in the wake of the Black Panther Movement of the late ‘60s, and the memory of the Civil Rights riots was still fresh.  Scenes of menacing black men in sunglasses assaulting white women, murdering people in broad daylight, were unsettling for American audiences—a reminder of latent dangers at home. 


The film’s lukewarm reception and the audience’s disappointment (most moviegoers were misled by the title, expecting to see the Burtons in romantic comedy of the Doris Day-Rock Hudson mold) caused it to be largely forgotten until the a recent box set of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s films for Warner Brothers. In hindsight, The Comedians was a daring picture for its time. The crew was, naturally banned from Haiti, and had to film in Dahomey, West Africa, where the blistering white heat and humidity can be sensed in nearly ever scene.  Greene’s screenplay is the taut, slyly ironic suspense-thriller he mastered writing, as with The Third Man.  The movie boasts an early, graceful performance from the young James Earl Jones, as a surgeon moonlighting as a rebel leader.  Actor-raconteur, Peter Ustinov, brings disarming pathos and tenderness to the relatively one-dimensional role of Taylor’s cuckolded husband.


The real star turn of the movie, however, does not come from the Burtons. They both give rather mediocre performances here (Burton is relentlessly gloomy, while Taylor is inauthentic and passive). No, it arrives in the form of Alec Guinness in the role of the hapless arms-dealer.  Jones was based on Greene’s former accountant, who embezzled thousands of pounds worth of Greene’s royalties and fled to South America.  A charismatic inveterate fraud, he was intended to come off as a sort of memento mori, a reminder to us of our own selfishness, of how we are willing to value liars and cheats so long as they entertain us.  Guinness adds a fey, music-hall insouciance to the role of Jones, a man who fabricates stories about being an exalted officer in WWII in order to win sympathy and trust from his clients; he’s the antithesis of his dutiful, hard-headed Col. Nicholson in Bridge on the River Kwai.  Jones is the weasel to Nicholson’s wounded lion.  Mendacious in part for survival, and in part, for pleasure, he’s only truly alive when he’s acting. It’s the kind of subtle comic performance that’s influenced a generation of British character actors, from John Hurt to Geoffrey Rush to Bill Nighy.  Some of the film’s most affecting moments involve Jones’ undoing; the scene where Brown and the rebel leader/surgeon trap Jones into leading a guerrilla revolt over a game of gin rummy at the ambassador’s mansion is priceless in its mordant black humor.



It’s a shame that The Comedians is not more widely seen and appreciated.  It’s not an outstanding film, but it’s a brave one in it’s own way.  Today’s audience may easily find it patronizing and colonial: a hot jungle hell of black magic and political corruption that serves as the backdrop for a group of prominent whites. But certain scenes stay with you: the unsettling young men in dark sunglasses who vandalize the funeral hearse of a dissident, small schoolchildren in starched white uniforms being led to watch a public execution, a crowded, smoke-filled voodoo ceremony where a live chicken is decapitated and the priest brandishes the blade in the air to point it to a sacrificial inductee.



If anyone has the balls to taunt a Third World tyrant, it would be a best-selling author and a celebrity power couple. Imagine Christopher Hitchens and ‘Brangelina’ collaborating on a movie about Kim Jong-ill. The Burtons-Greene partnership opened the world’s eyes to Haiti, made them take notice of the abuse of power and trust that was going on in this small island country.  Together they gave it color through a host of colorful characters, and their depiction of the nation—its poverty, its fetid jungles, its colonial French legacy, intoxicating voodoo rituals, the terrifying blackouts and nighttime raids of the Tontons Macoutes, gave an urgency to the country’s turmoil; The Comedians brought the horrors of Third World dictatorship to life for a complacent late 60s audience. At the time, sadly, few cared.


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Wednesday, Aug 8, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

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