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: