Review: Margrave of the Marshes John Peel and Sheila Ravenscroft

Ajax Scott finds shyness and insecurity to go with John Peel's passion for music in his autobiography, Margrave of the Marshes

Margrave of the Marshes
by John Peel and Sheila Ravenscroft
329pp, Bantam, £18.99

The Latin master who wrote the report for John Ravenscroft's final term at Shrewsbury public school summed him up succinctly: "cheerfully incompetent". It was a description that delighted the young Ravenscroft (if not his father), and indeed one that he might have outwardly relished throughout much of his professional career, as he seemingly effortlessly made the journey from discharged army gunner to failed Dallas cotton trader to part-time radio DJ and, ultimately, one of the UK's most-loved broadcasters.

That description was even reflected years later on the badge a fan created for him bearing the slogan "Right Time, Right Place, Wrong Speed" in homage to the frequency with which he played records at 33rpm rather than 45. And yet his skill was to combine that cheerful incompetence with a passion, professionalism and dedication to his vocation that made him arguably one of the most important radio broadcasters of the 20th century. John Peel was nothing if not contradictory.

All these qualities are stamped throughout Margrave of the Marshes, the autobiography he started writing before his sudden death in October last year. Completed by Sheila, his wife of 30 years, and their sons, it has now become one of the year's bestsellers.

The book bounds through the decades and the characters that populated them with Peel's trademark dry humour, following its subject from postwar England to the US, where the young would-be DJ lost his virginity and the "s" from his surname, met JFK and gained a faux-Liverpudlian vocal twang, before returning home to hippiedom and emerging finally as the "John Peel" beloved by listeners to Radios 1 and 4 alike.

And, unusually, it manages to capture in print the dry conversational style of its subject; with sentences awash with commas and tangential asides, passages of prose that would be painfully mannered from a different author are somehow saved by the fact that it is so easy to imagine Peel himself reading them out loud.

Peel's own words actually stop less than halfway through, since the author only managed to cover the first 26 years of his life before his death. He leaves the reader in a brothel on the Mexican border, a suitable point of departure in many ways since his section of the book is littered with references to sex. Yet his ghost-writers continue in much the same style, and what started off as memories of a life lived to the full becomes a celebration of that life - and the marriage that underpinned it.

The narrative that zig-zags across Margrave of the Marshes is all the more remarkable for the fact that Peel's background was largely unremarkable. Born just before the outbreak of the second world war to a soldier father and slightly eccentric mother, his early years were typically and uneventfully middle class: remote parents who divorced; bullying, beatings and buggery at the hand of older boys or teachers at boarding school; entry into an army regiment where he was initially too posh to fit in with the NCOs, but had to travel back from hockey matches in the back of a truck while his officer team-mates drove off in their sports cars.

What is perhaps most surprising for readers who discovered Peel any time after his championing of punk in the late 70s is the reminder that he was old enough to be a war baby. After all, here was a man who was still championing the likes of Napalm Death and Miss Black America at a time when his Shrewsbury contemporary Richard Ingrams was launching the Oldie.

Even in these early days Peel's twin passions for football and music started coming to the fore, and they continue as threads throughout the book. Indeed, some of the landmark moments he describes relate to his beloved Liverpool FC, or to gigs that changed his life.

It was as a music DJ that Peel was primarily known right until the very end of his career, when his Home Truths programme made him the hero of a new Radio 4 audience, and inevitably much of this book recounts his love affair with music, especially the left-field and obscure. His championing of the likes of Marc Bolan, Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Joy Division, The Smiths and Pulp long before they were famous is well known. But the book also adds anecdotal colour to his dealings with generations of artists - Bowie noting how "nice" it would be if he could play at Peel's In Concert slot, since the venue's location meant he could catch the last train home - as well as their mothers (one wrote to thank Peel for "helping Christopher with his career". Christopher was better known to fans of The Damned as drummer Rat Scabies).

Peel's passion for music was matched by his ability to communicate that passion on such a personal level that his fans felt he was speaking directly to them. This bond was partly forged by the fact that for Peel there was little that he wouldn't share with his listeners. From the moment when he announced on air that he had VD (prompting outrage in the press) right up to his last dispatches to middle England on Radio 4, there was little separation between the public and the private.

Yet behind the avuncular, approachable persona of the nation's favourite DJ, a picture emerges of a shy, insecure and private man, who regularly felt that he was going to lose his slot on radio, and who - despite his experience and reputation - was always incredibly uncomfortable interviewing his guests.

This shyness also extended to his dealings with the musicians he supported. Not for Peel the trappings of showbiz; one can't help but suspect that the very public outpouring of grief that met his death last year was prompted not just by the sense that listeners had lost a friend, but that they had lost someone who was somehow real - and the complete antithesis of the transient celebrity culture of Heat magazine.

As a broadcaster Peel belonged to a passing age, not so much because of his tastes or style, as because he was a broadcaster in the literal sense. At a time when ever more radio and TV channels spring up to cater to niche audiences, Peel's approach was to throw in a bit of everything. He himself summed it up as the "if-you-don't-like-this-record-wait-until-you-hear-the-next-one principle". And with his death that has been lost.

· Ajax Scott is publisher of Music Week magazine. To order Margrave of the Marshes for £17.99 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0870 836 0875 or go to

Ajax Scott

The GuardianTramp

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