Margrave of the Marshes by John Peel and Sheila Ravenscroft

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Margrave of the Marshes by John Peel and Sheila Ravenscroft

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Category: Entertainment
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: The memoirs of disc jockey and presenter John Peel, left unfinished at his death in 2004 and completed by his widow.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: July 2006
Publisher: Corgi
ISBN: 978-0552551199

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John Peel was without doubt one of the most important disc jockeys of all time. Born in Merseyside in 1939, he began his career in mid-60s America before returning home to join Radio London and then become one of the original Radio 1 team, where he stayed until his death 37 years later. I admired the man for his passion for playing the music nobody else would give the time of day (even if I didn't always enjoy it myself) and his readiness to say exactly what he thought, even if it was not what his employers at the BBC wanted to hear, and I always enjoyed reading his columns in the music weeklies and later Radio Times. Nevertheless I found much of his show unlistenable towards the end, recall some of his rather curmudgeonly remarks on air (guest slots on Radio 1's Round Table review programme come to mind), and thought his build-'em-up, knock-'em-down stance rather irritating after a while. So I approached this book with an open mind as a fan, but not an uncritical one.

The first 200 pages, narrated in the first person, are the former Mr Ravenscroft's own work. Their composition was delayed by his insistence on working out how to use the laptop his family gave him, himself – he wasn't going to let them teach him. It ends with him and a friend entering Mexico to visit the friend's favourite brothel. (Later it is explained that John was going there as said friend's minder, rather than to make use of its services himself). The rest of the book, just over half, was completed in the third person by his widow Sheila, with help from their four children.

Being familiar with his earlier writing, and with his show, which I listened to avidly during the 70s though only sporadically later on, I expected a great deal from this book, and I wasn't disappointed. He tells the story of his early days with that same dry wit and an endearingly modest, gently deprecating how did this all happen to me approach.

There is little about his Radio 1 fellow-presenters here, apart from David Jensen, with whom he became friends and co-presented Top Of The Pops in the 1980s, and Andy Kershaw, who shared his love of African music. He admits that the team did not tend to see each other much, generally meeting only at the annual Christmas party. Amusingly, he was someimes mistaken for fellow-DJ Bob Harris.

As for his relationships with other household names, I found the account of his and Sheila's connections with Marc Bolan quite illuminating. Marc was a close friend until T-Rextasy gripped the nation and evidently went to the corkscrew-haired one's head, resulting in phone calls not being returned and the like. That was the downside of befriending musicians who became stars – once they became successful, they were liable to dump him.

Sheila shows us very well what John was like to live with, an obsessive workaholic, and devoted family man. When she fell seriously ill with a brain haemorrhage, he could barely contemplate life without her should the worst happen. I was alternately touched and amused by her down-to-earth descriptions of the shy man who found it difficult to socialize at informal parties and would much rather do the washing up instead, who was fanatically punctual for appointments and trains, and was irritated by her talking on the phone for too long. (Speaking as a fellow Virgo, I think I see myself in some of that). He could never bear to throw anything away; worn out biros had served him well, and she would often have to discard them in the bin behind his back.

Throughout the book there are the descriptions of his fascination with a select few performers and genres, the gigs up and down the country, often for little financial reward but largely for the love of it, and in latter days his work as a presenter on Radio 4. A man who on his own admission never took holidays, it was sadly ironic that he died suddenly while on holiday.

Whatever reservations you may have had about some of the music he championed, or the football teams he supported (not being interested in sport, I won't go there), this really is an endearing book about a man who clearly loved what he was doing, and lived life to the full. If you enjoy this, why not also read The Autobiography by Johnnie Walker, and the memoirs of John's polar opposite, Poptastic! My Life in Radio by Tony Blackburn.

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