At John Peel’s death it was clear that we were witnessing the passing of a National Treasure. There were tributes on radio and television, in print and on record.
But why, exactly, did Peel achieve this status when countless other broadcasters, however distinguished, do not?
On paper, his claims to fame; playing records on Radio 1 for 37 years, and hosting a gentle Saturday morning Radio 4 show called Home Truths, are not that formidable.
Which means, of course, that Peel was more than what he did. It was who he was, and what he stood for, that won him a unique place in our affections.
A year on from his death at the age of 65, we have Margrave of the Marshes; which Peel began and his wife, Sheila, completed after his passing. With his four children contributing the foreword, this is very much a family record.
What shines through is that Peel was A Good Man, and a true one. In an age of plastic celebrity he was the genuine article; ever true to himself, his instincts, his passions, and most of all to his audience.
He believed that the bland diet churned out by most of Radio 1 - and all the commercial stations - was stunting the audience. Because their expectations were so diminished, he wrote: “the guys and gals want fish fingers, Tony Blackburn and television serials about, if possible, lavatory assistants whose wives have monstrous breasts.”
Peel laboured mightily to widen horizons; listening to an average of 400 demo tapes a week, so that his day was spent in his music room at his Suffolk home, the door open so he did not feel cut off from the family.
He treated bands who excited him like children; funding them, housing them, nurturing them. He took Hendrix and Bowie under his wing in the Sixties, and many others down the decades. [Some took advantage of his generosity. At one point his agent had to cut off John’s access to his own bank account for fear he would empty it helping needy musicians. ]
Home truths, Sheila tells us, was no less an accurate reflection of John than his Radio 1 shows. It had such a loose brief that it was really an extension of Peel; his interest in people, his compassion, his humanity.
For Peel, home was the sustaining force. He believed a holiday at his house in the countryside would have saved Elvis from himself, and Kurt Cobain from suicide.
Peel’s life was not, however, the breeze that we might assume from his relaxed, avuncular persona. He may have come across as a man supremely at ease with himself, but he was not.
His childhood home was an unhappy one, with parents who argued ferociously over money. Shuffled off to boarding school from an early age, Peel suffered systematic bullying and sexual abuse culminating in homosexual rape. When his parents divorced, it was the family home that he felt most of a wrench at losing. In response to all this Peel decided to become “the boy who never cried” and he didn’t, until he met Sheila in 1968. After which, he tells us, he barely stopped.
Organised religion did nothing for him. He says he never recovered from the disappointment he felt on discovering that the rite of confirmation had not, as he had fervently believed, endow him with the ability to see through girls’ clothing. [God was no more real than Father Christmas, and he could not understand how anyone could believe He was.]
Peel’s moments of epiphany came through music. The first time he heard Elvis on the radio was “the defining moment in my life”. [Driving alone through Texas, with Elmore James’s Stranger Blues on the radio brought “the perfect conjunction of place, mood and music”.] Listening to punk-pioneers the Ramones’ first album in 1977 was “like being struck by a lightening bolt”.
[John was a painfully shy man who did not find true friendship easily - and an innocent. When he said on air just how dreadful he found the latest record of one of those he had nurtured – Marc Bolan – he could not understand why this should end the friendship. For Peel, to say any less would be to betray his audience, and he feels betrayed in turn when Bolan rejects him. ]
He was an obsessive. If he didn’t get to the top of the steps to the BBC car park in 400 paces an accident would befall him on the way home. He kept 30 years of Sheila’s shopping lists in a box.
He never felt secure in his job, partly because the management at Radio 1 often was out to get him; repeatedly chipping away at his airtime and shuffling his show further into the dead hours. But this insecurity fuelled the creative tension that staved off complacency. Few music fans can remain excited by each new trend for over 40 years, but Peel did.
Despite his demons, Peel found profound happiness. Reflecting on his lack of academic or conventional career success he writes: “There is a sort of curious success to be derived from what appears to be failure, that if you end up doing something that brings you great happiness, as I have, you have achieved this as much as the result of your perceived ‘failures’ as of your perceived ‘successes’.”
One measure of that success is how Peel is missed. Sheila writes that, once, their sons could ask John which new bands see. Now they have to look in the listings and find none of the names mean anything to them any more “I wonder,” she writes, “how many other young people feel the same way.”