Sunday, 30 October 2011

I never met John Peel... but he did send me a postcard

Tomorrow night, Pete Townsend delivers the inaugural Peel lecture under the title: Can John Peelism survive the Internet?

There's something disconcerting about Peel being suffixed to anything so conformist as an ism. Almost a 'Yes, we're all individuals' moment. But if time really has changed how we view music and culture to such an extent that those of us who value the individual, the leftfield or just plain odd need an ism to unite us, then it might as well be Peelism.


You could call it downsizing, but that would imply an element of choice. Renting the box-room in a house in Elmstead Avenue, Wembley, October 1991 was entirely a financial necessity. By the time I’d wedged in a single bed and flimsily built wardrobe, that was it. Metropolitan and Jubilee Line trains clattered down the tracks at the bottom of the garden from around five in the morning to the last at gone midnight. There were few silent hours, even the small ones.

I’d spent the best part of the previous year blowing most of what cash I had on staying in my own flat. Idiotic perhaps. Hindsight made it clear: throwing three-quarters of my monthly earnings down a rent sized hole with the affable Noé Glasman (NW6 letting agent of repute) lining his pockets was a wrong ‘un. I moved to Wembley to pay off debts, save a little, make a new start and, although I didn’t know it then, to share a kind of chaos with three National Film School students. Allan from Grangemouth shared his appreciation of decent whisky, great British film, Nick Cave and stories of growing up next door to Liz Fraser from the Cocteau Twins. Eric from Neath gave me the makings of a great vegetarian chilli and Michael Nyman through his walls – always the same piece, or at least it sounded like it. Farai, recently arrived from an altogether different kind of chaos in Harare, was wild-eyed, nocturnal, and played my hi-fi – installed by spatial necessity in the living room – at impossible volumes, often when he came in at two, three and four in the morning. I had an early start and a daily commute to central London.

I was reading a lot of post-war British poetry, notably Philip Larkin. Probably not a great choice in retrospect. I was haunted by Mr Bleaney: “Bed, upright chair, sixty-watt bulb, no hook/Behind the door, no room for books or bags - ” Unsurprisingly, those themes of life lived for the most part in small, borrowed rooms found their way into my own writing. The world seemed to be imposing its own script with an insane soundtrack. I bought a Walkman/radio and some cheap earphones and on week nights, rediscovered the John Peel show, blocking out the other racket for sounds that I (or rather Peel) had chosen. Sometimes I would fall asleep before the end, drifting off to My Bloody Valentine or Ride or some anonymous house track, but always with Peel’s familiar, laconic tones granting free entry to a late night sonic sanctuary (p67 of the 1988 NME guide to journo-guff).
“Somebody was trying to tell me that CDs are better than vinyl because they don't have any surface noise. I said, ‘Listen, mate, life has surface noise.’” John Peel.

Enrolling on an Open University Arts Foundation course that summer made perfect sense when I had time, space and at least some control over my surroundings. By October in Wembley, I was drafting essays by hand on trains, or at night, then typing them up in the office after work with the cleaners for company. The essays scored well and I started to think about applying for full-time courses. I plucked up courage and showed Allan some of the poems I’d written. He read them and passed them to a writer colleague. A few weeks later they came back with comments. In extremely polite, semi-constructive language, he told me they were rubbish. I read them again. He was right. I started again. I watched Allan and Eric – they were working jointly on a film project – and how they developed the script, nailing the story scene by scene, with each line of dialogue carefully nuanced, each word earning its place. I started work on a new poem, Electric Lullaby.

Things moved on and towards the end of 1998, the world, at least my little corner of it was a very different place. I had finished and passed a degree in English, Writing and Publishing in 1995 and if I had learned one thing, it was that I was not, and never would be, a poet. I’d given it a blast though, accumulated a huge stack of work in folders, files and notebooks in the process. Some poems were more ‘finished’ than others and I collected a few that I liked for longer than five minutes and worked on them, eventually deciding to self-publish a short collection under the title Electric Lullaby – although I pulled the poem itself at the last minute. Something about it not quite working in the cold light of day – a bit too up its own Larkinesque alley for its own good.  

I had fifty booklets printed, simply, cheaply and gave most away. I set about tracking down the addresses of people who had inspired me and sent them a copy. They felt like messages in bottles, sent out simply to see what might happen. I posted copies to, among others, Spike Milligan, Tony Benn and, of course, John Peel. Those are the ones I remember, because they all wrote back. Peel’s was the last response I received: a picture postcard of Ali Farka Toure which arrived early in 2000.

Publishing Electric Lullaby was an act born out of the notion that if you have a creative idea, it’s worth pursuing. It doesn’t have to be mainstream or have the edges smoothed off, or the surface noise cleaned away. If Peelism means anything, it means just do it.  So, as Pete Townsend delivers his keynote speech looking at the current state of music media tomorrow night, I’ll be grateful that John Peel was there to inspire me, and that he still does.


  1. I totally agree - Just Do It! A great and sadly missed man. xxx

  2. Thanks Carolyn.

    It seems such an obvious thing to say there's no one quite like him. And as lauded as he (and what he stood for) is now, the BBC were 'marginalising' him off the schedules.

    So, yes, Just Do It (JDI!)x