lundi 11 juillet 2011

Margrave of the Marshes

So, last night it struck me.  In that little list of non-fiction books that I wrote recently, I’d forgotten one of my absolute favourites – Margrave of the Marshes by John Peel and Sheila Ravenscroft.  Probably all sorts of others, too, as these things are pretty much just a random snapshot of my brain at any given time rather than an exhaustive encyclopaedia of knowledge.  Still, this was a huge oversight as it truly is wonderful.

However, this is really no bad thing, as the legendary and brilliant John Peel deserves a love-missive all of his own.

So, obviously John Peel (real name John Ravenscroft) was a legend.  When I was at university I used to stay up on a Monday night to listen to his show on Radio One, after Steve Lamacq – like everyone else who ever listened to him, I felt that he was talking directly to me, like a cool family friend personally introducing me to great music.  I still really cannot grasp the fact that he’s dead.  There’s an enormous mural of him on the side of a gig venue down the road from my flat; I pass it most days and mentally salute it every time.  There is simply no-one like him today, and he was so groundbreaking and important and cool, while simultaneously being really normal and lovely.  As you may well know by now, that’s the sort of thing that I find really inspiring.

Tales of him going to important gigs, breaking seminal bands and hanging out with seriously amazing rockstars are interspersed with tales of him and his wife running the local youth club in their village and hiring a minibus to take them to London for gigs, working in the garden and cooking disastrous dinners.  Sometimes the two were seamlessly combined – like the fact that he ended up being pen-pals with PJ Harvey’s mum after she wrote to him to say thanks for being the first person to play a young Polly’s music on the radio, or his theory (with which I wholeheartedly agree) that he believed he could have saved Kurt Cobain if only Kurt had taken John up his invitation to come and live with him and his family for a month.  A month of driving the kids to school and helping cook dinner and dig up vegetables in the country would have sorted him right out – sadly Kurt declined and we all know the rest of that story.  I particularly loved the anecdotes of when John and Sheila would hang out with Marc Bolan and his wife: on a Saturday night, they would take it in turns to cook a dinner based around whatever the Saturday TV movie was – like kebabs served on swords for The Three Musketeers.  My stepbrother Simon is still delighted by the fact that John wouldn’t let a Manchester United supporter into his house – unless they could prove that at least two generations of their family before them had supported Manchester United as well; that plus the fact he themed his wedding around the Liverpool colours, and Simon has vowed to adopt both traditions.

It’s a book of enormous pathos before you’ve even started – as John started it as an autobiography but died sadly and suddenly before he had finished the manuscript.  So, his wife Sheila Ravenscroft (who has spent much of her life being bemused at being called ‘Sheila Peel – who is this Sheila Peel?’) took over and finished for him.  She deserves medals for managing to do so in such brilliant style, unsentimental but truly loving, managing to communicate exactly what he would have wanted but in a voice that is all her own and completely fitting, all at once.

They are both an inspiration.

Anyway, how can you not love an autobiography that begins: “I was born at the age of five…”?

ADDENDUM: Since writing this, I have re-read this book and realised I got nearly all of the finer details wrong; still, the spirit was all right, so I shall leave it as it is - please be kind.

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