Margrave of the Marshes by John Peel - Book Review


 Margrave of the Marshes – John Peel.


Like John Peel I’m a Wirral boy, I like football too, albeit belonging to a different tribe, I also know Suffolk well, having been educated there at a boarding school, and I worked for a cotton broker in the Cotton Exchange in Liverpool, albeit 10 years after Mr P, so all these things made Margrave of the Marshes of particular interest to me.

   Biographies and reminiscences are always far more interesting when they take you down the same or similar roads that you have travelled yourself.

   The pity is that only about a third of this book was written by the man himself before his untimely end. His wife Sheila has striven manfully, or should I say womanfully, to complete the book, though perhaps inevitably one is left with the constant thought as to what John would have thought about this, or that.

   John Peel enjoyed a reputation of being in the right place at the right time, but that was not always correct. When the biggest ever one city music explosion happened in Liverpool in 1962, when one might have imagined John standing in the corner of the Cavern Club sipping a coke and admiring the music and the girls, Mr Peel was in fact in the deep south of the USA, helping to establish the Dallas County Cricket Club, photographing and shaking the hands of Kennedy, Nixon and Johnson in the presidential campaign of 1963, and actually being in Dallas when Kennedy was assassinated, ringing the Liverpool Echo and offering his on-the-spot story by local man. Shaking the hands of such iconic politicians aside, how he must have regretted missing the whole Liverpool thing, and maybe that affected him more than we know.

   John was to finally get in on the Beatles phenomenon when they broke in America and he gained some minor fame through being the resident “scouse” Beatles expert on Texan radio stations, no doubt putting on the thick Liverpool accent to sound just like the fab four, an accent that he surely would not have been allowed to utter at Shrewsbury school, for fear of (yet another) sound thrashing.

   Some people think that John then came back to Britain and joined Radio Caroline, but he never appeared on that station at all, but on the more, we always thought, slightly more conservative and mainstream Radio London, where he presented a progrock show called the Perfumed Garden where he gained a big following and showcased the talents of up and coming bands, a talent and feature that he would pursue relentlessly until his death in 2005.

   One always imagines one’s friends, and I, like most of his listeners, always imagined John to be my friend, shared the same taste in music, though of course, friends never do, not exactly. I was never with him on the whole progrock scene and was eternally grateful when the punk explosion came along and swept most of that pretentious rubbish away.

   But through his love of progrock he became a close friend with, while promoting at every turn, Marc Bolan’s Tyrannosaurus Rex, yet once that (shallow and lightweight) band found fame, Bolan treated Peel terribly by refusing to take his calls, something that Peel couldn’t quite believe, something that hurt him, and something that may have changed his thinking thereafter about becoming too close to some of his favourites.

   Of course, it didn’t stop him championing little known bands and artists, occasionally years before anyone else, like Bob Marley, the Smiths, the Wedding Present, Blur, White Stripes, Manic Street Peachers and the Strokes to name but a few from a very long list.

   I have a small confession to make, I always slightly preferred to listen to Dave Fanning on RTE from Dublin, which, being Wirral based, I was always able to do, the Wirral being closer to Dublin than it is to London, and somehow Fanning’s musical selection was more in tune with my own, and maybe included less of the frankly outrageous bands (and occasionally boring ones) that simply didn’t cut it, but who would never have gained any national airplay whatsoever without Peel there to do it for them, and for that Mister Peel will, quite rightly, be remembered very fondly forever.

   One of the things about biographies from people who are no longer with us, is that we are forever thinking about what “he” or “she” might have thought about subsequent events and developments.

   For example, John was a lifelong supporter of Liverpool Football Club, and yet he never knew of that amazing night in Istanbul when the reds came back from three down to win the Champion’s League in 2005. How he would have enjoyed that, especially after living in the shadows of the other red tribe from along the East Lancs Road for so long, something that clearly rankled with him, as it would. It still seems barely credible that he didn’t get to know about that, and enjoy it too.

    It is such a shame that only around a third of this book is written by the man himself. The remainder is compiled by his wife and family,

from notes, documents, diaries, and shared memories, tender and touching and interesting as those are, they are not from the man himself, and perhaps inevitably, are not the same and not quite as interesting.

   I would so liked to have known his opinions on the Smiths for example, and why, quite astonishingly, there is not a single mention of Joy Division in the book at all; they don’t even make the comprehensive index. Weird.

   That aside, if you have any interest whatsoever in indie music, broadcasting, the history of pop music, and on how Britain changed so completely from 1960 to 2000, then Margrave of the Marshes will be essential reading for you, but then again, if you have an interest in these things, you will almost certainly have read this book already. If not, the question has to be asked, why not? Where have you been?

   Do I recommend it? What do you think?