John Peel, Sheila Ravenscroft: Margrave Of The Marshes

John Peel, Sheila Ravenscroft: Margrave Of The Marshes

B+

Margrave Of The Marshes

Author: John Peel, Sheila Ravenscroft
Publisher: Chicago Review Press

John Peel had a great radio voice in more ways than one. As section one of Margrave Of The Marshes demonstrates, the English DJ was as prone to throwing in asides on the page as on the air. Yet along with his reverence for everything from scruffy guitar rock to reggae to African pop to drum-and-bass, his penchant for finding great stuff early (T. Rex, The Smiths, Nirvana, The White Stripes), and his sheer longevity (he began at BBC Radio 1 in 1967 and stopped when he died in October 2004), Peel was the most beloved radio DJ in rock history largely because of his simultaneously kinetic and ambling mind for language. In the book, he winds around his topics, often stopping to expand on tangents. For those who heard him on the radio (and even after his death, it isn't hard to; mp3s of his air checks abound), Peel's avuncular writing style will be like an extended visit from an old friend.

But Margrave Of The Marshes is most affecting because he didn't get to finish it. He completed the book's first 165 pages before dying on vacation in Peru with his widow, Sheila Ravenscroft, who, aided by healthy swatches from Peel's correspondence, music-press columns, and personal journals, wrote the rest of the book. Margrave was published to great acclaim in England two years ago; it now appears in the U.S. with an introduction by Jack White.

Ravenscroft aims a wry tone toward the man she lived with for 35 years, who once instructed his daughter Danda to write a school paper on "suspense" as "an account of an ordinarily humdrum day that ended abruptly when the specified word-length had been reached." ("'Now that's suspense,' reasoned John, 'because you're left wondering what happened next.' What happened next was that Danda got an 'F.'") But toward the end, she's stoic about her bereavement. And not only her own: after reprinting a heartbreaking letter from Peel to the Radio 1 bosses who'd been cutting his on-air time ("Think of my programmes as your research department"), Ravenscroft notes, "Ironically, no single person has filled the job since John died, and Radio 1 plugged the gap instead with three different presenters. I wonder what John would have made of that."