John Peel died in 1998

With Home Truths, he crossed the fine line between Scouse-ish wit and cloying sentimentality.

Andrew Calcutt

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Of course John Peel saved my life. Judging by the way he has been anointed since his death last month from a heart attack while on holiday in Peru, the dj and broadcaster must have saved thousands of other people too – if not the whole world. Certainly my lifeworld was saved from psychological destruction when in 1980 Peel and Charlie Gillett were the only radio djs to air the first record by a band, The Heaters, which I formed, arranged, co-produced – and staked my sanity on.

The track was called ‘Oh’, a title more or less in line with the sardonic delivery for which Peel was already legendary. Since the late sixties I had done my homework to the accompaniment of Peel’s Radio 1 shows such as Top Gear (in Coventry we couldn’t hear his earlier, Perfumed Garden on pirate Radio London). The disengaged, deliberately alienated grain in his voice served to connect me to a world beyond the pressure to write Greek and Latin prose that was not ‘a waste of my time and yours’ or seemingly produced ‘by an illiterate fuzzy wuzzy’, as my schoolmaster was then allowed to say.

So it was with sadness that some years ago I witnessed, not the death of Peel, but the extinction of the roughness of tone in his voice – not just the grain but the grain of sand in it. On Radio 4’s Home Truths, first broadcast in 1998, some of the same modulations which were once sardonic had become cloying and sentimental instead. There is a fine line between Scouse(ish) wit and sentimentality, and Peel had crossed it.

Meanwhile, the culture of unbelief that Peel represented had crossed over into the mainstream, where it was already as bland and orthodox as both the standardised American and traditional British modes of delivery that he originally rebelled against. As a result, far from prising open another world for me, Home Truths had the effect of closing the wider world down to the level of personal foibles and domestic squabbles. In our house, we switched to Brian Matthew on Radio 2.

John Peel: born 30 August 1939; died 25 October 2004. But what I admired him for had already passed away.

Andrew Calcutt is the author of Brit Cult: An A-Z of British Pop Culture, Prion Books, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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