I heard about the various celebrations surrounding John Peel's 60th birthday with something close to alarm. In a packing case somewhere in the attic I have a tape I made of the radio programme with which he marked his 40th birthday by playing - if I remember rightly - his 40 favourite songs.
I now live in a part of Suffolk that is apparently close to where Peel lives and I happen to have several friends who also know Peel. He and his family are lovely, they say. You ought to meet, now that you are near neighbours. I nod and change the subject because I feel that meeting John Peel would be about as appropriate as John Hinckley having Sunday lunch with Jodie Foster. (To save you looking it up or bothering your friends, John Hinckley is the man who shot Ronald Reagan as a demonstration of his adoration for Foster.)
I suppose everybody - or is it just me? - has episodes in their life which you look back on later and say, oh yes, that's what it must be like to be mad. For me, my example of this - or one of my examples - was an obsession with John Peel that pretty much coincided with my time at university. At this period, at certain moments of insight, I thought it was just me, but I've since discovered that if an obsession with John Peel isn't quite as common as paranoid schizophrenia, it is at least slightly more common than Capgras' syndrome (an exceedingly rare psychological disorder in which the subject believes that a person they know has been replaced by an exact double). In her column in the Guardian, Charlotte Raven described her brother as a boy noting down the names and songs and dates of each John Peel "session" in a special exercise book.
That's nothing. These sessions, I should maybe explain, were three or four songs specially recorded for the Peel show. There would be one or two sessions on each show. For several years I recorded them all. This required considerable concentration because Peel played them in bits throughout the programme and it was easy to miss them. After a bit I decided that the most reliable method was to tape the entire programme every day (it filled one and a half C90 tapes) and then tape the songs I wanted on to another tape. Obviously I couldn't listen to the show every single night. That would have been weirdly obsessive. So on the rare nights when I wasn't able to listen to it, I had to find somebody else who would tape it for me. The compilation of this archive obviously ate up large amounts of tape. I used to buy them in special boxes of ten. They used to nod at me in the shop when I came in and reach up to take one down from their shelves.
By the end I had more than 100 numbered tapes composed of John Peel sessions. At one point I started to compile a card index showing what session was on what tape and then stopped. I realised I didn't need to. I already knew it all by heart.
Before I am committed for psychiatric observation, I'd just like to enter one very small plea in mitigation. Charlotte Raven said that the music Peel played was horrible. Not in my day. The period between 1978 and 1980 was weirdly improbably fertile for groups on tiny independent labels. People were forming bands all over the country, spending 50 quid on printing 100 copies of a single, and sending one of them to John Peel, who would play it. They got together and created their own compilation albums. Groups such as the Piranhas on the Brighton compilation, Vaultage 78; the Midlands group Homme de Terre on an EP called Sent from Coventry. There were songs such as "Batman at the Launderette" by the Shapes, "Bring Me the Head of Yukio Mishima" by the Snivelling Shits, "My Baby Does Good Sculptures" by the Rezillos. There were groups such as the Nipple Erectors (featuring the young Shane MacGowan), Fish Turned Human, the Xdreamysts, the Desperate Bicycles, the Fabulous Poodles, the Leyton Buzzards.
These are not names I copied out of an index somewhere. I've got stuff by them. I know their work.
At around the time I took finals, a thought came into my mind. It could have been: "Kill somebody famous." But fortunately it was: "You're insane. Stop all of this and do something constructive. And if you can't do something constructive, at least get out of your room."
I never listened to John Peel again and I've carried the packing case of tapes from attic to attic. Looking back now, 20 years on, I suspect there are worse ways I could have spent my university years. It's just that I can't think of any.